A Slice of the American Nightmare at FST

Arts & Culture

BY PHILIP LEDERER SRQ DAILY FRESHLY SQUEEZED CONTENT EVERY MORNING THURSDAY JAN 30, 2020

The premise is simple but terrifying: Kendra, a black mother in Miami-Dade County, comes to the police station in the dead of night to find out what has become of her missing 18-year-old son. He didn’t come home that night, but she soon discovers thathe “may” have been involved in an “incident” with a policeofficer. With no additional information forthcoming from the white officer trying to play PR, Kendra is left to fear the worst.

If the audience hasn’t buckled in at this point, they should do so promptly, because they’re in for 80 minutes of bad road, delivered in real time, as American Son drives full speed into the violent intersection of racial prejudice and police brutality. With the brights on.

I’m loathe to give more specific plot details, because a true strength of Christopher Demos-Brown’s script is its savvy dispensation of detail—knowing both exactly what information to withhold and precisely when to introduce it for maximum effect. As a play in large part addressing the various facets of prejudice, playing with the audience’s own assumptions and expectations seems an important part of the exercise and shouldn’t be undermined by a review.

But suffice it to say that joining Kendra and the casually (and not-so-casually) racist Officer Larkin at the police station over the next hour will be another police officer and Kendra’sestranged white husband, setting the stage for conflicts of all flavors—racial, marital, parental, political and even violent. A possible criticism of Demos-Brown’s script could be that the story tries to address so many aspects of so many complex relationships that it ends up muddying the waters unnecessarily, but an argument could also be made that this entirely serves the point. Either way, it all mostly works in the moment.

Making her FST debut as Kendra, Almeria Campbell in large part carries the show through an impressive performance as a powerful woman rendered powerlesscaroming from frantic to stoic, vulnerable to combative, pleading to righteously angry, and all the while fearing the worst. She’s the heart, soul and moral center of the play, but as the show progresses past its first hour, one does start to wish the character had been given more to do physically other than occasionally cross the stage and continually pull her jacket around her.

Rod Brogan also makes his FST debut as the estranged ex-husband, and the pair play off each other well, in moments heated or tender. And though his character may not demand the same constant tension or emotional agility as Kendra, when Brogan does let fly, the audience response is palpable.

And this is perhaps where American Son becomes most interesting—the audience response. When Officer Larkin, performed right on the confusing edge of caricature by Daniel Petzold, lets slip some casual racism and Kendra calls him out, we cheer her on. A moment later, when he does it again, too stupid to help himself, the audience chuckles. We’re laughing at him, sure, but we’re also laughing at the exact same thing that Kendra is currently terrified of her son meeting—a racist cop.

Laughter in the beginning almost becomes complicity in the end, and those moments of comfort undeserved because the threat never really left.

Directed by Kate Alexander, American Son is riveting. And relentless. And smart and unafraid and unflinching. It is also frustrating, terrifying, maddening, manipulative, depressing and ugly. And these are all good things for it to be.

Currently on stage at FST, American Son runs through March 22.

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