Kerry Washington Hopes American Son Will Democratize Theater

The actress brings the Broadway play American Son to Netflix.

David Lee/Netflix

When Kerry Washington said goodbye to her iconic White House fixer character, Olivia Pope, she didn’t take the break one might expect after seven seasons on the small screen. Instead, the Scandal star headed to Broadway, to an emotionally grueling role in American Son.

With a plot seemingly ripped from the headlines, the play addresses the connection between racial bias, policing, and state violence, and—after a limited engagement on the stage— it’s now headed to Netflix. Washington plays Kendra Ellis-Connor, a psychology professor waiting in a Miami police station with her husband, Scott (Steven Pasquale), hoping to find their missing 18-year-old son, Jamal, who was stopped by a police officer at a traffic light.

For 90 heart-wrenching minutes, not a beat is wasted—Kendra paces back and forth, squabbles with her estranged husband, fields racist comments from the evening police officer (Jeremy Jordan), and awaits any news of Jamal. Suffice it to say, things do not end well for the Connor family.

Directed by the Tony winner Kenny Leon, produced by Washington, and written by Christopher Demos-Brown, the film version of American Son debuts November 1 on the streaming service. To mark the occasion, Washington spoke to W about honoring black motherhood, ancestral trauma, and bringing a substantial Broadway play to the small screen.

What was it about this play that made you want to be involved?

I was just blown away by the writing, quite honestly. The opportunity to work with Kenny Leon and the writing itself—I just found it to be so important, probing, moving, and surprising.

What was the most challenging part of adapting this stage production for the screen?

We all had to take our foot off the gas a little bit, because we weren’t communicating the play to the person who’s 900 feet away, we were communicating it to the camera, which was just under our nose. It was such challenging material for all of us, that by the time we made the film we had all really trained our bodies to live in that nightmare for 90 minutes, or even three hours on a two-show day. But to be on a sound stage and live in that space for 10, 12 hours was extraordinarily challenging.

How do you maintain your sanity under those conditions?

I really had to do an adventure in self care, a very committed exploration of what was the maximum level of self care. Because the truth is, your body doesn’t know the difference. That’s the thing. You’re reaching for a level of engagement with the material that is at the unconscious level, and the body doesn’t know the difference at that point. So, trying to train my body to unravel from that trauma daily was a real task.

How long did filming last?

Four-and-a-half days. It was pretty intense. Although, I don’t know if we could’ve done a longer shoot. I remember saying to Kenny, “I almost don’t want Netflix to know that we shot it in four-and-a-half days because I don’t want them to think you can ask an actor to do 25 pages of material a day.” The reason we were able to do that was because we had rehearsed it for four months. So, we understood every single breath that our characters took, and we knew the room. On the stage, the set had two walls. In the sound stage, it had four. So, we just completed the room.

The narrative centers around a nightmarish reality for many black Americans, particularly those with young children. Did your experience as a mother inform your portrayal of Kendra?

There are sort of two levels of historic experience that I’m bringing. And I apologize for talking about it in such an academic way, but I have to or else I’m in a puddle of tears on every call. There is that personal understanding of what it means to parent black children, and how hard that is given the history of state violence toward our kids. There is a very personal relationship to the material in that way. But there is also this other psychological relationship to the material. Because Jamal is as much Emmett Till as he is Tamir Rice. This is not new. State violence against our children started on slave ships. In a lot of places the police force grew out of those task forces to return escaped slaves to their owners, so it’s a long history of this kind of violence that was granted by the law and excused by the law. In my dressing room, I had a wall where I had pictures of the people and the history that I wanted to honor in the work, and it did range from slave ships to kids being separated from their families at the border, to Emmett Till to Philando Castile to Eric Garner to Sandra Bland to Korryn Gaines. I felt that in doing the play, I was honoring black motherhood both personally, but also in this deep, historic, ancestral way as well.

Kendra is very concerned with how Jamal speaks English and presents himself, leading me to believe she probably would have had the conversation with her son about what to do if stopped by a police officer. And no one necessarily wants to have this conversation with their children, but for many of us it’s non-negotiable. How do we explain the history of state violence and the potentially deadly outcome of being stopped by police to children? Is it ever too early to talk about it?

I don’t know. I think one of the things that I am aware of, having done the play, is how hard it is to make these decisions, and how important it is to not shame parents in the exploration of how to engage with this material. I think the dance is, how can we be fully honest with our kids and also fill them with a sense of relative safety and the belief that they can still be anything and do anything? It’s a tricky dance. I think every family has to do it in the way that’s right for you, and I think it’s a lot of what the play is about. That’s the clash between Kendra and Stokes, especially. What is the right thing to tell a kid? And I think not shying away from the complexity is really important, because this is not a simple conversation. For me, that’s important, to not shy away from that complexity, to bring all of my love and my heart to the conversation.

And that’s why it’s important to have art like this exist. Do you imagine this material being taught in classrooms?

It’s part of why we created the discussion guide as well, because we felt like, these are tricky conversations to have, but it is an easier conversation to have when you can say, What did you think about what Kendra said? What did you think about what Stokes said? It gives you a way to enter into the dialog that is one step removed at first. You can speak through the characters and use them as your avatars.

Some aspects of the story have been met with complicated responses from audiences. There’s a shock the viewer is expected to feel when the white officer believes Kendra’s husband is actually the Lieutenant because he is white. Another similar twist occurs when the Lieutenant is eventually revealed to be black, and sort of talks down to Kendra about her relationship with a white man. What purpose do you feel those twists serve in this narrative?

For me, when I was reading it, what it made me aware of was the level of unconscious bias that even I’m carrying because I found myself being surprised by the circumstances. It made me really check my own beliefs, in a way. In an important way. We’re not letting anyone off the hook. It’s not about one racist white cop. The fact that the cop is black means we have to look at the whole system, and not just make it about that individual—not that that individual isn’t culpable. But so is Kendra, for not ripping that bumper sticker off. She obviously doesn’t pull the trigger, but if these four people had all been able to love Jamal with more understanding and acceptance and compassion and really see him and meet him where he was, what could have been different for him?

What do you expect the response to the film to be? Do you think it will be different than the response audiences had to the play?

I don’t know. I try not to traffic in expectations. I feel like I can’t predict what people are going to do. I love the expression that “expectations are resentments in waiting.” My hope is that people are moved to continue to have the conversation in the way that they were in the theater, and that they are now able to have those conversations in their homes with their loved ones without the limitations of geography or expensive Broadway tickets, that the conversation can be had by anyone, anywhere. I’m really grateful to Netflix for their partnership so that we really are able to democratize theater in this way.

Do you have plans to return to the theater?

Yeah, I was talking to Kenny about it, and I come from the theater and really love the theater. In the seven years of doing Scandal, I just never had a long enough break to do a run of anything. But I think that I’m beginning to gravitate towards a Denzel [Washington] model of going back to do theater every three or four years. I’d like to try to make that work.

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