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Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown makes his Broadway debut with the racially charged drama
The new Broadway play American Son explores the notion of justice (or lack thereof) by chronicling a fraught night in the life of a Florida family whose teenage son has gone missing. His parents, an interracial couple played by Scandal's Kerry Washington and New York stage veteran Steven Pasquale, have come to the local police station looking for answers; instead they find judgment and conflict. Over the course of 90 intense minutes, this timely, ripped-from-the-headlines-style drama demonstrates how in this country, the law doesn't treat all citizens as equal.
American Son playwright Christopher Demos-Brown has witnessed this firsthand as an attorney for almost 25 years, operating his own small firm alongside his wife. When asked whether he thinks of the law or the theatre as his primary calling, he can't choose. "My job as a lawyer has really been a large part of my preparation as a writer," he says. "It's kind of hard for me to separate the two."
Over the past 15 years, while working his legal system "day job," Demos-Brown has penned several full-length plays that have garnered plaudits and awards in South Florida where he grew up and currently lives. He's a stickler for research, so he approached American Son as if he were prepping for a case, conducting months of interviews before starting to write. He talked to police officers, psychologists (Washington's character is a psych professor) and couples in mixed-race marriages. "I approached the topic with a lot of respect and reverence," says Demos-Brown, who is white. "I understood that I needed to listen to a lot of people whose points of view may differ from mine, or have lived lives that are different from mine."
American Son began its Broadway journey at Massachusetts' Barrington Stage Company, where the play had its world premiere in 2017 with a different cast and creative team. A raft of rave reviews attracted Tony-winning director Kenny Leon, who helped bring on the starry cast. Washington has only appeared on Broadway once before, as a defense attorney in David Mamet's Race almost a decade ago. It's intriguing that she's doing another play about African Americans embroiled with the criminal justice system that was written by a white man.
Given the tense state of racial politics in the U.S., some might question whether Demos-Brown is the right person to tell this story. But he doesn't dwell on that. "I was, maybe naively, not that concerned about backlash for being a white guy writing characters who are African American, in part because I've written African-American characters before," he says. "Maybe it's just because people are too polite to say it to my face, but not only have I not gotten backlash, I've gotten immense support. People who are involved in the play have jumped in with both feet." Indeed, the show boasts an impressive lineup of African-American celebrities as producers, including Washington, Jada Pinkett Smith, Shonda Rhimes, Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union-Wade.
Although Demos-Brown realizes theatregoers will walk in to American Son with preformed opinions about the themes he's examining, he hopes that, like jurors, they'll keep their minds and hearts open. "It's really tricky to write plays about political issues because they have a tendency to turn into agitprop, which is not entertaining," he says. Instead, he hopes audiences will connect with American Son emotionally. "In my mind, the truest act of patriotism for an American is coming to grips with some of the more complicated aspects of our history."
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale in American Son. Photos by Peter Cunningham.
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