Almeria Campbell and Daniel Petzold in FST's American Son.

While The Lifespan of a Fact is playing over at Asolo Rep, Florida Studio Theatre has another taut, “drawn from the headlines” sort of story onstage with the area premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son. It’s equally fast-paced and intense, with flashes of dark humor, but American Son has a more emotional, personal story to tell.

The play’s action takes place in the wee small hours in a Miami-Dade police station, where a Florida rainstorm is taking place as an African-American mother, Kendra (Almeria Campbell), is desperately trying to find out where her teenage son might be. The unseen Jamal has just turned 18, and he’s missing in his new car with a couple of friends she doesn’t really know. The seemingly polite young officer (Daniel Petzold) who’s handling her questions doesn’t know much, either. But he’s more forthcoming when Kendra’s estranged husband Scott (Rod Brogan)—who happens to be both white and an FBI agent—shows up.

Kendra may come on strong, but it’s no wonder she’s worried that something bad might have happened to her son during a traffic stop, and Officer Larkin’s attitude doesn’t help. Meanwhile, once Scott arrives on the scene it’s obvious that the two parents have very differing views of their son, who has had a privileged upbringing but is now struggling with his identity in a world where many will see him merely as black—and a threat—no matter what his true self may be.

Rod Brogan and Campbell in a scene from American Son

In fact, Scott and Kendra seem so at odds it’s a bit hard to imagine what brought them together in the first place, although Demos-Brown does add some tenderness to their relationship as the long night wears on. But they are united in their concern about Jamal, and in their frustration at not getting answers, which leads to a confrontation with the police lieutenant who may be able to answer them (Lawrence Evans), and who happens to be black himself.

There’s a lot to unpack here about race, sexism, and the arguments for why black lives, and blue lives, matter in our society at this moment; and Demos-Brown is good at ratcheting up the tensions at play. But he and director Kate Alexander don’t forget to keep the story rooted in the heartache of a mother and father who love—and fear for—their missing son. Campbell and Brogan capture those most basic emotions faithfully, reaching us where ours lie, too. And Petzold and Evans are believable as the policemen—one just starting out, one who’s seen it all before—caught up in this family’s darkest hours.

American Son continues through March 22 at the Gompertz Theatre; for tickets call 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.

 

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