Stage Door Review 2023

American Son

Saturday, April 15, 2023


by Christopher Demos-Brown, directed by Jordan Laffrenier

Drayton Entertainment, St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, St. Jacobs

April 6-23, 2023

“The face of the race”

Drayton Entertainment may be known primarily for light entertainment, but it has been branching out in recent years and the issues covered in the play that has opened its 2023 season are anything but light. American Son by American playwright and trial lawyer Christopher Demos-Brown deals with the peril that any young African-American male made find himself in even in the most minor circumstances. It delves into questions of identity and race and their relationships to gender, power and prejudice. The play’s themes are so current it’s hard to believe the play premiered in 2016 and ran on Broadway in 2018. Yet, Demos-Brown seems to have seen that the situation for young Black men in America was already bad and would only get worse.

The play begins with a simple enough situation. Kendra Ellis-Connor, a Black professor of psychology, has gone to her local police station in Miami because it is 4 a.m. and her 18-year-old son Jamal son has not come home yet. Newby White officer Larkin has no information. Jamal cannot be considered a “missing person” until he has been gone for 48 hours. Only when the distraught Kendra begs him to look for more does Larking discover that Jamal was involved in an “incident” at during a traffic stop.

This information only brings out Kendra’s worst fears and her belief that Larkin is not telling her the whole story. She informs Larkin that he has no idea what a struggle it is growing up a Black male in the US where you are always under suspicion and never given the benefit of the doubt. Still Larkin insists he has no more information and that Kendra will have to wait until his superior Lieutenant John Stokes arrives.

The next man to arrive at the station is not Stokes but Kendra’s estranged husband Scott. Rather to our surprise we find he is White and an FBI agent. At first he understands Larkin’s situation and tries to calm Kendra down. However, he learns that Jamal was with two other young Black men in the Lexus he had given Jamal for his birthday and that the car now displayed an anti-police bumper sticker that had never been there before. This information shifts him to Kendra’s side and the belief that what has happened and where Jamal is are being deliberately kept from them.

Director Jordan Laffrenier, Associate Artistic Director of Canadian Stage, has a masterful command over the play’s 90 minutes. Once the action starts he ensures that the tension keeps rising and, despite two or three moments of decompression, keeps you breathless in suspense. The full house I attended was absolutely silent throughout with everyone hanging on every word.

Laffrenier also knows that Demos-Brown has constructed the action in such a way that the audience is forced to reassess the situation every time there is new information. This information can be actual information about Jamal. Or this information can be the discovery of the race of the characters.

At the start of the play we assume that the debate between Kendra and Larkin is fundamentally one of Black versus White. Kendra assumes that because she is Black that Larkin is not taking her seriously.

When we see that Jamal’s father is White, Demos-Brown forces us to reassess the stereotypical scenario we may have built up. It turns out that Jamal has grown up as a privileged youth and is the only Black student at his expensive prep school which forces him, whether he likes it or not, to be “the face of the race” at school.

Once we find that Larkin’s superior, Lieutenant John Stokes, is Black, we have to revise our view of the situation again and can’t view Jamal as a victim of institutional racism at least in this district.

Laffrenier’s tight control over the material and the mood makes certain that our constantly having to recalibrate our view of the situation is intellectually and emotional riveting. The play basically shows us how we perceive the world through creating certain constructs that have to be modified in light of new information. Prejudice is revealed when we are no longer able or willing to modify a construct we have been using to pigeonhole a person’s nature based on their race, religion, gender or sexuality.

Laffrenier draws gripping performances from the entire cast. Principal among these is Oyin Oladejo as Kendra. Oladejo is probably best known at present as bridge officer Joann Owosekun on Star Trek: Discovery, but she also has a numerous stage credits. Kendra is the juiciest stage role Oladejo has had and she digs into it with unalloyed energy. Demos-Brown places Kendra on a relentless rollercoaster of emotion, but Oladejo proves she has fully mastered the multiple changes in the work – from despair to hope, from rage to apology, from fighting with Scott to seeking reconciliation.

Oladejo shows that Kendra, as a professor of psychology, is finely attuned to shifts in tone and undercurrents in certain words and phrases. For Scott to use the word “uppity” to describe her is a major insult with a racist past. Yet, while Demos-Brown shows that Kendra, in a state of distress, may be too ready to perceive micro-aggressions when none are intended, Kendra is often correct in assessing the subtext in how Larkin and Scott speak to her. At the same time, Oladejo shows us how self-aware Kendra is, how she knows she can speak in anger and knows when she should take back what she has said and when not. Oladejo fully conveys all the complexities of character in the plum role and is a wonder to behold.

Demos-Brown has not made Scott as complex a character as Kendra, but he has given him enough self-awareness so that he, like Kendra, knows when he speaks in anger and knows when to apologize. The couple has had many battles on the same subjects over the course of their marriage and when Scott in exasperation says, “Here we go again”, we have come to know Kendra and Scott so well we can predict what subject has become the new sore point between them. Mike Shara embodies Scott well. Even though Kendra and Scott seem quite different, Shara demonstrates that Scott has many traits in common with Kendra. It’s just that if Kendra flies into a flight of verbal abuse, Scott will escalate into physical abuse.

Although Officer Larkin is the main butt of humour in the piece and the main object of the anger of Kendra and Scott, Wade Bogert-O’Brien gives us a more subtle portrait of him than most actors would. Most actors would be satisfied with playing Larkin as a young guy who is too inexperienced to cope with the situation he finds himself in. Bogert-O’Brien shows that he is aware that Kendra and Scott are smarter and more sophisticated than he is, but Bogert-O’Brien gives Larkin an extra edge in displaying Larkin’s resentment of the low opinion the couple has of him. This edge does make us wonder whether Larkin is telling the couple all he knows, a factor that only makes the situation among the three more fraught.

After battles between the couple and Larkin and one-on-one battles between the three pairs of the trio, it’s a relief when Cassel Miles finally arrives as Lieutenant John Stokes. Miles, who gave such a nuanced performance as Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy for Drayton last year, has a presence that commands respect and a resonant voice that demands attention. When Stokes arrives we feel that finally we have someone who can look rationally at a highly emotional situation that has got out of hand. Miles as Stokes does not disappoint. Like Bogert-O’Brien, Miles gives Stokes an edge, but quite a different one from that of Larkin. Beneath all his authority, Miles also conveys an immense sympathy for people like Kendra and Scott who are understandably distraught at the thought that their son is involved with the police and frustrated that police procedures prevent their knowing all they want to know.

In contrast to the rather cushy set used as the police station for the Broadway production, designer Douglas Paraschuk has created a set as appropriately alienating and uncomfortable as the situation the play depicts. This is the first time I recall a designer referencing the architectural movement of Brutalism in his set design, but the style, with its use of bare, patterned concrete is perfect for a story of such raw emotion. Brutalism was also a style most popular in the US in the 1960s when segregation was still enforced in Florida. Although lighting designer Raha Javanfar varies her lighting to emphasize certain emotions, she also captures perfectly the unpleasant fluorescent light so common in institutional settings.

When Drayton takes on a serious work, it always comes through with a production that stands with the best of any in Ontario theatre, as with its 12 Angry Men of 2019 or its Les Misérables of 2014. Drayton’s production of American Son is one of the most powerful plays in one of the finest productions that it has ever presented. With a terrific performance from Oladejo and the supporting cast, the incisive direction of Laffrenier and issues from today’s headlines, this is a show no theatre-lover should miss.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Mike Shara as Scott and Oyin Oladejo as Kendra; Oyin Oladejo as Kendra; Wade Bogert-O’Brien as Officer Larkin and Oyin Oladejo as Kendra. © 2023 Hilary Gauld.

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