Terror grips Kendra Ellis-Connor as she waits in a police station for word on the whereabouts of her son — her Black son.

There has been a police altercation, and a gun was drawn. No one seems to know anything beyond that. Not the police. Not Kendra.

And not the audience as Christopher Demos-Brown's "American Son" opens at Theatre Baton Rouge on Sept. 24, the first of seven performances.

Only 40 people will be in the theater's 300 seats for each production of the drama, TBR's first time back on stage since the coronavirus lockdown began in March. 

The few tickets sold will not alleviate the theater's budget woes, which have resulted in layoffs, but it's a start, said artistic director Jenny Ballard.

"I can't begin to tell you how thrilled we are to be back in the theater and back on stage," she said. "And though we already had 'American Son' on our schedule, we weren't supposed to stage it until the spring. But with the events that are happening now, we thought it was important to return to the stage with this play."

"American Son" is not a comfortable play to watch. Tensions run high in this story of White and Black, biracial relationships and young Black men squaring off with police to the backdrop of a mother's terror.

"We're doing this play in the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, and even though Black Lives Matter is talked about in the play, I didn't want this play to be about that," said director Greg Williams Jr. "That's what's happening now, but when the audience leaves the theater and thinks back about seeing this play, I want them to remember a story as a of form of humanity, who they are as people and what they can do to make it better." 

"American Son" made its Broadway debut in 2018 and was adapted for Netflix in 2019. Both productions starred Kerry Washington as the Black mother, Kendra, and Steven Pasquale as her estranged White husband, Scott, an FBI agent.

Mercedes Wilson plays Kendra in Theatre Baton Rouge's show, with Tim Sandifer as her husband, Scott Connor. The story's only other characters are Officers Paul Larkin and John Stokes, played by Austin Ventura and Roger Ferrier.

Jamal is also there, but never physically on the stage. He is the son kept in the spotlight through Kendra's vigilant focus.

Jamal is biracial, but society sees him as a young Black man who was riding around with two other young Black men when police pulled them over in a traffic stop.

Kendra, his mother, talks about how Jamal has been feeling depressed and isolated as one of the few Black students at his school, and how he has experienced racial tension in other parts of his life, which is why he put a provocative bumper sticker advocating violence against police on his car.

Now there has been an incident, and the rookie cop on duty has no further information on what happened or the whereabouts of Jamal.

So, Kendra waits, worries and talks.

"I realized that I had the task of not only defining Kendra's identity in this play, but her son's as well," said Wilson, the actress tackling the challenging role. "Greg asked us to read the play three times before we started rehearsing. I did, and I started thinking about my mom and other moms who have children of color and the issues facing them."

Williams prepared Wilson and the rest of the cast for rehearsals by discussing the current Black Lives Matter protests happening throughout the country. But he also emphasized that the play isn't necessarily about the social justice movement.

"We talked about things that happen every day," Williams said. "The White actors in the cast didn't realize the things that are said to us as Black people, the things that we've been called."

Once rehearsals started, Williams and his cast were reminded of everyone's human frailties by having to adhere to safety measures brought on by the coronavirus. Remote rehearsals began on Zoom then moved to Independence Park Theatre, where everyone was masked and socially distanced.

"We slowly moved everyone closer, and the masks came off when we moved to Theatre Baton Rouge," Williams said.

"We're checking temperatures, and we'll be checking the audience's temperatures when the play opens," Ballard added. "We'll also have the seats taped off so audience members can sit only in their designated seats, and we'll have people in the lobby making sure that no one is lingering. You come in, see the play and leave."

All audience members will be required to wear masks for the 90-minute production, Williams said.

But it's an intense 90 minutes with a terrified mom at the helm.

"This is a mother, and she's scared for her son," Williams said. "I told the cast not to focus on her being Black but who she is. I hope the audience does, too."


'American Son'

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25-27, Oct. 1-4. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

WHERE: Theatre Baton Rouge, 7155 Florida Blvd.

TICKETS: $30.75; $25.75 (students) at (225) 924-6496 or theatrebr.org.


Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com