Review | 'American Son': Miami trial attorney finds his voice as a playwright
PITTSFIELD — Christopher-Demos Brown didn't set out to be a playwright. After graduating Dartmouth College in 1986 with a degree in Russian Language and Literature, he went on to get a law degree from the University of Miami and then a master's degree in international law from Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford.
Clearly, however, theater was in his blood. He acted and directed some at Dartmouth and then headed for Los Angeles to be an actor but without success.
"I'm a mediocre actor on my best days," Demos-Brown said, with a self-effacing laugh.
He earned a living reading and reviewing scripts and then, after five years in Los Angeles, returned to his native Miami and entered law school.
Motivated by his membership in an improvisational theater company and inspired, says an article in Florida Theater on Stage, by the work of playwrights Mark Medoff, Caryl Churchill and Lanford Wilson, Demos-Brown turned to playwriting while he was studying law at the University of Miami.
He's been anything but mediocre as a playwright. His "Fear Up Harsh" won the 2014 Steinberg Award Citation from the American Critics Association. "When the Sun Shone Brighter," the first of his plays to be produced, won both a 2010 Carbonell Award (South Florida's equivalent of Broadway's Tonys) and Silver Palm (South Florida's equivalent of Off-Broadway's OBIE) for best new work. And Demos-Brown's newest play, "American Son," which officially begins its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company's Boyd-Quinson Mainstage at 7 p.m. Wednesday, has earned the playwright $25,000 from the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation, which also awarded Barrington Stage $50,000 to help meet production costs.
All this while Demos-Brown attends to his day job as a civil trial attorney for a Miami law firm he runs jointly with his wife, Stephanie Demos, who also reviews mystery novels.
In addition to a hyphenated name (he was born Christopher Brown), the twosome share parenthood of two daughters, ages 9 and 11; and, with another couple, founding artistic directorship of a Miami theater company, Zoetic Stage.
"I wouldn't be able to write plays were it not for the law firm and a very indulgent wife" who, the playwright-attorney says, "is my first and best critic. She's a very shrewd judge of what works and what doesn't."
Demos-Brown says his creative energies are stimulated "or inspired by a strong emotional feeling. I cannot stand sitting in a theater and not being told something. I want plays that have something to say about the world.
"I also love language. I also tend to write really smart people."
The strong emotions stirring Demos-Brown in "American Son" are triggered by race relations in America, particularly police shootings in black communities.
"When these incidents have happened, we've seen people jump to conclusions based on very little information," Demos-Brown said in an interview over a morning cup of coffee.
Set in a room at a Miami police station, "American Son" focuses on a separated interracial couple — Kendra Ellis Connor, a PhD. at a Florida university, played by Tamara Tunie and Scott Connor, an FBI agent, played by Michael Hayden — who are trying to get information about their missing 18-year-old son, whose abandoned car has been found during a traffic stop.
"This couple is given a little IV-drip of information by the police," Demos-Brown said. "They're flung around and draw wrong conclusions. Everything is designed to put them under pressure."
"The play is about black and white America but I wanted to make it personal by putting these two people in a room in an extreme situation that forces them to be frank and honest with each other.
" the play is about race and this particular couple's struggle."
What concerns Demos-Brown is what he sees as a "complete inability to talk about race in America.
"On one side," he says, "there is a complete lack of reason; on the other, a complete lack of compassion."
Demos-Brown began work on "American Son" about a year and half ago when it was commissioned by Barrington Stage founding artistic director Julianne Boyd. it took the playwright only three months to complete the first draft, Boyd said.
"Once I got the main characters, they were clear in my head," Demos-Brown said.
Among the things that keeps Demos-Brown writing is "the process of watching the collaboration happen and taking form," he said.
He's been sitting in on rehearsals, watching his characters emerge, adjusting his script when needed.
"He's been so open and accessible," Boyd said in a separate interview. "He comes back with these amazing rewrites."
In a sense, Demos-Brown keeps at his craft because he has no choice. "I would write plays," he says, "even if no one saw them."
But, he quickly adds, "life is short. I want my plays to be seen by as many people as possible, otherwise, why write them?"
What: "American Son" by Christopher Demos-Brown. Directed by Julianne Boyd
Who: Barrington Stage Company
When: Now through July 9. Evenings — Tuesday and Wednesday at 7; Thursday through Saturday at 8. Matinees — Wednesday and Friday at 2 (no Wednesday matinee July 6); Sunday at 5
Where: Boyd-Quinson Mainstage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield.
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at BSC box office — Boyd-Quinson Mainstage