FST’s third Mainstage of the season, American Son, centers on Kendra Ellis-Connor, a distraught mother whose son, Jamal, is missing. Kendra doesn’t have any luck getting any information about Jamal from Officer Paul Larkin, a rookie who seems to be straight out of the academy. Daniel Petzold plays Larkin, a dedicated police officer who lacks both life and on-the-job experience.
We sat down with Petzold to discuss his character’s motivations, the breakneck speed of the play, and what lies at the heart of American Son.
What lies at the heart of American Son?
In my opinion, it is about the anxiety of a black mother in America. I saw the play in 2018, and it was my first time actually imagining what it must be like to be a black mother. For 90 minutes, I identified with Kendra. I felt for her. I cried with her. I railed against the oppressive system with her. That was a new experience for me. It’s what makes me love this play and love good theatre – it provided a space for me to truly empathize with a person whose life experience is not my own.
Describe your character, Officer Paul Larkin. How are you two similar? How are you different? What obstacles have emerged as you dove into this role?
Officer Paul Larkin is a puppy dog who becomes a police officer on his way to his dream job – an FBI agent. We’re both young white men, which means we have grown up and experienced the privileges that go along with that.
However, we differ in the examination of our lives, biases, and motivations. I try – and often fail – to examine my life. I ask myself questions, like How am I feeling? Why? What influenced my behavior?
Officer Larkin isn’t in the habit of asking questions. He doesn’t know what motivates his actions and doesn’t care to find out.
How has American Son challenged you as an artist? As a person?
American Son centers on a topic that is so present in the public consciousness right now. It examines the topic from four different points of view, each of which unfold simultaneously. The challenge in acting in American Son is keeping up with its rapid fire, whip-smart script. I’ve found that I need to be incredibly mentally prepared to stay on top of it.
American Son has been described as “an emotional ride.” What was the rehearsal process like? What did you discover during rehearsals about your character and yourself?
The rehearsal process was enlightening. We struck a good balance at taking our time and hurling ourselves head first into the story. Only half of this play, like most good plays, consists of what is being said. It is equally about what is being unsaid. We took our time to unpacking questions like, Why doesn’t this character say what’s really on their mind?
During rehearsals I discovered how often Larkin fails to do his job because of the way he goes about trying to complete it. So many of his sentences are unfinished. They’re fragmented thoughts that are either self-corrected, unfinished, or interrupted. It was a great clue about Paul’s self-confidence.
What do you hope audiences will take away from this play?
I hope audiences walk out of the theatre considering a point of view that they didn’t walk in with. Race, parenthood, and law enforcement in America are all messy and complicated. There is a grey area that allows two opposing ideas to be simultaneously true. I don’t necessarily hope people will change their hearts and minds, but I do hope they expand them.
American Son played in FST’s Gompertz Theatre from January 22 to March 15, 2020.