FST’s third Mainstage production of the season, American Son, opens on Kendra Ellis-Connor, a distraught mother whose teenage son hasn’t come home, in the waiting room of a Miami-Dade police station. Kendra hasn’t had any luck getting information about her son’s whereabouts from the rookie, Officer Paul Larkin, who is working the early morning shift at the station. When her estranged husband, Scott Connor, arrives, Officer Larkin suddenly has information to share. Rod Brogan plays Scott, an FBI official who is dedicated to two things: his job and his family.
We sat down with Rod to discuss his different approaches to acting, the challenging aspects of American Son, and what motivates his character, Scott.
What lies at the heart of American Son?
At the heart of American Son is a broken family whose members love each other dearly, but are not able to grow without growing apart.
What are some of the difficult questions American Son asks?
One of the difficult subjects American Son tackles is identity. The play asks, How much can and should a parent impose an identity on their child? How much should the child be able to forge on their own?
Your character, Scott, is an imposing figure in American Son. What does he bring to his relationship with his son, Jamal? With his wife, Kendra? What do you want to highlight about Scott?
Scott is a traditionalist who believes the hallmarks of a man’s life are family, duty and service to his country. His life revolves around his two jobs: law enforcement officer and husband/father. This role was passed down to Scott by his father, and his father before him. Scott has built his life within these parameters, and is passing down the same ideas to his son Jamal.
Scott sees that his job as a father is to make his son into a man. He has a very passionate, but limited opinion, of what a man is. He’s limited himself to forgoing any other dreams he had in order to serve his country.
Until the breakdown of their marriage, Kendra supported both Scott’s ideals and his shaping of his son, but now she wants to let Jamal explore who he is, much to Scott’s dismay. Scott does not see himself as a dictator, but as a loving father whose job it is to instill in his son his family’s ethos of service and selflessness. Ironically, Scott is himself being selfish by confining his son to the same strictures he had to live under, without Jamal’s input.
What makes American Son different from other contemporary plays that address race and identity?
The brilliance of the conceit of American Son is that it allows the characters of the “FBI agent white father” and the “educated but born-poor black mother” to stand in as proxies for the larger debate between law enforcement and the black community. Like other great classic dramas, American Son tackles big ideas through a kitchen sink drama.
You have performed in several Shakespeare plays and classics like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. How have those experiences prepared you to dive into contemporary plays, like American Son?
Technically, I approach American Son the same way I approach Shakespeare. Like Shakespeare, many of the exchanges are in the form of debate. There are long passages in which many ideas have to be lifted from the text, but still sound conversational, and newly formed. Part of the rehearsal process isn’t just memorizing the lines, but figuring out which words and phrases to linger on and lift, which to simply get on with, and where to take a breath.
How do you approach projects that have such high emotional stakes, such as American Son, authentically?
“Authenticity.” Well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? Conveying a character’s thoughts and emotions in a way that seems genuine, eight times a week, for several months. It’s the old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice!
Practice imagining life through another’s eyes. Practice how to act with the whole body, and how to use the whole stage. Practice riding the wave of the scenes, and knowing your character’s needs and wants. Practice cataloging in your mind the people and their behavior that you see around you, which you can call upon when building a character and scene.
The simple answer is: live a full life, so when the time comes to act an emotion, you know what that is. It’s always better to re-create than create.
What do you hope audiences will take away from American Son?
The whole point of what we do is enrichment. We’re trying to enrich people’s culture and lives by stirring their thoughts and emotions. At first, American Son gives its audience a great deal to think about, and then, a greater deal to feel about.
American Son played in FST’s Gompertz Theatre from January 22 to March 15, 2020.