One suggestion Mr. Demos-Brown took: that as a black mother, Kendra would “offer a more spirited defense” of her son than he had originally written.
Ms. Washington is also heavily involved behind the scenes: Her production company, Simpson Street, is a producer of “American Son,” as is her husband. Mr. Asomugha supported moving the family from Los Angeles so she could do the play; as it turns out, he is making his New York stage debut at the same time, portraying a front-porch philosopher in Ngozi Anyanwu’s “Good Grief,” at the Vineyard Theater downtown.
Because of the material’s potentially divisive but instructive nature, Ms. Washington reached out to friends at the Ford Foundation about creating a curriculum to accompany “American Son.” The foundation connected her with the nonprofit organization The Opportunity Agenda, which is helping to host two coming talkbacks and develop a study guide that will be made available at performances and online. According to a draft of the introduction, the goal is to “inform and frame discussions” and guide “audiences toward useful resources to learn more and to take action.”
“We can’t put this in the world, and also not offer some tools,” Ms. Washington said of the show.
The production is a long way from the early days of her career, when in films like “Save the Last Dance” and “Ray,” she played the best friend or the significant other of the protagonist. She is currently helping to develop the novel “Little Fires Everywhere” as a limited series for Hulu, working as co-executive producer and co-star with Reese Witherspoon. And she plans to star in (and produce) a workplace comedy that will mark the feature directing debut of Eva Longoria, a collaboration she said was “born out of” their work together on the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.
Her success notwithstanding, Ms. Washington said there was plenty of room for improvement in the representation of women and people of color in the industry, and how race is discussed. She cited a point made by the activist DeRay Mckesson about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was set up at the end of apartheid: “We want to go straight to reconciliation and we want to skip over truth. Because we’re not comfortable with the truth.”
What she and her fellow actors are trying to do with “American Son” is “step into some truth,” she said.
“The magic of theater — of great theater, which is what we’re aiming for, always,” Ms. Washington said, is to “have each person just open up a little more than before they walked into the theater. Their hearts and minds, you know?”