Kerry Washington intended to skim a few pages of the script to American Son before an early morning call to the set of ABC’s Scandal, but found she couldn’t tear herself away from the story of an interracial couple at a Florida police station, desperately searching for their missing son. The fact that Tony-winning director Kenny Leon was attached left Washington with one impulse: “If Kenny will have me, I have to do this.”
“The first time I met Chris I was like, ‘How did you do this?’” says Washington. “For me, as a woman and a woman of color, it was breathtaking to feel like I was reading a character I had never seen before but that I knew so well and that was so true. How did this white man do that?”
Washington and Leon marvel at Demos-Brown’s artistry in empathy. “He’s embraced four different characters in a way that lets you hear all of them,” says Leon. “It’s not just the black woman at the center of it,” he adds. “It’s about the white man who has been married to her for years, it’s about the older black police officer, it’s about a young white police officer, it’s about the offstage character of their 18-year-old son. That’s how life is, we all look at it through our own special lens.”
And for Leon, perspective is the path to truth—his ultimate pursuit. That quest is what drew Washington to him. “As an actor, nothing makes me feel safer,” Washington says. “I need to know that somebody’s going to call me out and be committed to truth.”
The feeling of trust and respect is mutual. “I love this woman because of her intellectual curiosity, her artistic curiosity, her political curiosity, and her pursuit of excellence,” says Leon of his star.
Leon is also committed to the special poeticism of American Son. “This is an American play, it’s a human play, it’s a loving play and—when I step away from it—even though there’s some pain in the play, the world ‘beautiful’ comes to mind,” he says. “In one act, it involves love of country, love of family, understanding diversity—everything that I’m most interested in as a person and an artist right now in the country was in this play.”
The work’s potential to spark a conversation outside the theatre pushes Washington and Leon to dig for authenticity. “I need four actors in search of truth,” he says. “And with truth there is humor, there is engagement, there is sometimes tears. If we can deliver that in 88 minutes and people go home and build their own discussions based on what they experienced at the theatre, that is huge. That would impact more than just a thousand people per night. It would be exponential.”