Unfortunate Son

An estranged, biracial couple confront their personal feelings, biases, perceptions, and demons on race and bias as they try to uncover the truth about their son’s involvement in an incident with the police.  This is American Son and it is currently playing at Benson Theatre.

Ladies and gentleman, this is theatre at its pinnacle.  At its peak, theatre not only entertains, but also educates and gets you to ask hard questions and look deep into yourself.  Christopher Demos-Brown has written a phenomenal script that raises excellent talking points and presents terrific POVs on race and bias.  Demos-Brown does superior work in showing how experience and reality influence perception and belief and how often we are unable to see the whole of a situation or story because we automatically filter it through said perceptions and beliefs.  Demos-Brown’s dialogue sparks with intensity and believability and you’ll feel as if you were paintbrushed with a brick, then had your stomach punched with a gauntlet from the inside out before the night is through.

This script is fantastic fodder for a great cast and director and this show has that in spades and then some.

Kathy Tyree does some of her finest directorial work to date with her deft handling of the material.  Tyree makes this show move as the performers ride their lines as if they’re riding bucking broncos.  The words don’t just move, they gallop.  Pacing was smooth as silk and the staging was brilliant as the performers are always on the move and take needed energy breaks (as much as they can be in a story this charged) during the quieter moments.  Tyree’s coaching of the cast was top of the line as each gave a spot-on performance with cue pickups as tight as the passing of a baton in a relay race.

Jared Cernousek and Jus. B help anchor the show with dynamite work in supporting roles.  Cernousek is in fine form as the green, newbie police officer who is still polishing his people skills and meticulously following the book as he tries to balance duty and protocol with assisting the concerned and frustrated parents.  Jus. B, who is fast becoming one of the city’s must watch performers, adds another feather to his cap with his portrayal of the polite, but no-nonsense liaison officer who can clearly take command of any situation in which he finds himself and can cut to the heart of a matter with a few well-spoken words.

But this show rides on the shoulders of the couple who have the bulk of the show’s grueling dialogue and Kerri Forrester and Matt Allen deliver the goods all night long.

Kerri Forrester is perfect as Kendra.  Forrester is utterly believable as the concerned mother as she frantically dials and redials her son and his friends in order to learn of his whereabouts and condition.  Forrester’s Kendra can come off as very abrasive, though said abrasiveness is born out of concern for her child and her frustration at the seeming inability of the white characters to understand things from her point of view as a black woman.  Forrester’s versatility is incredible in her numerous scenes with Allen as she vacillates between her anger with him at their separation to intelligent discussions about their different worlds to some very tender moments of love remembered between them.

Matt Allen is as natural as they come in the role of Scott.  An experienced FBI agent, Allen’s Scott comes off as more diplomatic than his estranged wife due to his understanding of the bureaucracy of police work and having likely dealt with high-pressure, life-threatening situations.  But he’s also capable of his own moments of anger and frustration that begin to bubble up into violence.  Allen adeptly carries his end of his conversations with Forrester especially his frustrations as one of the causes of their separation is his belief that she inserts race into situations where he believes it never came into play.

John Forsman is a technical force of nature as he designed a comfortable waiting room in the police department with its couch, chair, coffee table full of magazines, and billboard with announcements and wanted posters.  I was especially impressed with his window which displayed actual rainfall of a storm that intensified with the rising stakes of the story.  Forsman also made good use of sounds with the beep of incoming texts, thunder, and the sound of a video sent to Scott concerning the incident with his son.  Bradley Pesarchick well costumes his actors with the uniform of Officer Larkin, the suits of Scott and Lt. Stokes, to the rumpled clothes of Kendra who clearly had a sleepless night.

Benson Theatre is the newest artistic venue in Omaha and a work of this caliber has me convinced that it has a fine future.  This show asks some powerful questions without being judgmental.  Each character has valid points and each is also wrong at various moments as they let their biases and perceptions prevent them from seeing the whole.  This show is not an easy watch, but you also won’t be able to turn away.

American Son plays at Benson Theatre through August 27.  Showtime is 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday.  Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased at bensontheatre.org.  Due to mature themes and language, this show is not suitable for children.  Benson Theatre is located at 6054 Maple St in Omaha, NE.

Riveting ‘Race’ Pursues Victory and Perception, Not Truth and Justice

In the law offices (beautifully designed by Bryan McAdams) of Jack Lawson and Henry Brown, Charles Strickland, a rich, white man, seeks counsel to defend him of the charge of raping a black woman.  The two attorneys could care less about his guilt or innocence.  Their decision to take on this client will be based solely on whether or not they believe the case is winnable.  When a careless (or is it?) error is made by their law clerk, compelling the two lawyers to defend Strickland, we are taken into a world driven by personal and societal biases.  This is David Mamet’s Race currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Race is compelling drama at its finest.  From the moment the heavy drum beats signal the start of the show, this play takes off like a rocket and goes full throttle until the very end.  I was absolutely mesmerized by the astonishing pace of the production.  These four expert storytellers picked up cues so tightly and effortlessly that one barely had time to think and digest the information before another revelation was made.  With the superlative acting enhanced by brilliantly constructed, crisp dialogue and further bolstered by whip smart directing from Amy Lane, you’re going to get one thought provoking, challenging night of entertainment.

Doug Blackburn’s tour de force performance as Jack Lawson is worth the price of admission alone.  Putting on a veritable acting clinic, Blackburn finds beats within beats and has crafted the most fully developed and real character I have seen on stage in years.  Lawson is neither a good man nor a bad man.  He is a lawyer.  He doesn’t, no, he can’t care about his client’s guilt or innocence.  Lawson’s job is to win, plain and simple and he will do whatever it takes to obtain victory.  In Lawson’s view, trials are won by the lawyer who tells the better story, not who has the truth on their side.

Through Blackburn’s masterful storytelling, we see a man who is deeply cynical, thinks ten steps ahead, and chases down every angle to obtain a not guilty verdict.  Yet he may have made one crucial miscalculation when his fear of being sued for discrimination dictated he hire a black law clerk who, though talented, may not have the firm’s best interests at heart.

As Henry Brown, Lawson’s legal partner and a black man, Andre McGraw is more than able to keep pace with Blackburn’s Lawson.  Nearly as cynical and more distrusting than his white partner, McGraw’s Brown has little respect for their client, believing him to have sought their aid because of the multicultural build of the law firm.  Brutally honest, Brown coldly lays out to Strickland that his color will already make him guilty in the eyes of a jury and he would prefer to drop the case.  When forced to defend him, Brown suggests a defense that will be a little lackluster for the client, but would preserve the image of the law firm in order to obtain future clients.  Though he plays it intensely for the most part, McGraw does have some beautiful, softer moments in his private conversations with Blackburn.

As Susan, a newly hired law clerk, Jonnique Peters gives a stunningly enigmatic performance.  Up until the very end you never really know what she is thinking.  At first, she seems like the bright-eyed, optimistic, fresh out of law school lawyer who is going to pursue truth, justice, and the American way.  But as the play progresses, you will find that there may be a much darker side to Susan.  Her thirst for justice may or may not compel her to commit some highly unethical acts.

Brennan Thomas gets as much mileage as he can out of the role of the accused.  As Strickland, Thomas gives a haunting portrayal of a man who insists he has been falsely accused, yet feels great shame about something.  His Strickland is more of a hindrance than a help to his lawyers as he constantly wishes to go to the press so he can explain his side of the story.  As it happens, he may have quite a bit to explain.

What I truly loved about this play is that Strickland’s guilt or innocence is not important to the plot.  Race is really what this play is all about.  Every action in this play is either driven by race or the perception of race.  Brown believes Strickland will be found guilty by the simple fact he’s a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman.  Lawson won’t accuse the accuser of being a whore because “she’s black and [he’d] be impugning her sexuality”.  Susan just knows Strickland is guilty.  It strongly suggests that as hard as we, as a society, try to downplay the issue of race, our biases will always make it a reality that cannot be ignored.  You will think when this show ends and that’s what great theatre should make you do.

Race runs at the Omaha Playhouse, located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE, from May 9-June 8.  Performances are Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  There is no performance on May 17, but an extra performance will be held on June 4 at 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35 ($21 for students).  For tickets, contact the Playhouse at 402-553-0800.  Race contains strong language and adult subject matter and is not recommended for children.