Those who had the privilege of seeing Kerry Washington star in “American Son” on Broadway can rest easy — or maybe uneasy, actually — knowing that the story remains exactly the same in Netflix’s film adaptation of the play. With the exception of a few quick flashbacks and cut away images, none of which include dialogue, the original work of Christopher Demos-Brown has been left intact in its transition to the screen.
And one of those pivotal pieces of the “American Son” puzzle that remains unchanged is the fact the audience never actually gets to see Jamal — the missing half-Black, half-White teenage son of Kendra Ellis-Connor (Washington) — for themselves.
“It was important to not have a visual of Jamal,” Washington, who also executive produced the film, told TheWrap. “I had the experience of talking to a friend of mine, who is Asian-American, who came to see the play and he said in his mind — it wasn’t conscious until afterward — but in his mind, Jamal was an Asian-Black kid. He looked like that because, while watching the play, he felt like Jamal belonged to him. I have another friend, interestingly, who is Latino and came to see the play, and in his mind, Jamal was half-White and half-Latino. Because, again, he felt like Jamal belonged to him. And it’s interesting that each of them– one of them took the position of privilege and the other didn’t. So I think that that’s so interesting in terms of how we enter the story.”
This tells Washington that “there is room for anybody to enter the story and for Jamal to belong to you.” And this is important to her, because it means that the play “operates in two ways.”
“It allows people, African-American people, to see our selves, to have our experience mirrored and highlighted and affirmed, acknowledged, honored in a way,” the “Scandal” alum said. “And it allows other people to really be able to step into the challenges of raising Black children, with real empathy and personal investment. So if we show Jamal, it allows somebody, somewhere to say, ‘Not my kid.’ And I think it’s really important that when you watch the film, you feel like Jamal could be yours.”
Written by Demos-Brown and directed by Kenny Leon, “American Son” tells the story of Kendra, the mother of missing teenage boy Jamal, as she struggles to put the pieces together in a South Florida police station. The streaming service’s adaptation of the play also includes original Broadway cast members Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan and Eugene Lee, all reprising their roles, for a story that “presents four distinct viewpoints, while also navigating the unique dynamic of an interracial couple trying to raise a mixed-race son.”
In terms of what did change between the play version and the film was “a little bit of blocking” — due to the fact there were now four walls to work with, not two — and the addition of those flashback images we noted before.
“We wanted to add these windows into memory that you’ll see in the film,” Washington said. “We knew we wanted to do that, but we weren’t sure how many of them we could get away with and how they would land and would they take people out of the story. There were those kinds of concerns. We didn’t want to change any of the words, because in theater it’s really about the language and we wanted to stick with the words, we wanted to honor the words. But we did want to take some visual liberties.”
“And I wouldn’t say I was worried, but I was curious. I wanted to shoot them all, but I wasn’t sure how much of it would feel right in the edit,” she continued. “But I think they work really beautifully. It just contextualizes these characters in their world a little bit, since we don’t leave the room. And it also, really, it shakes it up for us visually, because it’s such a controlled medium.
“American Son” launches Friday on Netflix.