For Fresno State’s Ananda Shaffer, ‘American Son’ is a chance to confront issues of race and identity

Editor’s note: Miguel Gastelum, the Fresno State theater box office manager and communications specialist, put together this preview interview with cast member Ananda Shaffer about the opening show of the university’s 2023-24 theater season.


The Dennis and Cheryl Woods Theatre is the stage for a thought-provoking and emotionally charged theatrical experience challenges perspectives, ignites conversations and is bound to leave a lasting impact on its audience. “American Son,” written by Christopher Demos-Brown and directed by Thomas-Whit Ellis, is on stage through Oct. 7. I sat down with actress Ananda Shaffer, who takes on the role of Kendra, one of the play’s central characters.

Some may know ‘American Son’ from its Netflix film adaptation starring Kerry Washington. Otherwise, the title is pretty new or unknown to Fresno area audiences, providing an intriguing introduction to the play. The story revolves around a biracial couple, Kendra and Scott, who find themselves in the most harrowing of circumstances. Their teenage son, Jamal, has gone missing, and the play unfolds within the confines of a single night at a police station. As the hours tick by, secrets unravel, emotions intensify, and the characters grapple with the harsh realities of race relations in America.

Shaffer, portraying Kendra Ellis-Connor, plays a pivotal role in the drama’s intensity and emotional depth. “Kendra is this intellectual, powerhouse of a Black woman,” Shaffer says with enthusiasm. “She’s got a concrete, maternal instinct I’m sure other mothers can sympathize with.”

Confronting the complexities of race and identity

The confrontational approach of the play toward race and identity is one of its defining qualities. Shaffer reflects: “The quantity of context and references (big and small) is one way the play contributes to current social issues. It also provides a visual representation of how these issues can impact mothers, more specifically Black mothers.”


The play’s confrontational approach to these sensitive topics is a significant draw for Shaffer. “How confrontational the play is towards race and identity eventually drew me in,” she admits. “This play leaves us no choice but to critically think and talk about these much-avoided topics.”

The power of a confined setting

Set entirely in a police station over the course of a single night, “American Son” harnesses the tension of its confined setting to create an emotionally charged atmosphere. The police station setting is like a pressure cooker. “Due to the setting being so confined, my tension was heightened as an actor,” Shaffer says. I thought of it as a harbor, one that left me no choice but to dump all my vulnerabilities in it.”

Challenging perspectives and escaping one-sided views

“American Son” has been described as a thought-provoking and emotional rollercoaster, but what does Shaffer hope the audience will take away from the play? “I hope the audience exits with a challenged perspective and concept of race and identity. I hope they’re able to escape the one-sided view that a lot certainly have towards these topics.”

Personal connection to the play

As a Black woman, Shaffer finds a deep personal connection to the themes and messages of “American Son.” “I’m a Black woman who may someday be a young Black man’s mother,” she shares. “I imagine I’d share and connect with the same concerns as Kendra.”

To read the Fresno State Collegian’s preview of the show, click here.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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