American Son is a dreadful play — and it’s not alone. When the alien archaeologists dig through the rubble of Manhattan and find mountains of fossilized season brochures, the museum they erect will feature a long, miserable exhibit on the Righteous American Issue Play, c. 2016 through … someday. Some of these plays are made in bad faith; many aren’t. But even those that have been written earnestly often seem to have been programmed or produced with a distressingly opportunistic mindset — a decision to emphasize a play’s topicality rather than encouraging rigorous development of the piece itself, thereby turning good faith into good art. These plays bank on their audience’s inability to disentangle content and form. They showcase horrible facts of our day-to-day existence and — in the bodies of flat characters engaged in shallow, often manipulative plots that employ cheap dramatic devices — they expect the gravity of their subject matter to carry the day. Because who wants to walk out of a show about black men being murdered by police, or women being harassed and raped, or any number of our country’s sickeningly self-evident truths, and say, “Well, that was bullshit”? Easier to crawl quietly away, murmuring to your dinner companions that what you’ve just seen was so real, so important — uncertain, if you’re honest with yourself, about what to do with any of it, but certain that you owe yourself a glass of wine and the world a little more guilt and shame. Barkeep, add it to the tab.
We are surfeited with these plays. In their presence, we are at risk of becoming blustering admirers of the emperor’s new clothes: thoughtfully rapturous over the thing we’ve seen when there was nothing actually there. Perhaps they hope to rouse our consciences, but their combination of stale, expedient storytelling and go-for-the-jugular sentimentality can’t really inspire: When you’re drowning in molasses, you don’t want to swim down deeper. Perhaps they want to educate, but they often treat their audiences as if we’ve been living under rocks, or they pat us on the back, or both. In New York City, where the arts and culture scenes are currently a wokeness war of attrition, they generate an atmosphere that feels like the worst kind of church: a mix of self-congratulation and self-flagellation. They advertise themselves as the revelators of our contemporary traumas and in fact — by repackaging the headlines in facile, faulty dramatic containers — simply owe their own public life and profit to these real sorrows. The short-story writer Greg Jackson speaks of “the slow and supplanting drift by which the means to our most cherished and noble ends become the ends themselves — so that, for instance, writing something to change the world becomes writing something that matters to you becomes publishing something halfway decent becomes writing something publishable.” These plays believe they’re at the top of that slope — writing to change the world — when they’ve slid right down its slippery face. They are publishable, or programmable, simply for that flimsy, translucent raiment they wear, masquerading as cloth of their real substance: their “relevance.”
American Son has power behind it: Shonda Rhimes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Dwyane Wade, and the show’s star, Kerry Washington, are on its long, glittery list of producers. It has its serious sights set on a subject of indisputable tragic weight: the unjustifiable killing of unarmed black men in America by unaccountable police officers. It also has a contrived, TV-ish script peopled by one-note characters and peppered with amateurish flourishes. Its playwright, Christopher Demos-Brown, a writer and lawyer who runs a practice in Miami, seems to be positioning himself as a kind of John Grisham for the stage, and its director, Kenny Leon, can’t push the material past its inherent paperback flatness. Derek McLane’s bulky, photo-real Miami police-station set, with real rain falling outside the upstage windows, tells us all we need to know about tone: There’s nothing remotely theatrical about this play, no reason for it to be a play at all — save that we retain a kind of anxious cultural cachet about drama. Putting something on stage seems to aggrandize it, make it more serious-minded and more luxurious, closer to opera than Netflix. But the truth is that contemporary plays like American Son are simply imitations of the shows on Netflix — or, in this case, NBC — and pale ones at that, because unlike our age’s spate of fascinating television, these plays want to be something they’re not. They neither take joy in the possibilities of their own form nor respect its demands.
When the curtain rises on Demos-Brown’s play, we see Washington as Kendra Ellis-Connor, nervously checking her cell phone in a police station waiting room in the wee hours of a still-dark, stormy morning. Her son Jamal took the car the night before and hasn’t come home. He’s not answering her texts or calls. She’s trying to keep her panic at bay, awaiting the arrival of her husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), and attempting not to lose her cool with the junior officer, Paul (Jeremy Jordan). He keeps “trying to be nice” but has no information for her — or pedantically refuses to impart what he has. Kendra is black and Scott is white. The smart, responsible Jamal has grown up in the prep schools of Coral Gables and is headed for West Point. He’s been raised surrounded by white kids and told that their world is his world, that if he works hard and stays out of trouble he can have all the same opportunities. Now, as his mother sits in a police station, she’s afraid that that wolfish lie is baring its ugly teeth. She’s afraid that despite all her efforts to protect him, to give him a running start in a world that’s been built to hobble him, her black son has become another statistic.
Like most waiting plays, American Son doesn’t have a plot so much as it has a powerful central circumstance with a single driving question: What has happened to Jamal? It’s built to give rise to a bunch of hot-tempered conversations that, as Vladimir and Estragon might say, pass the time. Which would be okay if those conversations felt elegant, surprising, or new, or if the actors having them were less stuck in a single register. But Demos-Brown’s dialogue plays into every easy trick and trope, and Washington and Pasquale, both fine actors in other circumstances, here feel grating and monotonous. Pasquale, whose character works for the FBI, is playing basic alpha male, spreading his feet and flashing his badge and furrowing his brow, traversing a narrow spectrum between terse manliness and barking anger. And Washington is stuck in her head voice, pushing hard both vocaly and emotionally and losing power in the process; she’s almost always yelling or about-to-yell, or she’s wrathfully silent.
Kendra and Scott, who are separated, rail at each other even more than they do at the police officers. Though Demos-Brown manages to get in one of those “I get so sick and tired of having the same freakin’ argument with you” lines, the extent to which, after 18 years of marriage, they apparently shock each other with their most fundamental viewpoints, seems dubious — a product of a writer’s need to convey information rather than a representation of the truthful, if damaged, intimacy of two fully fleshed-out humans. And Scott’s staunch cluelessness reads in much the same way. I get that he’s not woke — and I would have gotten it without Kendra telling him that she spent their marriage lying awake at night worrying while he was “snoring away” — but he’s still a father raising a biracial son in 2018. Perhaps even a few years ago the character’s obliviousness would have read differently, but I no longer buy the depths of his insensitivity to the truths of his son’s existence. He’s a character whose personality traits comfortably overlap with narrative conveniences, allowing for the loudest arguments.
Leon doesn’t do much modulation with Washington and Pasquale, and in earnestly digging in their heels and pushing through Demos-Brown’s paint-by-numbers text, they start to feel false and actorly. The supporting players, meanwhile, are given bald clichés to work with. Eugene Lee shows up late in the proceedings as Lieutenant John Stokes, a standard-issue superior officer whose gruff dedication to the letter of the law is supposed to be complicated by the fact that he, like Kendra, is black. Which allows him to say things to her like “C’mon my sistah, I know you know better than that,” and for her to call him an Uncle Tom — without actually making him more than a stock type. He’d be right at home on pretty much any cop show demanding that his maverick rookie sergeant follow protocol, godammit! And then there’s Jordan’s Officer Paul Larkin, a cardboard cut-out with a sidearm who’s simply a means for Demos-Brown to hammer home every stereotype of the befuddled white microaggressor. As he chomps donuts and blathers about the police station’s formerly segregated water fountains, or mistakes Scott for Stokes and confides in him about the “totally out of control” “bitch” who “went from zero to ghetto in like … nothing flat” (a corny sequence where you can almost feel Demos-Brown congratulating himself for his brilliant use of dramatic irony) — or as he interrogates Kendra about her son, cheerfully making one racist assumption after another, he becomes less a character than a blinking neon sign that reads “White Idiot.”
Paul’s blithe bigotry (and his truly incredible thickheadedness — eventually he even forgets Jamal’s name) is only some of the low-hanging fruit Demos-Brown grabs at during the officer’s questioning of Kendra. He also uses this conversation to shoehorn in a maudlin portrait of her son. “Jamal’s sign is Taurus. With Virgo rising,” Kendra snaps tearfully, making an emotional detour out of a list of Jamal’s physical attributes in a maneuver that’s straight out of Playwriting 101. “He’s bashful and looks away when he smiles. He plays the guitar … And he’s afraid of clowns … He can recite almost any Emily Dickinson poem … And he still gets a tear in his eye whenever he hears ‘Puff the Magic Dragon.’” (In case we still needed more icing on the cake of Paul’s mansplain-y denseness, Demos-Brown takes this opportunity to have him confuse Dickinson with Dickens.)
This is cheap, manipulative writing, and Demos-Brown does it again and again. “Did you and I ever agree on anything?” Scott asks Kendra after one bout of argument, opening up the door for more sentimental, conveniently placed backstory. “Bourbon Manhattans at dusk out on the patio,” she replies, “Thelonious Monk … Thai food … The U … Cormac McCarthy … sex.” And presumably piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. Demos-Brown even pulls this same move in one of the play’s most fraught moments, vaulting into full daytime-soap mode just before the climax. After receiving a text with some disturbing cell-phone footage that may or may not be of Jamal, Scott has lost his temper with the officers and gotten himself arrested. When he comes back in from being booked, with tensions at their height, Kendra turns to him and demands: “The first time we ever met. Why did you walk up to me?” So we get a weepy, writerly amble down memory lane right before learning Jamal’s fate. Which Lee then delivers by turning somberly to the audience and plodding through the police report step by excruciating step as the parents sit frozen in a tightening spotlight, kept hanging in a way that feels both cruel and totally implausible but, you know, heightens the drama.
The fact that we do find out what’s happened to Jamal renders the play dramaturgically flaccid even as it goes for the emotional suplex. Ambiguity is sacrificed to ham-fistedness as the curtain falls, and we’re left with — with what? Something we already know, given to us in a shoddy dramatic box, a box that trusts that the horror of its contents will render it artistically irreproachable. It does not — it must not. An advocate for American Son might argue that it’s important to have this story out there, but the facts of this story are out there every single day, and they are neither remedied nor rendered more terrible than they already are by being run through the mill of a hacky play.
Only last week, the world lost the brilliant, subversive playwright María Irene Fornés, who, years ago, wrote the following in Theater magazine:
If I were granted one and only one wish for theater, it would be that artistic directors, managing directors, theater boards, funding organizations, critics, all those who have the power to choose, would choose from their heart’s dictates and stop trying to outsmart themselves and outsmart audiences. It would be that they stop pretending they are doing something relevant, because they are not. You can’t do something relevant unless you do it from your heart. And audiences … would stop pretending they are doing something relevant by going to the theater … There would not be writers writing plays by formula. Nor would artistic directors choose plays by formula. Nor would audiences think that they know the ropes and look for signposts to help them pretend they understand something that is only a signpost. This pretending gives but a shallow satisfaction and ultimately creates a distaste for theater. If theater is to be successful it must be loved liked one loves an animal that one wonders at. Not like one loves a formula.
Of course the formula for the Righteous American Issue Play has been around for much longer than two years. It’s a tenacious, soil-depleting perennial and, especially during our discontented winters, we just keep planting new seedlings. But the devilish twist on Fornés’s bracing manifesto is that even plays that begin as heartfelt dictates can turn into deadening exercises in relevance. Sincerity does not save us from bad art, and bad art is never of use. If I had one wish for American theater, it would be that we wrench it from the suffocating maw of television, that we pursue both complex content and structures worthy of that content, that we dedicate ourselves — as makers, as watchers, as producers and artistic directors — not to the false courage of the issue play, but to the real courage of theater that defies formula, that provokes wonder, and that balances rigor with joy, joy with rigor, in its quest to reshape the spirit and electrify the heart.
American Son is at the Booth Theatre.