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Michael Hayden Confronts Tough Issues of Race and Parenting in American Son

The Tony-nominated actor talks about his challenging role in Christopher Demos-Brown's new play at Barrington Stage Company.

In American Son, playwright Christopher Demos-Brown explores the tensions of race and class in contemporary America as an estranged interracial couple spends the evening in a police station after their son's car has been found without him in it. Now receiving its world-premiere production at Barrington Stage Company, American Son features Tamara Tunie (Familiar) and Michael Hayden (Carousel) in the leading roles. In the first-person article below, Hayden discusses the play and why it piqued his interest.

Michael Hayden in American Son at Barrington Stage Company.
(© Scott Barrow)

I can define my experience of performing in the world premiere of Christopher Demos-Brown's American Son at Barrington Stage in one word: humbling. I play Scott Connor, a white man, and I've been separated from my black wife for four months. She and I are stuck in a police station waiting for news about our 18-year-old son, who has been stopped in a traffic incident. What unfolds is a deeply personal battle over our son and his struggle to find his identity as a young black man. What unfolds is two people's desperate attempt to bridge a racial, social, and personal divide. So why do I find this play humbling? Because it confronted me with my ignorance.

I am part of America's privileged class. I am a white man. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family and lived in beautiful, large homes in safe, picturesque, suburban towns. I never wanted for anything, and my thoughts rarely strayed beyond my protected world. I did not have to think about racial issues. American Son has forced me to acknowledge that for much of my adult life, I remained aloof from the issues of race relations in this country.

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden in American Son at Barrington Stage Company.
(© Scott Barrow)

Why have I not engaged in such a seminal issue in America? The brilliant Tamara Tunie, who plays my wife, Kendra, answered that question quite simply: "You didn't have to." For a man who prides himself on caring deeply about the human condition, that truth of that answer cuts deep. How easy it is to love humanity. How hard it is to shed your fear, walk alongside another human being, and try to enter their world. That's what American Son calls me to do, and I am constantly humbled in that attempt.

I have been asked what it is like to be back onstage. For the past four years I have taught Acting at Florida State University, my work there allowing me time to act only in the summers. What is it like? Glorious. American Son is a fantastic play. The social and political issues it explores are current and explosive. But what makes it such a feast for me are the characters Christopher has created. The interaction between Kendra and Scott is edgy, sexy, cruel, and incredibly tender.

As an actor, I love stories with scope. I am constantly looking for scripts that will force me me to task every part of myself. This is one of those scripts. From day one, Julie Boyd, our wonderful director and the artistic director of Barrington Stage Company, has set Tamara and I loose to play and scratch and search. Neither Tamara nor I take any prisoners. Make no mistake, acting is a blood sport. It costs. It takes peeling away to get at truth, and sooner or later, when your heart opens, you bleed. You are human. That's what an audience comes to see, and that's what we're trying to create.

I started this article by saying this play has humbled me. That is true. Any great play, sooner or later, forces you to confront yourself — yourself through the lens of a character. With my costars Tamara Tunie, Andre Ware, and Luke Smith, I am surrounded by extraordinary artists with passion, skill, and courage. In a business that too often offers snacks, when you have a feast you let go and relish every moment. I do. And I will.

Tamara Tunie and Michael Hayden in American Son at Barrington Stage Company.
(© Scott Barrow)
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