In a few hours, the life of Kendra — played by Suzzanne Douglas in the powerful, almost unbearably wrenching drama “American Son” — has turned into a nightmare.
The play — written by Christopher Demos-Brown and first produced at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., last year (it also has been optioned for a Broadway production in the fall) — is set in the waiting room of a Miami police station, at 4 a.m. Kendra, a middle-aged college psychology professor, is there, looking for answers. Her 18-year-old son Jamal did not come home last night, and she knows something is wrong. That’s not like him.
She is panicking, but the young, inexperienced Officer Larkin (Mark Junek), who is on duty, isn’t offering any information. Eventually, though, as the morning’s events unfold in real time, she learns that there has been an incident.
What happened, and is her son okay? No one will tell her. She just has to wait. She cannot stand it, and so she lashes out at everyone around her: Officer Larkin, and her estranged husband Scott (John Bolger), who is an FBI agent, and Lt. Stokes (Mark Kenneth Smaltz), who eventually shows up and is able to tell her more than Larkin can.
This waiting room (designed by Jason Simms) looks like an interrogation room, with the windows covered with grids (as if they were prison doors) and harsh industrial lighting; there’s nothing that’s even slightly warm or decorative there, just a sad box of doughnuts on the table and an eerily glowing neon clock on the wall. And “American Son” is, fittingly enough, a kind of interrogation, with Kendra and then Scott (after he shows up, belatedly) trying to pry answers out of Larkin and Stokes, and Larkin and Stokes trying to “handle” the worried and confrontational parents. Kendra and Scott even employ something of a good cop/bad cop strategy when trying to get information from Larkin.
Kendra and Stokes are African-American; Scott and Larkin are white. Even when left alone, Kendra and Scott are uncomfortable; they’ve been separated for four months, and Scott is now living with a white woman.
Everyone in this play has prejudices, based on race, and everybody makes unfair assumptions. Yet no character is purely evil, or faultlessly good. This goes for Jamal, too: While Kendra is reluctant to say anything bad about him to Larkin at first, we later learn that he has made some questionable choices in his own life that may have something to do with the “incident.”
On one level, this is a topical play. Demos-Brown was inspired to write “American Son” by the Trayvon Martin shooting and other, similar incidents in recent years. But there is nothing heavy-handed about his approach. His goal seems to be to tap into the drama of four real people caught up in events beyond their control.
Under the clear-eyed direction of David Saint, the actors — and especially Douglas, who gives a stunningly intense performance — bring Demos-Brown’s vision to vivid life, and make it seem like a truer snapshot of the world we are now living in than any play I’ve seen in recent years, with the possible exception of Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced.”
“American Son” is at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick through Feb. 26; visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.