American Son is a gripping new drama that centers on Kendra Ellis-Connor, a distressed mother whose teenage son, Jamal, hasn’t come home. As she stays in the waiting room of a Miami-Dade police station, she is unable to get any information about her son from the rookie, Officer Paul Larkin. When her estranged husband, Scott Connor, arrives, things spiral out of control. Almeria Campbell plays Kendra, a psychology professor focused on one thing and one thing only – finding out if her son is okay.
We sat down with Almeria to discuss the themes of American Son, the difference between theatre and film, and what makes the play stand out.
Your character, Kendra, lies at the heart of American Son. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced while performing in this play? What do you want to highlight about Kendra?
When I was preparing to play Kendra, I watched videos of mothers whose sons had been taken from them. I watched these women and how they got up on national TV and spoke without breaking down. They were composed, but at the same time, you could see their hearts hurt. So I said to myself, “If they can get up and they can do it, then I cannot be a mess after each performance. If they can do it, I can uphold the torch and tell this story for each one of them.”
That is what I want to highlight – the women who go through these struggles. I haven’t read even one story about one of these women allowing their loss to completely defeat them. Instead, they are persevering. They are fighting for justice in the names of their sons and other American sons out there.
In your opinion, what are some of the difficult questions that American Son asks?
American Son asks, “Is there systemic racism within the law enforcement system?” When Kendra meets Officer Paul Larkin, he unwittingly behaves differently than he would if he was talking to a white woman. The play makes you wonder, if Scott had been at the police station instead of Kendra, would he have been asked the litany of questions Officer Larkin asked Kendra?
American Son makes us look at the unconscious biases that we all have. It shows that, even if you are married to someone and love them, you can still be biased. Your point of view is limited because you haven’t had the same experiences as your partner. A lot of times we don’t explore how other people feel and we don’t put ourselves in their shoes. Until we learn how to grow out of that selfishness, we will only ever see the world through our own eyes.
What makes American Son different from other contemporary plays that address race and identity?
I think the difference is that a biracial child lies at the center of American Son. Audiences know that Jamal is half-black and half-white, but he identifies as black because that’s how the world looks at him. At this point in his life, Jamal is asking himself, “Who do I identify with? Who do I look like? Where do I fall in the spectrum of how this country looks at me?”
His father Scott doesn’t get it, because he only sees the world through his own personal lens. Scott sees Jamal’s situation as a father, instead of as a parent of a biracial child, which are two totally different things.
You and Kate Alexander, the Director of American Son, have shared that Kendra and Scott did not separate due to an affair or infidelity. Can you shed some light on why you think their marriage fell apart? How does that help tell the story of American Son?
You can see from Scott and Kendra’s outbursts that they never communicated, or when they communicated, they never really listened. So they never really heard what the other one was saying about the struggles that Jamal would face. Kendra became a broken record to Scott.
I’ve found that a lot of people just want to be heard, and listening becomes less important. That’s great if you want to live on an island, but if you want to actually be in a relationship and make it work, then you have to truly listen to what other people say they want.
You have an extensive background in film (television and movies). Can you share how acting in a live theatre production is different from acting in front of a camera? What do you most enjoy about each artistic medium?
For live theatre, I show up to the first rehearsal knowing all my lines but without having a “locked in” performance – that’s what the rehearsal process is for, to explore. I go in knowing my character’s given circumstances, who they are, and what they want, but that all deepens during the rehearsal process. You make so many discoveries about the show and its characters in rehearsals!
When it comes to film, there are hardly any rehearsals. There’s an on-camera rehearsal and a meeting with the lead actors to review the scene. Then they do a master take (a long shot which captures everyone in the scene), followed by everybody’s close-ups, and then they move onto the next thing. In TV and film, you show up to the audition and rehearsals knowing your character, but you don’t get to explore the character as much as you do in theatre.
American Son played in FST’s Gompertz Theatre from January 22 to March 15, 2020.