Mantinee of 'American Son' leads to frank discussion with cast members


PITTSFIELD — After watching a special matinee performance of "American Son," Madisyn Manzella sat quietly, taking in the responses of a question-and-answer session about the production at Barrington Stage Company.

Some audience members praised the panel of actors and Director Julianne Boyd for taking on "such a powerful play" that brings to light frank perspectives on race, prejudice, law enforcement, bias, identity among other subjects.

Manzella, 16, eventually stood up and got the last word.

"It really pisses me off," the Pittsfield High School student said in response to the characters' often misguided judgements of one another.

Manzella pointed to the multiracial cast members and said, "I'll never understand what it's like to be you or you, but I feel like I need to do something. I can help. Things need to change."

This was exactly the type of reaction Boyd wanted to hear.

"Thank you," she told the student. "There needs to be more people in the world like you."

Especially now, in the wake of back-to-back shootings of black men by white police officers this week, followed by Thursday's sniper shootings in Dallas that left five officers dead and several others wounded.

The plot of "American Son" centers on a pair of parents waiting in a Miami-Dade County precinct, struggling to find out from two police officers the well-being and whereabouts of their biracial son who was involved in a traffic stop incident. The four characters each pass judgements and make decisions which ultimately lead to a breakdown of communication as they increasingly lash out at one another.

Meanwhile, the fifth character, the son who never actually appears on stage, is illustrated through narrative and is someone any teen might be able to relate to. Jamal Connor is 6-feet, 2-inches tall, wears his hair in cornrows, and typically wears a T-shirt and jeans. He values his education and talents, acing at physics, playing the guitar and baseball.

He's an 18-year-old high school graduate who's supposed to be bound for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but is having second thoughts. He's the progeny of high achievers, Kendra Ellis-Connor, an African-American Ph.D.-holding, university-teaching psychologist, and Scott Connor, a white FBI agent, living in Coral Gables, Fla., aka "The City Beautiful."

Jamal's parents each have an idea of what's best for him, meanwhile he's struggling to figure out what he wants for himself, who he wants to hang out with, and how he wants to live his life.

Back in the spring, members of Barrington Stage Company met with area school administrators and youth workers about bringing in as many young people as possible to see the show.

"At that time it was sort of fresh on our minds the ongoing cycle of young black men being shot and killed," said Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

More than 65 city summer school students, with teachers and school adjustment counselors, attended Thursday morning's performance, along with a group of college-bound young adults in the MCLA/BCC Dual Enrollment Summer Academy, and youths and workers from Pittsfield Community Connection youth outreach program.

McCandless said the city schools "have been doing a lot of work with social competence. We're striving not only to have some teachable moments but conversational moments" about difficult and sensitive topics.

Eighteen-year-old Mackenzie Soto, a recent McCann Technical School graduate who identifies as coming from a biracial family, said she was glad to see the play and to have an opportunity to hear the cast talk about the issues they face while portraying their characters, as well as in their own personal lives.

"Everybody had different experiences growing up," said André Ware, the actor who portrays Lt. John Stokes. "Once you get into it, you see things aren't black and white all the time. There's a lot of nuance and gray areas, especially on the issue of race."

"I'm just happy they were willing to talk," Soto said. "I would like to see more of this offered and like to see more people become aware."

Boyd, who is also Barrington Stage Company's artistic director, said "American Son" has been a powerful vehicle for conversations.

"Most plays, we clear the theater in five minutes. With this show, we have people sitting in their seats after, talking, and people talking in the lobby for 20 to 30 minutes after," she said.

Last weekend, the company hosted a free community symposium from Saturday to Sunday, with mid-afternoon panels on "The Struggle of Growing Up Biracial," "Driving While Black," and "Institutional Racism."

Despite the timing and the fact that it was a holiday weekend, Boyd said the panels were attended by approximately 250, 200 and 150 people each respectively. "People want to talk about this," she said.

Boyd said both people on the panels and the characters in the play don't always agree, though each make valid arguments for seeing and doing things they way they do.

"I hope it opens people's minds," she said, "and I hope we keep talking."

Contact Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.


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