Lawyer-turned-playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, a co-founder of Zoetic Stage, is one of the area’s most prominent dramatists. That status took a quantum leap upward when this South Florida favorite son took his ripped-from-the-headlines play, American Son, to Broadway in late 2018.
While some of the reviews were brutally negative, the production managed to play 97 performances and spawned a Netflix adaptation starring original cast members Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale and Jeremy Jordan. That visibility all but assures that the play will get subsequent mountings, and now Zoetic has stepped up to be one of the first resident companies to produce it.
Events take place in the crucible of a Miami police station, where African-American psychology professor Kendra Ellis-Connor (Karen Stephens) has come in the early morning hours, prompted by an incident involving her biracial, newly-turned-18 son, Jamal. Citing “protocol,” a young, inexperienced cop named Larkin (Ryan Didato) offers her little information about the case, as she grows increasingly agitated trying unsuccessfully to reach her son by cellphone.
Quick to jump to conclusions and quick to take offense, Kendra sees much of what the officer says – and doesn’t say – through the lens of race. Larkin’s attempts at calming her down, claiming complete understanding and empathy, only push her hot buttons further. Exasperated and recognizing that he is in over his head, Larkin insists that further answers will have to come from supervising detective Lt. Stokes.
With quick, incisive strokes of dialogue, Demos-Brown whipsaws the audience back and forth between Kendra and Larkin. From our vantage point, they both have reasonable positions, but in each other’s faces, their confrontation can only escalate.
And escalate it does with the arrival of FBI agent Scott Connor (Clive Cholerton), Kendra’s estranged white husband who left her for another woman – a white woman – a wound that clearly remains unhealed. As they try to form a united front against the unhelpful police, their bitterness against each other tumbles out. Nor are matters helped by a male-male, cop-to-cop bond between Scott and Larkin, which Kendra sees as yet another racial slight against her.
All too aware of the peril facing a strapping black youth stopped by the police, anxieties only increase with the revelation that Jamal has put an anti-cop bumper sticker on his car. Raised to be law-abiding and respectful, Jamal has recently grown rebellious in his father’s absence, an attitude which threatens his plans to attend West Point after high school, a priority goal of Scott’s more than his son’s.
Lt. Stokes (James Samuel Randolph) eventually enters the scene and while he is black, which makes Kendra hopeful of a sympathetic ear, his long years of experience on the force have hardened him against such biases. Over time, the facts of the incident and Jamal’s involvement come out, as dire as the Connors had long feared.
Under the direction of Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic’s artistic director, the play keeps simmering and boiling over, as information keeps changing our perception of events and individuals, exactly as Demos-Brown intends.
Stephens carries the narrative thrust as resentful Kendra, though she manages to project more of a dramatic arc than Washington, whose extreme anger from the play’s beginning had nowhere to build on Broadway. She is a frequent, reliable presence on area stages, while her co-star Cholerton has not been seen onstage for 14 years, since a fondly remembered Nick in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Palm Beach Dramaworks. Here is gives another impressive, well-calibrated performance, attempting to calmly take charge, which only leads to further aggravation of the situation.
Didato and Randolph both have relatively brief stage time, but each leaves a vivid impression with their roles. All of American Son plays out in a concise, intermissionless hour-and-a-half. Although a downbeat conclusion is foreshadowed from the start, Demos-Brown and his cast muster an atmosphere of suspense that is sustained to the final shattering moments.
AMERICAN SON, Zoetic Stage in the Carnival Studio Theater, Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Through Sunday, Jan. 26. $50-55. 305-949-6722.