American Daughter

The Bronx’s Kerry Washington jumps from her career-defining role on the ABC hit TV show, “Scandal,” to the Broadway stage in “American Son.”

Kerry Washington has ruled the world. At least that’s the impression you’d get from watching her for seven years on the TV show “Scandal.” As Washington, D.C., political fixer Olivia Pope, Washington delivered a steady diet of thunderous soliloquies that let her dominate the TV screen as few actresses ever have. 

Now she is bringing that same passion to the Broadway stage in Christopher Demos-Brown’s new play, “American Son,” at the Booth Theatre. The show began previews on Oct. 6, opening on Nov. 4.

“American Son” is the gripping tale of a Florida mother searching for her missing son, a story that brings together issues of race, class, corruption and crime. For the politically active Washington, the play was an irresistible mix. “I think it takes a lot of the difficult conversations that we’re trying to have as a country—and quite honestly as a world—and it puts them in the bodies of these very real people,” she reflects. 

Her social conscience sprang from an achievement-oriented upbringing. She was born Kerry Marisa Washington on
Jan. 31, 1977, in the Bronx, the daughter of real estate broker Earl Washington and his wife, Valerie, a professor and educational consultant.

Washington attended the tony Spence School on the Upper East Side, and performed with the TADA! Youth Theater teen group, where one of her occasional dance teachers was a fellow Bronx girl named
Jennifer Lopez. 

More importantly, it’s where Washington caught the acting bug. “I was a very precocious and overactive child,” she admits, “and my mother, being an educator, looked for outlets for me. So she enrolled me in all kinds of extracurricular activities. And lucky for me acting was one of them.

“TADA! was one of the first places where I learned a lot about being a responsible human being,” she continues. “Just showing up every day at the right time, and having to write notes after the performance, I learned a lot about discipline and collaboration.”

From there Washington migrated to George Washington University, where she designed an interdisciplinary major, graduating Phi Beta Kappa. But at first acting wasn’t her dream career. “When I was a kid I used to equate wanting to be an actor with wanting to be famous,” she remembers, “and I didn’t want to be famous. I just really liked storytelling. But when I learned about [the actor’s unions] SAG and AFTRA and Actors’ Equity, it occurred to me that there were lots of people making a living doing this. So then I thought, ‘Oh, I could just forge a path of building a life as a storyteller, and I don’t have to be famous.’ I think that adjustment of my expectations was part of what gave me the freedom to pursue it.”

After a number of smaller roles, she stole hearts in 2004’s “Ray,” as Ray Charles’ long-suffering wife Bea. Then there was her role as a wife of Idi Amin in 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland,” plus a recurring role on TV’s “Boston Legal.” Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” followed in 2012, and a memorable portrayal of Anita Hill in 2016’s “Confirmation.” And, of course, there was “Scandal,” a show so hot, it prompted watercooler conversations on Friday mornings at offices everywhere, as co-workers gossiped over shocking story lines involving politics, sex and murder.

That love of good material is what brought her to “American Son,” her first turn on Broadway since her 2010 role in David Mamet’s “Race.” “I really love this play,” she emphasizes. “I’ve never read anything like it. I feel that a lot of the work I’ve been doing up this point in my career has sort of prepared me for the way Christopher Dimos-Brown has written this play. I’m also excited about going back to the medium of being live,” she continues. “It’s wanting to go back to that space of human beings gathering together in a room to tell stories.”

For Washington, who lives in LA, her return here is another type of emotional journey. This time she brought her children, 4-year-old Isabelle and 2-year-old Caleb, with her husband, former NFL cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.  

She already has a list of must-do New York activities planned for the family. “I’m a big fan of all the New York Zoological Society parks like the Bronx Zoo, and I know the New York Aquarium has just re-opened. Every Christmas we’d go to the New York Botanical Garden to see the tree exhibit. And I grew up going to school on the Upper East Side, so I love that Museum Mile section of the city. I’m excited to be back and to be able to explore all those museums again.”

Aside from sightseeing, though, she will be pouring out her soul on stage eight shows a week. “Before I wanted to be in any movie or television show, I wanted to be onstage,” she says. “I fell in love with narrative storytelling in theater, on Broadway, watching shows and being in those rooms.”

In addition, Washington is eager to spread the show’s message. She has been active in the Allstate Foundation Purple Purse project against domestic violence and was appointed by President Obama to the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She gave a stirring address at the January 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles. She also addressed voter apathy at the 2012 Democratic National Convention.

“I think we are very, very blessed to live in a representational democracy,” she says, “and democracy only works if we show up. It’s not that I use my celebrity to speak about politics. It’s that I think we should all be participating and exercising our rights in a democracy to our fullest extent.

“I think this play does a beautiful job of exploring several different viewpoints,” she says, “and encourages conversation and really listening to each other. And I think we need more of that right now.”