American Son by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Tim Rhoze, now playing at the Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre in the Noyes Cultural Arts Center in Evanston, opens with a quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates that “race is the child of racism, not the father.” The quote carries a powerful truth that encourages the audience to dwell on deeper issues, such as the impact of racism in America, and to expect that this play will do the same. And it does, though only with limited success.
American SonThrough 11/13: Sat 7 PM, Sun 3 PM, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes, Evanston, fjtheatre.com, $30
The play centers around an estranged interracial couple who meet up at a police station. Their son Jamal, who recently turned 18, has been missing for a day and they are distraught, trying to find out the details surrounding his apparent arrest. Kendra (Alexandria Moorman) is livid, seeking answers from the policeman on duty, Officer Larkin (Michael Manocchio), who is white, about the whereabouts of Jamal, if he can help her find him, and what he is doing to pursue this missing young adult. Larkin’s treatment of Kendra, who is Black, simmers with microaggressions, asking her if her son had a “street name,” whether he had distinguishing characteristics like gold teeth or scars, and the like.
Kendra’s husband Scott (Martin Andrews), who is white, left Kendra and Jamal to have an affair. When he shows up at the police station, the dynamic changes and the white police officer starts treating him with more respect, getting him coffee and sharing more information about the case than he had with his wife, in part because Scott works for the FBI. Both men work in law enforcement and bring with them the values of that profession.
When the couple is left alone, they alternately bicker about their son and their dissolving relationship, all of which is peppered with their perspectives on race, identity, and respectability politics. Moorman and Manocchio are engaging as the estranged couple. Their concerns are not only palpable but they are real. Any parent who had to go to a police station to inquire about the whereabouts of their child, and not get immediate information, would feel equally as frustrated and as powerless. Add to that the clear racism that Kendra encounters with the white officer and her outrage seems all the more justified. Some of the statements the officer makes are so head-shakingly ignorant they almost seem contrived—if they were not so commonplace.
However, the play falls short in two regards. Most notably, Demos-Brown’s play gets too caught up in having the various issues surrounding racism fall into dialogue and debate with each other, rather than the characters themselves. Coming from an interracial relationship, I find it difficult to imagine that after at least 18 years together, this couple has not already had all these seminal discussions about ethnicity, having a biracial child, law enforcement (especially with Scott working for the FBI), and the like. It seems like this plot was devised to thrust two people together who vaguely know each other’s position on these issues, but still haven’t come to terms with them. This couple would either have gotten divorced long ago, or have found a common ground, but their encounter feels manufactured.
From the perspective of direction, the play would benefit from finding some softer, quieter moments. So much of the dialogue is presented at a “10” that it often leaves the audience reacting rather than reflecting. A play can be “powerful” and “heavy” without always hitting the audience over the head. This is a solid piece of community theater and there is a great deal of important discussion to be had here. American Son starts to address many of those issues; however, in large part due to the underlying premise, it falls short of leaving a lasting impact.