Barrington Stage Company's 'American Son' shines light on larger race issues
PITTSFIELD, MASS. — Barrington Stage Company's founding artistic director Julianne Boyd went shopping for a new play to open the Boyd-Quinson Mainstage's 2016 season.
She found what she was looking for in Miami playwright Christopher Demos-Brown.
His commissioned new play, "American Son," is having its world premiere at the Union Street venue in the city's Upstreet Cultural District, where it officially opened Wednesday, June 22, and is scheduled to run through July 9.
Set in what normally serves as an interrogation room in a Miami police station, the 90-minute intermissionless play co-stars Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden as an interracial couple (she's a PhD. at a university in Florida; he's an FBI agent) who have separated after 20 years of marriage. They are waiting at the police station for information about their missing 18-year-old son, whose abandoned car has been found during a traffic stop incident.
"In a sense, it's a thriller as the two of them wait for information, which they are given piecemeal," Boyd said during a pre-rehearsal interview at which she was joined by Tunie and Hayden, "but it really is more than that."
"It's a very unique play," Tunie said. "It talks about important issues through the prism of this estranged couple. It's the kind of conversation often heard in the black community but not in a broader constituency."
"They've had a very specific struggle with their son," Hayden said. "He's just graduated from high school and is trying to find his identity and this dark underbelly emerges."
Hayden says he appreciates Demos-Brown's skill at bringing to life the human condition in all its ugliness and its beauty. "Every time you think you've gotten there, you (realize) you haven't. It's a constant process," he says
Demos-Brown had been recommended to Boyd by a BSC board member, Roz Stuzin, who spends much of the year in South Florida and had seen the playwright's American Theatre Critics Association's 2014 Steinberg Award-winning "Fear Up Harsh," which centers on an Iraqi War veteran. Boyd read the play and while she felt it wouldn't fit in with the season she was planning, she was struck by the writing. So, during a trip to Florida in February 2015, Boyd met Demos-Brown with the notion of commissioning him to write a play for BSC.
"We talked over a period of about a month or so," Boyd said.
With the issues around the "black lives matter" movement circulating in his mind, Demos-Brown came up with the idea of a play "about an interracial couple raising a biracial son and what that would mean," Boyd said.
Demos-Brown wrote the first draft in only three months. "I loved it," Boyd said. So did the Laurents/Hatcher Foundation, which awarded Barrington Stage $50,000 to help meet production expenses and Demos-Brown $25,000 to complete the play and put it on stage.
There was a reading at Barrington Stage in August. Based on the response, "I felt it had to be seen," Boyd said. "This was a play for this community."
Tunie — who has extensive experience in theater as a director and producer as well as an actress — has spent a big chunk of her career in front of the camera as Medical Examiner Melinda Warner in NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." She welcomes the opportunity to get back on stage where she can "grow, explore and discover."
"Theater," she said, "is the actor's medium. Television and film are fundamentally the editor's and director's medium.
"With film and TV, you learn your lines at home, then you show up and shoot. In a play, you can continue to refine your character (through rehearsals).
"Doing theater and rehearsing is a luxury you don't have in television or film. Theater is collaborative."
Although he is no stranger to film or television, Hayden has spent most of his acting career on stage.
"What we do," he said, "emerges from centuries of storytelling.
"I always tell my actors when I'm directing 'You know more about these characters than I do so it's time you took them away from me, in the best sense."
"This play had to be organic," Boyd said. "I so trust (Tamara and Michael's) instincts. You have to go with what they have instinctively.
"They came understanding these characters. They made my job so much easier."
ON STAGE ...
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, Mass.
How: (413) 236-8888; barringtonstageco.org; at BSC box office — Boyd-Quinson Mainstage
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