By Amanda Lopez-Castillo
“Mercedes (Cristela Alonzo) stole the show with her passionate, bone-chilling monologue. The audience couldn’t help but clap mid-scene after her raw delivery showcasing a woman who had kept quiet for too long.”
Running on PC time, I eagerly took my seat in a house packed with people waiting to see the world premier of How to Make An American Son. Written by Christopher Oscar Pena, How To Make An American Son is a comedic coming-of-age story that follows spoiled sixteen-year-old, first-generation American Orlando (Francisco Javier Gonzalez) as he comes face-to-face with with the harsh reality that all actions have consequences, and that there are systemic rules that even his wealthy father’s money can’t bend or break. Throughout the story, we watch as Orlando gains a more realistic perspective on money, establishes a strong work ethic through his time at his dad’s company, navigates queer multicultural relationships, and has some teenage fun along the way.
Director Kimberly Senior has truly crafted a tight-knit family amongst the ensemble of talented actors. The range of actor Francisco Javier Gonzalez, who plays Orlando, created a character who was hard to love at times, but who also made you cheer him on. Gabriel Marin captures an excellent portrayal of Mando, while avoiding any tropes of a stereotypical Latine father: Mando is patient, kind, loving, and accepting of who his son is. Rafael (Alexander Flores) used a believable accent and did an excellent job at contrasting the high energy of Orlando. Mercedes (Cristela Alonzo) stole the show with her passionate, bone-chilling monologue. The audience couldn’t help but clap mid-scene after her raw delivery showcasing a woman who had kept quiet for too long.
From a technical perspective, the show does everything it can to invoke nostalgia for the 1990s. Sound designer Cricket S. Myers incorporates late ’90s and early 2000s pop songs into the scene transitions. Scenic designer Andrea Lauer adds ’90s band posters and a ’90s Macbook into Orlando’s room, and in the narrative, the characters even venture off to a Rage Against the Machine concert (being born in ’99, I initially didn’t realize that this was a real band until I went home and looked it up).
From a lighting perspective, Reza Behjat (Lighting Designer) avoids the traditional blackout between scenes, and instead uses a spotlight focused on Orlando as he changes from one costume to the next while the set is altered in the darkness behind him. Andrea Lauer (Scenic Designer) worked to create several minimalist yet distinct sets with so many references to the ’90s that it felt almost like I was watching a ’90s sitcom. Words like “Debt.”, “Time.”, and “Bills.” were splattered onto a giant TV screen above the stage at the start of every scene, making it even more apparent we were watching episodes of Orlando’s life. This was definitely a more refined element of the production.
From a diversity perspective, this play felt like a snapshot of one of the millions of stories that belong to the Latine diaspora. As a first-gen American, from a child of Mexican-Immigrants, Orlando’s experience of wealth and taking the life his parents have provided for him for granted was very unrelatable. I do think it would be interesting to see this same story from Rafael’s point of view. However, it is important for the American theater to have diverse and intersectional stories that showcase that we all have different experiences, feelings, and stories to tell. The narrative, however, presented topics that I felt personally connected to as a Mexican-American woman. The play calls out some of the issues I’ve seen amongst my people, Orlando delivers a long rant toward his undocumented co-worker which blatantly displays Orlando’s internalized racism. It made it clear that at times, even our own gente can be our worst enemy and not just the “white man”.
While the casting was within race, the casting did feel a bit safe with main characters that are as white passing as it gets. I think we need more actors who look like Cristela Alonzo and Alexander Flores to lead the stage in the future.
Overall, I enjoyed this play because it showed the differences in generations. At first, I left the show feeling unsure of how I felt. Was it a play about queerness? A Latine play? A coming-of age play? In the end, I discovered that it is all these things, as well as a play about the American experience of a young teen coming to terms with himself, his identity, and his place in a world where the rules weren’t made for people like him. It’s one story out of a million stories showcasing what it feels like to be an American.
I must be honest, however, and say that it is still exhausting to walk into an artistic space where you are one of the few people who look like you do. Tucson is diverse and I challenge ATC to invite and make it more accessible for people from ALL backgrounds to attend great theater.
How to Make an American Son is playing at Arizona Theatre Company through June 25. Tickets can be purchased at https://atc.org/show/how-to-make-an-american-son/ or by calling the box office at 1-833-ATC-SEAT (1-833-282-7328).