Few projects carry a greater sense of dread than the streaming adaptation of Christopher Demos-Brown’s Broadway play of the same name, which Washington executive produced. At the start of American Son, all viewers know is that the unseen Jamal, the teen son of Washington’s terror-stricken Kendra, has been missing for a few hours too long. His car was involved in a mysterious police encounter, but law enforcement has no more information. Eventually we learn all three boys in Jamal’s vehicle were Black.
While the only cop talking to Kendra, the obliviously racist Larkin (Jeremy Jordan), keeps telling the terrified mom there is nothing to worry about, you know Kendra is right. At some point, we’re going to find out something horrific has happened to 18-year-old Jamal.
The final minutes of American Son confirm your worst fears are correct. Jamal is dead after a traffic stop gone horribly, fatally wrong. He was killed by a stray bullet. Kendra and her estranged husband Scott (Steven Pasquale) are left wailing in a police precinct’s waiting room. Viewers are likely left devastated on their couch.
But now is the time to examine all that hurt, rather than lock it away forever, Washington urges.
“I was talking about this with a girlfriend of mine two nights ago,” the former Scandal actress recalls. The subject at hand was the closing scene, where lieutenant John Stokes (Eugene Lee) reads the police report of Jamal’s incident. Washington’s friend admitted that a part of her hoped inevitable tragedy would strike one of Jamal’s friends rather than Jamal, a talented biracial boy with a West Point future. By this point we know one of Jamal’s pals had an arrest warrant out for a petty crime.
“Then she was horrified,” Washington says of her friend. “Because she thought, ‘Where is my unconscious bias that I’ve decided [I should care less] because the other boy had a nickel bag or because I don’t know his parents? Because he’s not biracial? Because I don’t know if he’s ever going to go to college?’ All of those dynamics at play made her undervalue the life of one young Black man in relation to another.”
While that’s a chilling realization, Washington is pleased her project can make even the most well-meaning viewer rethink their own underlying leanings. “Every single person who watches the film is able to have the experience of seeing themselves and their perspective at least once and then also have a moment where they go, ‘Oh, wow. I didn’t know that I was doing that,” she says.
American Son even made Washginton consider her own unexpected biases. “The first time I read the play, I was like, ‘Wait, the dad is white? What? The officer is Black? Wait now the other officer is Black? I was really shocked,” she admits. “That’s part of why I thought the material was so smart. Because it was forcing us to ask questions and dig deeper and not operate along the lines of our societal norms and, really, stereotypes.”
That aim is part of the reason we never see Jamal, whose discomfort over his biracial identity is the foundation of his character. “We don’t want any audience member to look at him and say ‘Oh, he belongs to me and not them’ or ‘He belongs to them and not me,’” Washington says. “We want every person who watches to feel like Jamal could be theirs.”
Since we never meet Jamal, all we have to understand him are the words of his parents. It is through those stories some viewers may end up hoping Kendra and Scott will repair their tattered marriage. That is certainly one of the ways Washington and her co-star Pasquale, who also both starred in Son’s initial Broadway run, dealt with living through the “nightmare” of their characters’ situation for 90 minutes every day.
“We really wanted audience members to root for them. To want them to be together even through all the pain,” Washington says. “As a way to recover from the trauma every night, we just decided that this was the beginning of a beautiful love story. That they would bond together in the tragedy of mourning and figure it out.”
Although Washington isn’t so sure anymore that Kendra and Scott should wind up together, she is confident in the other ways she dealt with the pain of American Son. First, the actress/producer did “a real deep dive in self care.” Then, she worked with social justice lab the Opportunity Agenda to create a discussion guide for the story, which went in the original playbills. Now the guide lives online and is featured in the Netflix special’s credits. “We just hope people continue to have the conversation and build shared community and understanding after they see the film,” Washington says.
And if all else fails, what does she think fans should do after experiencing her play? “Treat themselves gently,” Washington advises.