When Kerry Washington first read the script for American Son, she knew instantly she had to perform it.
“The play left me transfixed, inspired, and broken open,” she told Global Citizen about the show, which tells the story of a black mother and her estranged white husband whose teenage son goes missing in Miami-Dade County, Florida.
As the night draws on, it becomes clear that, while both parents love their son, their top concerns and experiences differ. Washington’s character, Kendra, a psychology professor, is made to continually answer questions about her missing son that are steeped in stereotypes — does he have tattoos, gold teeth, a street name?
Her husband, on the other hand, is mistaken for a more senior police officer and immediately gets more information about the situation than she has received in all the time she’s been waiting.
The story is a pointed commentary on the state of racism, power, and the criminal justice system in the US today.
“I'd never seen these particular characters say these particular things in this kind of moment. It's exciting to work on something that feels new and also very real,” Washington said.
For the Scandal star, taking on this role was about more than just playing a character — it was about igniting a discussion around issues that are very close to Washington’s heart as a mother of two.
“As a black woman and a mother, I never have the privilege to ignore most of what's explored in the play. We're still struggling with how to talk about these things, and these characters are in it,” she said.
The show, which opened at the Booth Theater on Broadway in New York City last November, has given audiences much to think about.
While American Son is a work of fiction, it is not far from reality at all. And in fact, playwright Christopher Demos-Brown told Global Citizen it was inspired by the very real cases of the young, African-American victims of violence that seem to happen all too frequently.
“At its heart, the play is about how parents view the world into which they cast their children, and more specifically, about how African-American and white parents see that rite of passage differently,” Demos-Brown said.
Washington agreed, and added that it’s a remarkable dynamic to see played out on stage.
“There is something about these two people loving each other and choosing to enter this adventure of raising a young black boy together that is unique to today. They’ve made a commitment to love. Not to just coexist. Not to just live in the same neighborhood and drink from the same water fountain,” she said.
Despite that commitment, what becomes clear over the course of the show is that those racial dynamics can still shape and change a relationship. In a moment of mounting frustration, the characters bicker over their 18-year-old son’s name — Jamal — and whether it’s “too black.”
The play follows what has been described as a black woman’s “maternal nightmare” and brings to mind the heartbreaking stories that real mothers of police brutality victims have shared. But Demos-Brown, who is also a trial lawyer based in Miami, said that ultimately, the message he wants audience members to leave the theater with is one of hope.
“In the past 10 years, many white Americans have experienced a whiplash-inducing pivot from hope to trepidation, a trepidation that African-American parents have probably always felt,” he said.
And it’s works like American Son that are helping to highlight these disparities in world views and spark conversations about how a society can addresses these difficult issues of racial inequality, police brutality, and social justice.
American Son closes this month, but Global Citizens can enter our rewards draw for one last chance to catch this powerful show.