Powerful performances rock regional premiere of controversial play

I was prepared to be impressed by the Curious Theatre version of American Son. It’s a script that seems tailor-made for the company, which touts “No guts, no story” as its creative company’s maxim.

It also seems the perfect role for the talented Jada Suzanne Dixon, artist in residence at Curious, who has embraced similar controversial roles not only at Curious, but other venues. Dixon’s reputation as a local powerhouse made me anxious to see her take on a role made famous on Broadway, and later in a Netflix film, by actor Kerry Washington of the television series Scandal.

What I didn’t realize until the night of the performance is that Dixon is stretching even further with this production and is directing it as well as acting in it. Not just acting, but taking on the primary role in a production that only features four characters.

And I did walk away impressed. But also a tad disappointed given my high expectations – but just a tad.

Breathtaking

This is a play that stays with you. The emotions run high and are raw and cutting for the entire 90 minutes. And, judging by the unusual silence of the opening night audience at the end of the play, it may leave you breathless.

I don’t ever recall being able to hear a pin drop immediately after the final curtain. There was scattered applause and a sort of whipsaw ovation that rippled through the audience. Many sat in thoughtful, almost shocked, silence for several moments. Which is not only an indicator of the strength of the story, but also of the caliber of the performances.

I can easily say that is some of the best acting I’ve seen in Denver in a very long time. Not only was each actor on point with their characters, but each maintained their intensity and energy throughout – no small feat in this fiery story.

My only niggle, and it’s small, is that during a couple of her longer monologues Dixon felt forced and out of the flow of the rest of the story. They were introspective and designed to explain her anger and frustration, but felt out of place and almost preachy. But these were minor blips in an otherwise flawless execution.

Even more relevant today

Curious is known for taking on the establishment head-first and offering cutting-edge, thought-provoking theatre. And American Son certainly hits upon all those elements. Both Dixon and Producing Artistic Director Chip Walton have said that as soon as they saw American Son on Broadway, they knew they had to bring it to Denver.

Of course, that was pre-pandemic. The play, written by Christopher Demos-Brown, originally premiered in 2016 and played on Broadway in 2019, where it won several awards. The television movie came out in late 2019. The Curious production is the regional premiere for the play.

Despite coming out before the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, the story seems even more mainstream and relevant today. While systemic racism is a predominant theme, both in how it plays out with police and with an interracial relationship, the play also digs deeper into topical but difficult topics by baring ugly truths about the entitlement felt by the wealthy and the struggles of marital strife.

As with any story line, the interpretation is up to the audience. You can view it on an emotional level, through a socialistic lens or as a teachable moment. From my viewpoint, I thought it offered a fairly well-rounded discourse overall. Frankly, it’s a hard play to watch and is designed to make you feel uncomfortable – no matter what your perspective.

Tensions escalate

American Son is the story of a biracial couple desperately seeking information about their missing son, Jamal. The entire play takes place in the waiting room of a police station in Miami-Dade, Florida, as a thunderstorm builds and eventually breaks outside – mirroring the escalating tension within.

As the curtain rises, we meet the rumpled, distraught Kendra Ellis-Connor (Dixon), a Black mother obviously at her wit’s end as she paces in the empty waiting room and frantically leaves messages on her phone. A large wall clock shows it’s the wee hours of the morning.

A young, White and inexperienced police officer appears, but is little help as he stumbles over himself as Kendra repeatedly points out the built-in racism in his questions and comments. Their conversation rapidly reaches shouting level as tensions escalate and the officer falls back on “protocol” as a way to deal with the frustrated and angry mother.

Shortly after he exits to try to gather more information about Jamal’s involvement in an “incident,” Scott Connor, the boy’s father, appears – a White man in a suit who carries an FBI badge (played by Josh Robinson).

It’s immediately obvious that the parents, who are divorced and have their own issues, also have very different perspectives about the potential threat to their son. Even their views of their son are unique. Scott sees a successful young man graduating from the most expensive prep school in Coral Gables getting ready to go to Westpoint.

His mother sees a young Black man estranged from his father and struggling with finding his place as “the face for the race” with his predominantly White friends. He is rebelling and lost. And angry.

A viral video of a local street shooting validates Kendra’s obsessive fears about the danger of a young Black man interacting with police. Scott finally panics and becomes vocal and physical with the young officer. Lieutenant John Stokes (Abner Genece) joins the fray. Stokes, an experienced no-nonsense Black officer, isn’t about to back down from a confrontation, including going face-to-face with Kendra over their different perceptions of race and police confrontations.

As the rain becomes heavier and the clock keeps ticking, a few details about Jamal begin to emerge. The rising fear and panic from both Kendra and Scott become palpable.

Maintaining intensity

American Son, mainly dialogue-driven with little action, requires strong actors who can hold onto the intensity and energy of their characters throughout the piece. The Curious cast is more than up to the challenge.

At times the character of Kendra is unlikeable. She is demanding and borderline abusive. Other times she is almost condescending. But you can’t deny that her love and concern for her son is her driving force. Dixon is able to walk the line and maintain the audience’s sympathy and understanding without losing the intensity and anger that drives the entire plot.

Like, Kendra, Scott also had his weak points. Besides being bull-headed, he barely knows his son. He is oblivious about how his son’s biracial identify affects him and believes that they share the same world.

While Robinson’s grounded energy started on a different note than Dixon’s high-pitched intensity, it worked to help showcase their differences — and by the end they were in sync. It would be easy for his character to be overtaken by Dixon’s Kendra, who is more histrionic in tone and actions, but Robinson easily keeps pace and held his own. The perfect balance.

That’s not to say that Scrutchins, as the young officer Larkin, and Genece, as the veteran lieutenant, weren’t just as intense and animated. Scrutchins was completely believable as a naïve, young officer trying to remain professional under duress. His vulnerability was backed up by an underlying strength which prevented the character from becoming a doormat for Kendra.

And although he’s mentioned last, Genece’s sheer power and physicality with the role was amazing. His anger and frustration were at a constant boil as he commanded the stage and went head-to-head with Kendra. Their fireworks were one of the highlights.

Don’t miss it

American Son is only showing until December 11th at Curious Theatre. Don’t miss the chance to see an intense, thought-provoking story performed by some of the best actors in the area.

Just be sure to breath at the end.

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