NEW YORK — Many years ago, Shakespeare wrote a line in Hamlet: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”
It was in a different context then (it was designed to make the protagonist Hamlet look at the king’s reaction), but plays have done amazing things. The modern play “American Son” is also amazing.
Unlike most Broadway plays I’ve attended, the audience was very mixed. It was not just white rich people wanting to be entertained, but was a great cross-section of America. There were white folks and black folks, and clearly, people who came from all different walks of life and income levels. It was gratifying to see such diversity on Broadway.
“American Son” is a play all Americans should see. It brings up the current issues we are facing as a country and as a society. It takes place in the waiting room of a jail; and although we never see the son, the play is all about him.
It is about police brutality and about race. It is about a conversation that we all need to have. It is a play designed to get you thinking. I watched the play and also was able to hear the post-play conversation for the audience, set up by the play’s producers.
One of the discussion items the play puts forth is we all need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Without spoiling the whole play, I will say one of the most interesting juxtapositions is that the father of the American Son is a white FBI agent while the mother of the American Son is a black psychology professor. They are waiting in the police station to find out what has happened to their son. The police know what happened, but are not saying. The policeman says some very racist things before finding out that the white man is indeed the father. It shows how deeply prejudiced we all can be, especially if we think no one is looking or hearing.
“American Son” is not a feel-good, comfortable play, but it shows where we are as a nation. It shows it is time to have discussions that we put off or don’t want to have.
One reviewer said: “Real life is not a fairytale, and neither is this play. It is a dose of real life that will leave you stunned, moved and changed.”
There are also a few lines in the play when the mother wants water and is directed to two drinking fountains left over from the days where there were black and white fountains. The legacy of racism is very much still with us. The son in the play has just been admitted to West Point, and so we find this teen has some great skills and talents.
The play is about the relationships not just of the American Son, but also between the mother and the father. The dad has just left the family and the son becomes a victim of the split. He acts out; and although we don’t see this in the play, we certainly internalize his image.
The post-play discussion involved not only the actors, but a woman from Black Lives Matter and the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. In our playbill, we all received a guide with topics and hard questions for us to think about. It was significant that the discussion took place on Giving Tuesday, and the guide listed places that can accept donations working for “equitable and accountable policing.”
In the discussion booklet, it says: “To work for all of us, policing should enhance community safety while respecting our nation’s commitment to equal justice under law. The color of your skin should not determine how police treat you. At the same time, the police must make snap judgments about how to respond to potentially dangerous situations. Many officers put their lives on the line to protect the community, so it is critical to ensure that they receive the best training possible to do their jobs in a fair, respectful and safe manner.”
“American Son” brings up these difficulties. It also leads us out of what might be a comfortable life and to confront the society that we now live in.
I urge all Americans to see “American Son” and then partake in the discussions that follow.