“It’s hard, but important to watch,” Erik Ransom of the Dead Playwrights’ Society said at the conclusion of American Son. You’re correspondent concurred when he attended the reading on June 7th.
The Dead Playwrights’ Society featured a reading of Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son. This 2016 drama explored the complexities of race in society. It also viewed it through the conflicts of an estranged mixed-race couple worried about their missing son.
Kendra Ellis-Connor’s (played by Carla Helene Ezell) son didn’t come home. She went to the police station to report it. There she encountered Officer Paul Larkin (played by Brian Keith Graziani). The policeman feigned any knowledge of what happened to her son, Jamal. He insisted that she had to wait for the AM liaison officer, Lt. John Stokes (Darryl Cury), to tell her. Larkin subtly released information showing that he knew more than he would reveal.
When Scott (played by Chris McGinnis) arrived at the station, he established a rapport with Office Larkin. He explained that he worked for the FBI. The two men shared a common bond because of their service in law enforcement. Larkin also played to the characters’ shared heritage by informing Scott, that she (Kendra) went from “zero to ghetto” rather quickly. Scott, a white man, then informed the officer that he and Kendra were married.
As Kendra and Scott awaited news of Jamal, a tense discussion of their son and their failed marriage ensued. It segued into a deeper evaluation of racial disparity in American society.
In keeping with social distancing guidelines, the reading took place via Zoom. All the performers played their roles from their own homes. Eric Ransom, the founder of the Dead Playwrights’ Society, hosted the event.
From a writing standpoint, the story contained a lot of conflict. Most of it came from Scott’s and Kendra’s relationship. Ms. Ezell and Mr. McGinnis did extraordinary work showing it in their scenes (and screens) opposite one another.
Carla Helene Ezell brought depth and passion to Kendra. Ms. Ezell portrayed her character’s anxiety, anger and guilt over an argument she and her son had with gripping realness. The performer played the role so well, it didn’t seem she was acting. Ms. Ezell even cried during the emotional scenes. That’s quite a performance for a “reading.”
Ms. Ezell played the most race conscious character in the show. The performer delivered her lines with conviction. She explained to Scott that the students in her son’s prep school view him as the “face of the race.” He was one of only three African Americans who attended it. She added that during a conference in Atlanta, she saw a bumper sticker that read: Don’t Blame Me – I Voted for Jefferson Davis. She became lachrymose when lamenting that her estranged husband currently dated a white woman. Ms. Ezell also showed her character’s complexity when correcting Scott’s “white trash” language.
Chris McGinnis brought the same intensity to his performance. His emphatic deliveries while putting up his arms showed the character’s frustration. Mr. McGinnis also displayed tenderness in the scenes where he and Ms. Ezell recounted better times from their relationship.
Mr. McGinnis showed his character’s lack of racial sensitivity; an interesting quality for someone who wanted to name his son “Seamus.” When talking to Kendra about their child, he argued, “His world is my world.” In spite of Kendra’s discomfort with it, he always referred to Jamal as “J.” He also criticized their son for looking too “gangsta” by having “cornrows” and wearing “baggy pants.”
Brian Keith Graziani portrayed Officer Paul Larkin. Mr. Graziani exhibited both the character’s inexperience and his racial insensitivity. He displayed both when prodding Ms. Ezell for information about her son’s personal nature and social behavior. Mr. Graziani’s incredulous facial expressions added insights into his character’s mindset. So did Larkin’s confusing Emily Dickinson’s work with that of Charles Dickens.
Darryl Curry played Lt. John Stokes. Even performing from his own home, Mr. Curry conveyed the character’s tough- guy attitude. This actor took an “in-your-face” approach to playing this character. Literally. He positioned his head close to the camera when he barked orders at the other performers. His authentic Southern accent added a good detail to the role. The deadpan fashion in which he recited a generic police announcement chilled this reviewer.
Connor Twigg read the script’s stage notes. It allowed the audience insights into the playwright’s original vision.
The Dead Playwrights’ Society made an excellent choice in presenting American Son this weekend. Sadly, this piece has even more relevance today that it did when it first appeared in 2016. “I can’t breathe,” Scott said. After this reading, neither could the audience.