From the moment the story begins to unfold, she’s already deep in her feelings. In American Son—streaming on Netflix beginning Friday—Kerry Washington stars as Kendra, whose 18-year-old son hasn’t returned home after a night out with his friends. Even while trying to remain calm, she is falling to pieces.
Washington’s portrayal of this woman, this mother, so desperately seeking answers is just raw and heartbreaking for many reasons. Having her estranged husband, who is White, by her side is but one of them. When racism and classism clash with a mistrust of law enforcement, tensions spike even higher. “Taking on this role was like swinging the pendulum,” says Washington, who first slipped into this part onstage just months after signing off as Scandal’s Olivia Pope. “For seven seasons I played a character who was often the most powerful person in the room, but in this piece Kendra is grappling to have some sense of agency and authority.”
When Scandal was winding down, producer Jeffrey Richards—with whom Washington had collaborated on 2009’s Race, her Broadway debut—presented the idea of returning to the stage. “When Jeffrey read that Scandal was going into its final season, he called me and said, ‘You have to come back to Broadway,’ ” she remembers. “My journey had been, ‘Do a season, make a movie; do a season, have a baby; do a season, make a movie; do a season, have a baby,’ so I was like, ‘I need a minute, but send me whatever you want.’ ”
“For seven seasons I played a character who was often the most powerful person in the room, but in this piece Kendra is grappling to have some sense of agency and authority.”Kerry Washington
Washington read the script, penned by playwright Christopher Demos-Brown, and was immediately drawn in. It was once she signed on as a producer that she learned the differences between producing for television and for theater, the latter of which entails raising money. “American Son provided me the opportunity to stand behind and pitch a project,” she says, “And I’m forever indebted to Shonda Rhimes, Jada Pinkett Smith and Gabrielle Union, who each stepped up to join our producing family because they understood the importance of this piece.”
After leading the four-month, eight-shows-a-week stage run, Washington set her sights on making the drama accessible to audiences beyond that setting. She also produced the movie, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Tony Award winner Kenny Leon helmed the play and the film, both of which feature the original cast including Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee and Jeremy Jordan.
“Along with the Black mother being at the center, the story highlights the challenges and trauma of what it means to bring life into the world that you know is vulnerable,” notes Washington. “Early on, while the play was in previews, I was getting Twitter messages from people in Paris and Belgium and South Africa and Brazil, saying, ‘We have these issues here. Will you travel with this play?’ So it was important to me to be able to elevate truth into art and share it with the world.”
This interview originally appeared in the latest issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.