Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

June 27, 2016

American Son

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA 
through July 9, 2016
by Jarice Hanson

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden
The content of “American Son” is ripped from the headlines of the reality of the Black Lives Matter movement.  In the 85-minute pressure cooker of a play commissioned by Barrington Stage, author Christopher Demos-Brown gives the audience a compressed version of what happens when a bi-racial teen seems to go missing in Miami. Set in a room in a police station, Jamal’s mother and father confront cultural expectations and the breakup of their marriage while trying to find out where their son might be. The story unfolds while a clock on the wall keeps time, adding to the building stress in the wee hours of the morning.

Beautifully setting a pace that accelerates throughout the play, Tamara Tunie knows how to inject energy while the police execute “normal” procedures. Tunie is well known to television viewers of “Law & Order: SVU” as the controlled Dr. Melinda Warner, but on stage she is a fireball of emotions, as the mother of the missing teen.  She gives a first-rate performance, loaded with emotional depth and courage. She is well matched by Michael Hayden, the husband from whom she is separated, who explodes with repressed anger as information is leaked about the possibility of what might have happened to the son who he refers to as “J.” The police officers are well played by Luke Smith, the White rookie who stumbles while trying to do what he thinks is the right thing, and Andre Ware, a senior Black officer of a physically imposing stature who goes by the book.

Director Julianne Boyd has given us a multi-layered production that allows the audience to examine their own beliefs about culture and race. We hope for the best, but given what has become a national tragedy in race relations, we fear the worst.

The play attempts to do a lot, and is largely successful. The only moments that seem slightly unexamined raise the question of why the mother and father stayed married for 17 years, despite their cultural differences and societal expectations. Still, “American Son” packs a wallop, gives you plenty to think about, and creates a deeply caring family portrait.