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AMERICAN SON at Ujima is high drama dealing with racism, parenting, and policing.

THE BASICS:  AMERICAN SON by Christopher Demos-Brown, directed by Aaron Mays, starring Tanika Holmes, Christopher Guilmet, Mike Benoit, and Tuhran Gethers, runs at the “Lorna C. Hill” theatre, newly re-named after the founder of Ujima Theatre.  Through Sunday, October 31, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 4 at 429 Plymouth in Buffalo.  For tickets, visit ujima.squarespace.com (716) 322-5178  Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  The play is set in “the waiting room of a police station in Miami-Dade County, Florida” on “a morning early this coming June after 4:00 am.”  The lights come up on an African American mother (played by Tanika Holmes) who is frantic that her 18-year-old son, Jamal, the honor student, hasn’t come home; it’s long past midnight; and he isn’t answering his cell phone.  The rookie officer at the desk (Mike Benoit) offers some attitude, then later donuts, but little in the way of information, putting her off until “the Lieutenant” arrives, but he’s not sure exactly when that will be.  At some point, her estranged husband (Christopher Guilmet), who is white, shows up and it’s gloves-off-knives-out.  Finally, the Lieutenant (Tuhran Gethers) does arrive, adding a whole new level of intensity to the drama.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  The good work at Ujima continues in this 2021-2022 season, the last season fully programmed by the beloved founder of Ujima, Lorna C. Hill.

I am not going to be a spoiler but will simply say that by the end of the play, as badly as any one of the four characters has behaved, you will certainly understand, at least a little, why they comported themselves that way.  Kendra Ellis-Connor, the mom, is a professional psychologist, but here she reverts to angry mama bear trying to protect her cub, Jamal.  The rookie cop is getting under her skin, asking if Jamal has a street name? or gold caps on his teeth? or visible scars or tattoos?  The rookie later describes her reaction as “she went from zero to ghetto.”  Officer Paul Larkin has some issues.  These comments and more elicited strong cries of recognition and dismay from the audience.

The dad, Scott Connor, is also a study in contrasts.  He obviously loves his son and wants the best for him and is concerned about his future.  But he has never accepted the name, Jamal, preferring to use a nickname “Jay” and is uncomfortable with Jamal’s hair, now in cornrows, saying “The last few times he’s stayed at my place, he’s looked like a goddamned gangster.”

And I’ll leave it up to you to meet Lt. John Stokes on your own, but he is also wound up tighter than a drum.

I was intrigued that on Netflix there’s a version of this play available starring Kerry Washington and one review, which you can read here, was fairly negative.  I’m thinking that a big reason is that this is a play, not a movie script, and it only works well if the action is right there in front of you.  The closer the better, and in the intimate space of Ujima, that’s exactly what happens.  I’m saying this also because, after 18 months of hibernating and watching Netflix, if you haven’t been out to see live theater, then you might have forgotten what you’re missing.

It only works well if the action is right there in front of you.  The closer the better, and in the intimate space of Ujima, that’s exactly what happens.

So, both the production and the play are of high caliber.  If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

During his pre-show comments to the audience settled in those beautiful and comfortable red seats, actor and current Associate Managing Director, Brian Brown, revealed that he is being prepped to take over next year for Margaret M. Smith, the current Managing Director.  We can all take comfort that the torch is being carefully passed to a new generation.  But let us take a moment to thank Ms. Smith as well as Interim Artistic Director Sarah Norat-Phillips for keeping the ship on course over the past two very trying years.

WHAT’S NEXT:  As mentioned, this is the last full season programmed by Ujima Founder Lorna C. Hill before her untimely passing.  Coming up are SMART PEOPLE by Lydia R. Diamond (four Harvard students find that discussing race can be treacherous), directed by Phil Knoerzer, December 3 – -19.  STEW (3 generations of black women discuss their lives) by Zora Howard, directed by Curtis Lovell, March 11 – 27, 2022.  And SPUNK by George C Wolfe (inspired by Zora Neale Hurston short stories), directed by Sara Norat-Phillips, May 6 – 29, 2022.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e., you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Lead image: AMERICAN SON at Ujima, L-R Tuhran Gethers, Mike Benoit, Chistopher Guilmet, Tanika Holmes

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