NEW BRUNSWICK--The ugly fact that we continue to live in a racist society is so widely acknowledged, it's not surprising that contemporary playwrights are aggressively taking up the subject. More than that, it looks as if there may be a growing trend whereby scribes are drawing attention not only to the obvious examples of intolerance but also to the convoluted subtleties of racist thinking.
Only last week Tanya Saracho's Fade opened in Manhattan and concerned two Mexicans from different backgrounds sometimes arguing about, and sometimes agreeing on, their experiences dealing with careers north of the (soon-to-be-walled?) border.
Perhaps even more agitated about the many forms of knee-jerk racist behavior is Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son, at the George Street Playhouse, helmed with ferocity by company artistic director David Saint. (The play's world premiere took place at the Barrington Stage Company.)
When the lights go up on Jason Simms's clean, well-lighted (by Tyler Micoleau) representation of a Miami police precinct waiting room. It's just after 4 a.m. on a June, 2016 morning. (A wall clock attests to the time.)
Kendra Ellis-Connor (Suzzanne Douglas) is seated on an industrial chair and locked in rapt thought. Only after a very long minute passes does she make a few agitated calls. What's eating at her is revealed only when young-ish Officer Paul Larkin (Mark Junek) enters and is instantly confronted by Ellis-Connor.
Ellis-Connor is African-American and Larkin is Caucasian, and they both operate on the long-ingrained assumptions they've made. Ellis-Connor wants to know the whereabouts of her son Jamal. He's disappeared for several hours, and the little his worried mother knows is that there's been a reported automobile incident involving a black boy.
Her intention is finding out from Larkin what he's heard. His intention is going strictly by the police book, which means eliciting information from her and letting her know that she'll learn much more when his superior, Lieutenant John Stokes (Mark Kenneth Smaltz) arrives for his early morning shift.
Right off the bat, they're in conflict, and that results in the kind of expressed beliefs neither has carefully examined. From that turbulent get-go, Demos-Brown begins lining up instances from his lists or prejudiced thinking. He keeps it up from every possible angle. He certainly delves deeply when FBI agent--with the badge to prove it--Scott Connor (John Bolger) charges through the waiting room door. Larkin assumes Connor, who's white, is the lieutenant he's never met. Most likely, everyone in the audience has the same reaction
So, okay, here's a spoiler necessary for this review to make any further sense. Connor is not the expected Lieutenant Stokes. He's the husband from whom Ellis-Connor is separated--a husband who, meaning to be amusing, will indulge in Ebonics when his wife assiduously will not. And this is one way in which Demos-Brown seizes the opportunity to look closely at the possible difficulties challenging couples in a mixed marriage. The two of them even argue about his resistance to addressing West-Point-admitted Jamal as Jamal rather than as Jay.
Highly educated Ellis-Connor also quarrels with Lieutenant Stokes when he arrives, calling him an "Uncle Tom" for his adhering to that rigid police book. Standing by their individual convictions, Connor, for his part, becomes physical with officers Stokes and Larkin. The scene is explosive, especially as wrangled by fight director Rick Sordelet.
And more volatility is to come before the final blackout, which, though it won't be detailed here, is devastating. It's sufficient to note that pointedly and to Demos-Brown's larger point, rampant unanalyzed biases eventually have dire consequences. They irrevocably have innumerable victims.
For some patrons director Saint's ferocious engineering may be too consistently over-the-top--despite the playwright inclusion of a few quieter moments, such as the Connors' reflecting on their still-abiding love. Nevertheless, context is always all, and in this context, the feverishly heated verbal combat is entirely justified.
The four members of the ensemble are flawless in their roles, although Douglas as an unappeased mother has a gamut to run that goes from here way over to there. She runs it to jaw-dropping effect. Bolger, as a man with a weakened heart, also covers extremely well this frustrated father's demanding dramatic conflicts. In parts less combustible than that of the frightened parents, Junek and Smaltz are strong.
Demos-Brown has taken up a subject that's dogged the United States story for two centuries and more. Perhaps his greatest achievement in the jam-packed 90-minute American Son is his astutely realized implication that the intricately unresolved race situation promises woefully to extend far into the future.