Blog About the Play: how to make an American Son
May 19, 2022

About the Play: how to make an American Son

To know chris peña is to come face to face with a hurricane — intense, relentless, focused, and deliberate.

To know chris peña is to know passion, humor, generosity, and spirit.

To know chris peña is to know talent.

His play how to make an American Son is fueled by these emotions and a point of view about what it means to be an immigrant in America at this moment in time.

From the first page, where, while setting the scene, we are told, “Everything is in the details,” we are reminded of another play about fathers and sons, where we are instructed, “attention must be paid.” Father (Mando) and son (Orlando) are of different generations, with different goals and expectations; we see this in the initial scene where Mando confronts Orlando over how blasé he is about what they have: money, cars, clothes. The disconnect is not specific to this family, but in the hands of peña, we learn the cost of working one’s way up the ladder.

Mando tells Orlando:

i came here because that life i didn’t want that for you
i couldn’t imagine a child my child growing up the way i did but i look around i look at this
i look at who i am
i look at your mother and what we’ve made what we’ve accomplished

A question that drives the play is whether Orlando understands this, or cares. At the end of the day, he is 16, desperate to find his place, to prove himself, and to figure out what his inheritance – of being his father’s son – means in practice. Despite the status that Mando has achieved, from working as a janitor to owning the company, there are still limitations. There is always someone to keep him in his place, there is always a dream deferred, a wish unfulfilled – even with the money he has earned, there are obstacles. How he reacts is fundamentally different from how Orlando responds, because he has raised him to be. But is that the best way?

Like so many fathers and sons before them, the moments between Mando and Orlando are filled with silences, assumptions, frustrations, and aggravations. From the perspective of the parent, Orlando is an entitled brat who doesn’t appreciate all that has been given him. From the perspective of the child, Mando is an out-of-touch workaholic who demands too much. In the middle is the love between these two, or, at minimum, the way they define love when faced with challenges. Unlike when Mando first arrived in the United States, this time he has Orlando, who has become the American son, to speak truth to power. As Rafael tells him, “You have no idea how lucky you are the way you talk.” What is privilege in one world is a given in another.

how to make an American Son challenges our assumptions of what an immigrant story is. Our expectations about the politics, the rationale, and the behaviors are undercut and reframed much like the points of view of Mando, Orlando, and those in their orbit are when faced with the realities of capitalism and racism. Whatever you think your status is now is just a placeholder. Everything can change in a heartbeat. It’s as predictable as a hurricane.