Through searing humor and a stylish directorial concept, Profile Theatre’s production of Christopher Oscar Peña’s How to Make an American Son manages to punch the audience in the gut scene after scene and still leave us begging for more.
The play follows the relationship between Mando (Jimmy Garcia), a Honduran immigrant who seemingly achieves the American Dream as the founder of a successful janitorial company, and his queer teenage son, Orlando (Matthew Sepeda), who has known only the fruits of his father’s labor.
Generational divide slashes a profoundly loving relationship; Mando’s failures to assimilate embarrass his son, whose reckless spending enrages his father. After Mando forces his son to work as a weekend janitor in hopes he’ll learn a lesson, friction quickly builds between Orlando and Raphael (Jonathan Hernandez), an undocumented Mexican immigrant who sees right through his co-worker.
Greater conflict erupts from fissures of race and class and compels the young man’s coming of age. The audience collectively holds its breath watching Orlando lash out against his father’s biggest client, whose condescension toward Mando—”don’t beg, it’s embarrassing”—shows professional success does not equate with acceptance. In a blistering monologue, Mercedes (Crystal Ann Muñoz), Mando’s secretary and the only female character, lets reality strike Orlando. “I watched you go from being one of us to one of them.”
Peña’s play poses a damning question: At what point has a person of color finally made it in America?
How to Make an American Son may partly be based on the playwright’s own journey as the son of a Latino janitor who’s now a corporate CEO. “My family is the picture of the American Dream,” Peña said in a May interview with WW. “That doesn’t mean we’re not struggling in other ways.” Peña’s comedic talent—and let me tell you, the play is funny—enables him to feed the audience spoonfuls of bitter truths and make them sweet.
The production’s design team deserves high praise for the play’s fashionably seamless transitions between scenes. As cast and crew move pieces of a monochrome set, the name of the upcoming scene is typed in Menlo, an early Apple computer font, onto a large wall on the side of the stage. Electro-pop and flashes of dreamy neon, in pink, blue and green hues, flood the set, evoking the bombastic air of pre-9/11 America.
“It’s supposed to make you feel like you’re in a bubble,” director Ben Villegas Randle said following Saturday’s opening night production.
Peña is one of three artists, alongside Kristoffer Diaz and Lauren Yee, featured in Profile’s current season, themed “The American Generation.” The first of three plays by Peña being produced by the Portland theater company, How to Make an American Son comes to Profile following its premiere at the Arizona Theatre Company last summer. Few plays get a second production, a critical next step in a script’s development. With a different director and cast, a playwright refines and breathes new life into a piece of work. Peña’s awe/struck. and Our Orange Sky make their world premieres at Profile in fall 2023 and spring 2024, respectively.
A progressive Portland theatergoer might think How to Make an American Son has nothing new to offer a city that seems constantly embroiled in some version of similar conversations about race and class, and they would be wrong. Peña’s and Villegas Randle’s deliciously original storytelling will leave you stunned, and make you rethink what you know.
After about 90 minutes of charming bits and banter that sends the house cackling, Peña and Villegas Randle choose restraint for the story’s heftiest punch. Orlando, older than when we first meet him, pushes his body against the large wall right of the stage, breaking open his world, and leaves us. Alone with Mando, we see a father realize a dream is just that, a dream.
SEE IT: How to Make an American Son plays at Imago Theatre, 17 SE 8th Ave., 503- 242-0080, profiletheatre.com. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday and 2 pm Sunday, through June 25. $45.