In May 1992, just before graduating from The Fletcher School, Christopher Demos-Brown caught the world premiere of what quickly became one of his favorite plays: David Mamet’s Oleanna.

“For the first time ever in a theater, I saw people in the audience shout back at the characters onstage,” recalled Demos-Brown, F92. The play, which explores the power and sexual politics between a college professor and his female student, “was effective because there were two people living through an issue onstage in front of you and examining it from a ‘poke-you-in-the-eye’ point of view.”

Now, more than two decades later, Demos-Brown, a seasoned Miami trial lawyer and a playwright, strives to strike similar emotional chords in his own audiences. “To me, there’s no point in not making a point,” he said. “I want to get under your skin.”

His American Son, which debuted on Broadway at the historic Booth Theatre in November, does just that. Conceived by Demos-Brown a few years ago in the wake of deadly police shootings rocking the nation, the play is set at a police station in the middle of the night and centers on an estranged mixed-race couple as they grapple with their missing 18-year-old son’s interaction with the law. Directed by Tony Award-winner Kenny Leon and starring Hollywood heavyweights Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale, it is Demos-Brown’s big break.

 

Portrait of Christopher Demos-Brown

Born in Philadelphia, Demos-Brown moved to Miami with his family when he was in fourth grade. He remembers seeing a dinner theater rendition of My Fair Lady on a high school trip, but it wasn’t until he enrolled at Dartmouth College in the mid-1980s that he got seriously involved in the performing arts, acting in several main-stage productions as well as directing short plays. Demos-Brown majored in Russian and minored in history, thinking that he might enter the United States Foreign Service, but instead struck out for the West Coast after graduation to pursue the stage and screen.

During four years in Los Angeles, he landed a few commercials and small parts in TV shows and shopped around two of his own screenplays. But when an agent told Demos-Brown he had aged out of playing high school and college kids yet wasn’t yet ready to be cast as a young dad—a moment he remembers “as vividly as my first kiss”—he knew it was time to move on. “I realized that I couldn’t kick around for five or six more years out there,” he said, “making no money and sleeping on friends’ couches and not doing anything with my life.”

Still interested in international affairs, he jointly enrolled at the University of Miami School of Law and The Fletcher School. He joined an improv comedy group in Miami during law school and after practicing law for about five years—initially at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and then at a few big firms in the city before joining his wife’s firm, Beasley, Demos & Brown, LLC—he started writing again, churning out scripts on work trips and in the early morning hours before his two daughters woke up.

“I experience two kinds of dissatisfaction: the dissatisfaction of when I’m writing and the dissatisfaction of when I’m not writing,” said Demos-Brown, who has continued to work as a lawyer while his plays have garnered awards. “But the dissatisfaction of writing is a good one—it’s more an anxiety of getting it done and getting it done right.”

Though Demos-Brown is the first to acknowledge that he’s followed a meandering route to Broadway, he said the rigor of graduate school made him a more disciplined writer and his experience in the courtroom crosses over. “I think the most important skill in being a lawyer, and probably if you’re an academic, too, is not to know the answer, but to spot an issue and know what you need to look into more deeply,” he said. “That issue-spotting skill is very helpful in playwriting.”

The first installment in a trilogy exploring injustice in the United States, American Son was born from the “gut rage” Demos-Brown felt over a spate of police shootings between 2014 and 2016. “I was observing and listening to conversations mostly over social media, and out of that, I started building the two main characters of the play, crafting them in a way that they could engage in a conversation about this issue that was dramatically compelling,” he said. “One thing that social media does really well is to free people up to say what they really think in a way they wouldn’t at a cocktail party.”

There’s no point in not making a point. I want to get under your skin.

A passage about victims of police brutality in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me also affected Demos-Brown deeply. “Coates talks about how every African-American child has an entire family and community, grandmothers and parents and people who’ve poured their hopes and ambitions into this child, regardless of whether that child is successful or not,” he said. “That’s true for every parent, but some people tend to overlook it in police shooting cases.”

American Son had its world premiere at Barrington Stage in Massachusetts in 2016 and was produced for a second time at the George Street Playhouse in New Jersey (reviews called it “sharp, intense” and “incendiary”). Influential producer Jeffrey Richards caught that first run in the Berkshires, offered Demos-Brown a contract, and signed on Kenny Leon to direct—and then Kerry Washington, star of the television drama Scandal, liked the script, saying she was “transfixed, inspired, and broken open” after reading it for the first time. “I was super lucky,” Demos-Brown said.

American Son's Kerry Washington

American Son’s Kerry Washington and Steven Pasquale onstage.
Photo: Peter Cunningham, 2018

That surreal feeling lasted until the second day of rehearsals, when “suddenly it became, oh, we’re just actors and a director and a writer in a room—just a team working on a play,” he said. “And there’s Kerry in her sweatpants and Steven in his jeans and they’re just regular people who happen to be really talented and extremely good-looking.”

I met up with Demos-Brown at a coffee shop in midtown after previews of American Son began in October. He arrived in a black T-shirt emblazoned with a bold, white “305,” the area code of Miami. (Demos-Brown is so invested in Miami’s theater scene that in 2010, he and his wife, Stephanie, and another couple founded Zoetic Stage to create local plays and bolster South Florida’s artistic reputation on the national stage.)

Demos-Brown had also flown to New York at the beginning of rehearsals and for the dress rehearsal and was up again for the first week of previews—sitting for interviews, taking meetings about other theater projects, and preparing for upcoming trials during the day, while spending nights at the Booth Theatre.

Though he was effusive about how well American Son was shaping up, how receptive the audiences were, and how the pacing was just right—“it has found the Goldilocks moment,” he said—Demos-Brown hinted at a certain pressure. “This is the production that will define this play forever,” he said. “The style, the tone—that’s what people in the future will tend to adopt, consciously or not. It’s not going to change after this, so it’s important that I push back on things that I think are sanding the edges.”

After all, what he learned about himself when writing American Son, and what emerges as one of the central dramatic thrusts is sharp and unequivocal. “Engaging with our country’s racial history is an act of patriotism,” he said. “Waving flags and complaining that people kneel at football games and putting a flag pin on your lapel is not patriotism. Patriotism is acknowledging what you’ve been bequeathed or what you’ve been denied because of the history you’ve been born into—and what you’re going to do about it.”

“Obviously my views are reflected in the play’s themes,” Demos-Brown said, “but I guess I’ll leave it up to audiences to see what they think about that.”

Courtney Hollands

Courtney Hollands, deputy editor for Tufts magazines and editor of Tufts Medicine, can be reached at courtney.hollands@tufts.edu.