Kerry Washington on How 'American Son' Explores Black Motherhood, Race, Identity

American Son - TIFF - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of TIFF

"This is centuries of fears of black moms," the actress said of the 90-minute chamber-drama.

Kerry Washington's performance in American Son will make its way from its Broadway beginnings to Netflix on Friday — a role the actress describes as being placed within "every parent's absolute worst nightmare."

Written by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Kenny Leon, the 90-minute chamber drama follows Kendra Ellis-Connor (Washington) as she struggles to learn any details about her missing, mixed-race teenage son, Jamal. Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee also reprise their roles in the film adaptation. 

American Son does not hold back in its discussion of race or identity as it follows a black mother being interrogated by a white police officer rather than being helped, an interracial couple rehashing the painful reasons their marriage fell apart and a black cop illuminating on the experience of those who fall into both categories.

During her interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Washington shared how her own experiences as a mother impacted her performance as well as what understanding can come to those who watch and learn the ultimate fate of one American son. 

What differences were there in your performance from stage to screen?

We just all had to take our foot off the gas a little bit. Onstage, you're having to communicate every molecule to the person who is 900 seats away. Your audience, in film, is right there. The camera's right there. Since we had basically rehearsed the movie for four months, we just all had to kind of trust ourselves and take our foot off the gas a little bit.

What went through your mind as you interacted between Jeremy Jordan's Officer Larkin, Steven Pasquale's Scott and Eugene Lee's Lt. John Stokes?

Code-switching is now becoming a commonly understood dynamic. What I thought was so interesting is that Kendra does spend the play kind of trying to contort herself, twist herself into acceptable shapes to try to get what she needs from the men around her. We watched her in the very beginning try to be polite and contain her anger with Larkin (Jeremy Jordan). Then with her husband, she's trying to hold her ground and be his equal, so it's a new shape-shifting. Then we get to see with Eugene Lee this kind of language and tenor and pace and rhythm that black people only speak to other black people. It's a version of Kendra we haven't seen, even though we've seen her with a virtual stranger and her most intimate partner. There's still another layer to her identity and her blackness that only becomes revealed with Eugene's character.

In that conversation, Lt. Stokes goes as far as telling Kendra, "I know you could never explain to him that pain in your heart," in regards to her husband's inability to understand her experiences as a black woman.

I think it's so powerful when Stokes says that because, in a way, we've watched her trying to explain it to him [Scott] for an hour and change. So we know that Stokes is right and we know that even though he might not be right about all of the dynamics between her and her son and her husband, that he is right about the loneliness of her existence right now. Even that she tries to explain to her husband in that final scene that the fact that this woman that he slept with was white, that that hurts so much more. That's something that he wasn't considering, couldn't imagine. It's what privilege looks like, right? That he doesn't have to consider that.

What challenged you the most in taking on this role, especially taking it from stage to screen?

I think quite honestly it's the beautiful rigor, the discipline of having to dip into this nightmare eight times a week. Then what was so funny was I really wrapped my head around how to approach being in this space for 90 minutes a day or three hours a day on a two-show day. But then we start to film and I was like, "Oh, wait, I have to do this for 12 hours?" It was a challenging task to ask of myself. 

As a mother, what of that came through in your performance? Did you also look to stories of black mothers whose children were killed by police?

I feel like there were these parallel paths of emotional wells that I was constantly dipping into or swimming in because there was a part of it that was just the pure personal understanding of motherhood. I think to some extent it's part of why the play is so relatable because parenting always, always involves vulnerability. The moment that child is out of your body, if that's your path to motherhood, the moment that person is walking around and in the world, you are no longer completely in control of what they hear and what they eat and where they go. It's a constant dance in allowing for separation and independence. Barack Obama said it so beautifully in his interview with David Letterman. The closest he could describe of having children is like having your heart outside your body walking around. That's any parent. But it is, of course, exponentially more tumultuous and scary and challenging when you are the parent of a black child because there are all these systems in place that rely on the demonization or destruction of your kid. So there was just kind of the personal "I am the mother of black kids." I felt like I was pulling from that personally, but also pulling from this larger historical and sociological framework. I had kind of the psychology of Kendra, from a personal sense, but there was, there was also a dipping into pain that's not just mine.

This is centuries of fears of black moms. I had a wall in my dressing room that had pictures and names and cutouts. It was a place for me to acknowledge the pain inflicted on black children that's state sanctioned. So, starting with slave ships and including Emmett Till and Rodney King and going all the way to today ... just really a place to remind myself and kind of honor and remember how black lives have been destroyed or attacked by state violence. It's interesting to even talk about it so academically because it really felt like every day, sometimes twice a day, I was diving into this pool of every parent's absolute worst nightmare. 

What is a scene that sticks with you the most?

It's hard to say because this was my baby for so long, like over a hundred performances. I think at different times, different parts of the material really stuck with me. I'm always really moved by the point in the film when Kendra and Scott do remember how they first met. I love that we get to see it in the film version. I think why I really love that is because, although this is very much an unfolding nightmare and tragedy, it's also the unfolding of a love story between two people who really, really love each other and don't have the tools to be able to close the divide between them — the cultural divide, the emotional divide, the socioeconomic understanding divide. That moment is always really special to me because it's their love that created the miracle of Jamal. And it is their love that's really trying to navigate a way out of this pain.

What do you hope audiences will understand from seeing American Son?

Part of what Christopher Demos-Brown is trying to do with the play is that by making Jamal half-white, for the first time audience members who are not black begin to understand the pain, because it really does feel like Jamal belongs to everybody. You can feel white audiences own him, and not in a colonial way but in a family way. You can feel their love and attachment and a sense of shared identity with him and understanding with him. His path becomes not the statistics of what happens in the black community or his fate is not like those kids in those neighborhoods doing those things. He becomes one of us and us is everybody. So I think that's part of what's powerful about the piece is that it is an opportunity for black folks, for us to see ourselves and have our journey affirmed and acknowledged and mirrored and held up in the  canon. But it's also an opportunity for other communities to allow themselves to walk in our shoes and experience, from a truly empathetic perspective, what it would feel like if one of your own was facing the challenges that one of our own does every day.

We have a discussion guide that we developed with The Opportunity Agenda. For the play, we had it in every playbill and it appears as a link in the credits for the film as well. For me, the conversation is the point. We watched these four characters trying to talk through stuff that we have a really hard time talking about now. They, I feel in many ways, are just starting the conversation that we need to keep having.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.