Credit: Zach Mendez

As bad as it may be to spend the night in a jail cell, under certain circumstances, the waiting room of a police station can be even worse. When the lights come up on American Son, which plays at Ensemble Theatre Company’s New Vic through April 24, we see one such dingy waiting room dominated by a sizeable official seal proclaiming the location as Miami. The sole occupant is a Black woman, Kendra Ellis-Connor, wonderfully played by Tracey A. Leigh. She’s agitated, the clock says it’s late, and her fevered interaction with her phone reveals the show’s premise — her 18-year-old son, Jamal Connor, has gone missing. A white police officer, Paul Larkin (Toby Tropper), enters almost immediately, and this long night’s journey into catastrophe begins. 

Sometimes a play has to break the rules to get where it needs to go. A show named after a character who never appears and has no lines defies theater logic. Yet, as the grim facts of the situation emerge, it becomes increasingly clear that Jamal’s absence is the point. Kendra and her white husband, an FBI agent named Scott Connor (Jamison Jones), have separated. Jamal had had an encounter with Miami police involving the expensive new car his father gave him when he turned 18. He’s not in the play because lately, his parents haven’t been there for him in his life. 

As the squabbling Connors, Jones and Leigh carry the show for long stretches, but it’s what happens when Lieutenant John Stokes (Alex Morris) arrives that reveals the real stakes in this couple’s unhappy marriage. The play’s fiery final sequence left Ensemble’s opening night audience shaken. American Son succeeds in pushing its police procedural premise into the symbolic realm of tragedy, and that’s a lot to process. Race relations in this country, it seems to say, are like a troubled marriage, and if we are to save the precious child of this union, things will have to change. 

This edition of ON Culture was originally emailed to subscribers on July 19, 2024. To receive Leslie Dinaberg’s arts newsletter in your inbox on Fridays, sign up at


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