It made sense when Kerry Washington announced she would follow Scandal by starring in the new Broadway play American Son. After all, she last appeared on Broadway two years before her landmark television series began, so her return to the New York theater seems like a natural bookend to a decade of her career. Surely that was her plan.
Except it wasn’t. “I didn’t necessarily want to come back to Broadway, and I wasn’t particularly looking to do a straight play,” Washington says. “I thought I might take half a year off and just recover from seven years on network television. What happened was, I read this play, and it didn’t even feel like a choice. It felt like the decision had been made for me.”
She clearly recalls her first encounter with American Son, a taut drama by Christopher Demos-Brown that follows two parents who arrive at a Florida police station in the middle of the night, desperately looking for information.
As Washington filmed the final episodes of Scandal, Broadway producer Jeffrey Richards sent her three projects to consider, including Demos-Brown’s script and two well-established titles. “I remember that when I sat down to read, it was late at night, and I had to be at work at 5 a.m. the next morning,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, let me look at this new play and see what it’s about. I’ll just start it. I’ll just read a little bit.’ And of course, I stayed up to devour the entire script. I didn’t even reread the other projects that I was already familiar with.”
Soon enough, she agreed to star in the production — which begins performances October 6 at the Booth Theatre — and co-produce it through her company, Simpson Street.
Asked what makes the play so compelling, Washington cites the nail-biting mystery of the plot. However, she also stresses the play’s engagement with our national conversation about identity, community, and family. “We’re still struggling with how to talk about these things, and these characters are experiencing it,” Washington says. “They’re talking and listening, and it’s a privilege to witness this extraordinarily personal moment in their lives. I’ve never seen these particular characters say these particular things in this kind of national moment. It feels new and also very real.”
But while the play is new, Washington herself is a longtime theater veteran. Her history on the stage began when she was an adolescent New Yorker appearing with local youth troupes, and it continued in her college years at George Washington University, where she studied drama.
As she prepares to start rehearsals for American Son — which also stars Steven Pasquale, Jeremy Jordan, and Eugene Lee — she’s reflecting on the difference between the theater and a network drama. “Doing television, I learned how to be a different kind of athlete with my acting,” she says. “You’re metabolizing and assimilating new material every week, and you have to be so resilient to bring a high level of commitment to that material. The circumstances and the words are constantly changing. It’s very disorienting, and it’s really an incredible training ground.”
On the other hand, she adds, “there’s something very monastic about the theater. You come to the same place and say the same words and wear the same clothes. You tread the same path eight times a week. The world around you changes and you change, but the ritual remains the same.”
A theatrical ritual can be especially powerful for a socially aware play like American Son. Washington notes, “At its best, theater provides a moment to not only step into the narrative of another person, but also to reflect on the narrative of our own lives. And I think this play does a wonderful job of taking these very big ideas that we’re grappling with as a society and putting them into the bodies of these human beings who are grappling with them in real time.”