They didn’t see the Broadway production of “American Son” together, but Jada Suzanne Dixon and Chip Walton had the same response as each watched the drama about an estranged interracial couple awaiting news of what has happened to their son after an “incident” involving police in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.
“My first reaction was, ‘This is such a Curious play’ — because we do the ripped-from-the-headlines sort of content. My second thought was, ‘What a great role for Jada,’ ” said Walton, the producing artistic director of Curious Theatre Company. “I didn’t even know Jada had seen it, and she was like, ‘Have you seen this? Do you know about this?’ ”
Dixon recounts sitting in New York’s Booth Theatre and leaning over to her daughter, whom she was visiting. “That’s my role,” she whispered. “This is a Curious show.” And, beginning Saturday night, it is, as “American Son,” begins a four-week run at the Curious Theatre Company.
On Broadway, Kerry Washington starred as Kendra Ellis-Connor, the clenched heart of playwright Christopher Demos-Brown’s riveting, issue-driven drama. The show was a hot ticket during late 2018 and early 2019 thanks in no small measure to Washington’s casting and the sterling gifts of the show’s director, Kenny Leon.
Dixon steps into the role of Kendra and — in a first for the company — is also directing the production. It’s a big ask but one Walton felt was right for the play, the company, and Dixon. “Jada and I have an artistic kinship. We’ve always just had some common understanding, some collaborative kind of vibe going on. First and foremost, that’s what matters,” said Walton.
In mid-October, Dixon was named artistic producer. Her contributions over the last several years onstage and off have added texture to some of Curious’ most vital and vivid productions, especially but not exclusively those involving Black characters. Dixon took the roles of an associate or assistant director (“Skeleton Crew,” “Gloria,” and “Appropriate”) or an actor (“Detroit ’67,” “White Guy on the Bus,” “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” and “In the Red and Brown Water”).
(She also did a mean Nurse Rachet in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for the dearly departed Edge Theatre, and will be directing the Arvada Center’s upcoming black box production of “Stick Fly”).
If you go
“American Son.” Written by Christopher Demos-Brown. Directed by Jada Suzanne Dixon. Featuring Dixon, Josh Robinson, Sean Scrutchins and Abner Genece. Through Dec. 6 at Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma; curioustheatre.org or 303-623-0524. Proof of COVID vaccination or negative COVID test required, as are masks.
Her move toward directing and producing is a savvy one, professionally and creatively. “There’s this phrase that I kind of live my life by more recently,” Dixon says. “It’s basically, ‘I want to live more in the width of my life, not just the length of my life.’ For me, artistically, that’s where I’ve been leaning in to. How do I (do that)? Part of that comes from Jada going, ‘Well, hey, I’m getting a little older and roles for black female actors are maybe getting a little less. So what else am I interested in? What else is exciting? What else might the thing that I love to the core of my being? How do I keep that at the forefront?” Directing even more seemed like the right next step.
For our recent interview, we sat upstairs in Curious Theatre’s lounge area, sounds wafting from the rehearsal in the theater.
“I’ve been in this building a ton of times where I’m listening to the Chip having conversations with the designers about tech. I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s a great question.’ I wouldn’t know how to answer that. So, when opportunities presented themselves — as scared and anxious as I was — I still said, ‘Yeah, I want to try. I want to explore.’ ”
There’s a question Walton has emphasized again and again that excites her. “How do we make sure we’re also being responsible to the story we’re telling and the place that we’re presenting it?” Dixon said. “For Curious, that means we want to make sure we’re always putting our eye to diversity and equity and inclusion, on stage, behind stage, in the playwrights we’re choosing and in the directors. I think we went around and around for a while on ‘American Son’ trying to be really thoughtful.”
Even if you didn’t see “American Son” on Broadway, you may have watched it in its streaming incarnation on Netflix with the Broadway cast and its director intact. A dissertation could be written about that taut, fraught — and frustrating to this viewer — Emmy-nominated television version and the deep and intriguing differences between film, television and theater. (Neither Walton nor Dixon has seen the streamed version.)
Even in snippets of an afternoon rehearsal, it’s clear that Dixon, Walton and Co. will bring their own nuance to these prickly, painful roles.
The Curious cast is auspicious. Josh Robinson portrays Kendra’s estranged husband, Scott Connor. The play throws a shiny wrench into the works by making Connor an FBI agent. Sean Scrutchins is the young police officer, Paul Larkin, who is Kendra’s first point of contact in the wee hours. In the script, the quick devolution of their interactions says as much about the loneliness of parental anguish as it does the galling flaws of policing. As police Lt. John Stokes, Abner Genece arrives to upend any easy assumptions that may be left standing. The exchanges between Stokes and Kendra may prove the most painful — and the most powerful.
“American Son” singes. It bruises. It exposes barely scabbed scars. It’s hard to heal when the culture consistently digs into the wound. There has been an uptick in wise (and overdue) conversations among creatives about the value but also pitfalls of popular works that continue to depict Black trauma — especially when the actual events that precipitate trauma continue, seemingly unabated. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020 provide stark examples of that violent reiteration of systemic vulnerability. Into this fraught space treads “American Son.”
The demands of that are in many ways what Curious is about. “It’s often very challenging to find a play that tackles an important issue and includes a certain level of humanity,” Walton said. “And this play has what I think is a very, very humanistic story about two parents of a son, and an incredibly provocative story about race in the United States. In my opinion, it’s neither didactic or preachy about an issue, nor is it sort of sentimental or melodramatic.”
Still, the potential emotional toll of provocative works that wrestle with race on audience members isn’t lost on Dixon. When the topic came up in rehearsals, she said, she had the space — and power — to address it. “Hey, friends, we have to be super thoughtful about retriggering audience members who are going to come see this show who are Black and brown. We don’t want to be the cause of re-trauma. So how can we be mindful of that?” Dixon said.
“I felt great that I could bring that in the room, that we could have dialogue around it and that we could keep that in our pocket as we continue to move forward,” said the actor-director. But that doesn’t mean veering away from the difficult. “We still believe in provocative theater that challenges our audiences and leaves them talking beyond the doors of the theater.”
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