American Son is a powerhouse of a play and the production by Fleetwood-Jordain Theatre at Noyes Cultural Art Center has the muscle to handle it.
Racial tension fuels the drama but don’t expect easy explanations or clear-cut situations for each character’s behavior.
The drama starts with a Black mother at a Miami police station asking for information about her son who has been missing for several hours after driving away from the house. Even though she has a Ph.D. in psychology, she thinks she is getting the brush-off from a young white policeman because she’s Black.
Within his bureaucratic rules, he thinks he is offering to help. In no way does he understand the fears and anxieties of a Black mother with a son who has been “driving while Black.”
“Let’s skip the empathy tactic,” she tells him, clearly not endearing herself to him.
When her white estranged husband, an FBI agent, comes to the station, attention changes. He is listened to; reports are investigated; concerns are attended to.
The drama intensifies. Having a biracial son exposes complicated emotions between the two parents over race. The father, part of society’s power structure, says race doesn’t affect his expectations for his son. He has provided him the best opportunities at the best schools.
He has set up his son for success. He doesn’t see the burden his son carries by “being the face of the race” in mostly all-white situations.
In anger and in fear, the mother expresses her anxiety. “In my nightmares, I see nooses and crosses and Brylcreem haircuts.”
The mother, father and young officer have racial perspectives with seemingly good intentions but clearly incompatible and misunderstood attitudes.
A Black detective, who holds the power to get information about their son’s whereabouts, shows up at the police station.
His conversation turns into lectures about preparing a Black male to understand the submissive role he should take when he is challenged by authority. He chastises the parents, especially the mother, for ignoring obligations of a Black parent to teach her son how to behave.
We don’t need an “Uncle Tom like you,” the mother lashes out.
While the missing son is the catalyst for the drama, the play’s power comes from having four people clash over racial issues so complicated that what’s left is only emotionally charged attacks.
The actors playing those parts are spectacular.
Leading the cast is Alexandria Moorman, the mother. Her initial somewhat restrained ”attitude” turns into frantic and angry lashing out. While it’s hard to watch her unravel, there is also magic in the way Moorman brings us into the mother’s world.
Playing Scott, the separated husband, Martin Andrews learns how much he doesn’t know about his son. We sympathize with him through the painful lessons.
Michael Manocchio (Officer Larkin) is the naïve and novice white policeman who first encounters the mother. Manocchio plays the role showing innocent intentions. We almost feel sorry for him because he doesn’t realize what he doesn’t know.
Darren Jones (Officer Stokes) is the most difficult of the characters. He says things that are so hard to accept yet Jones delivers Stoke’s messages with conviction and a pompous righteousness.
American Son premiered on Broadway in 2016. A movie followed in 2019. Fleetwood-Jordain Theatre is producing the Chicago premiere.
Audiences should not be afraid of the explosive racial confrontations. The actors are so authentic and the direction so strong that people, no matter their race, will feel as if they are on stage with the performers going through all the emotions. Having that experience is a good thing,
Kudos to Fleetwood-Jordain Theatre for taking on a provocative theater experience and doing it so well.
Performances at Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Art Center (927 Noyes Ave.) are 7 p.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 13. Tickets are available at : www.fjtheatre.com or by calling 847-866-5914