David Gonzalez is a divorced child of divorce. His world premiere one-man show “Man of the House (Or: How I Tracked Down My Dad, the Spy)” is his way of wrestling with that, and how he grew up feeling like half his culture was MIA.
His mom is from Puerto Rico, and his dad is from Cuba. “Cuba was totally missing from my life, because he was missing,” he said. In “Man of the House” at the Kennedy Center, “I wanted to explore the idea of how your identity . . . is really determined by who brings it to you.”
“Man of the House” tries to “look hard at the issues of separation, divorce, a child’s anger, parents being not the ideal people that we wish they were.”
“You talk about innocence and the dissolving of innocence — divorce does that, or it can do that,” said Gonzalez. He and his wife separated 31 / 2 years ago (their children are ages 23 and 19). “It’s like, ‘Wait, you’re my rock. Wait, there’s no rock?’ It’s a tragedy.”
Gonzalez, a Drama Desk Award nominee, grew up in the Bronx and completed a two-year residency at the University of Maryland. He said he has performed at theater festivals around the world and has created “many, many different kinds of projects: historical, mythological, folklore, musical.”
“Man of the House” follows 13-year-old Pablito calling his father, who left the family when Pablito was 7 and hasn’t returned since. Pablito is called a “horphan,” as in a half-orphan, and wants to connect with his dad.
Both of Gonzalez’s parents are coming to see the show, he said. They’ve already heard him read the script.
“I think [my mom] felt grateful that, somehow, her history was going to be useful in the world,” Gonzalez said. His dad “had a different take. He’s a very different person. I think he was just really happy not to be forgotten. . . . Some things were delicate and hurtful to him.”
Gonzalez wanted his work to be “squarely aimed at middle-school audiences,” a group he said suffers from a “dearth of quality material in theater.”
“I looked at a bunch of work that was written for [theater for young audiences], and either I felt that their innocence was shattered or that their intelligence was underestimated,” he said. “ . . . One of the issues of those ‘tween years is the gradual modulation from innocence into awareness, and I think if it’s brought on too abruptly, it can be injurious to innocence. And I value innocence tremendously. And then there are things for middle-schoolers that are really saccharine and don’t address the emerging consciousness and the emerging sexuality, the heightened awareness of social dynamics. And kids are smart, and when they’re not addressed in public forums like the theater, that’s one of the seeds of alienation.”
In rehearsal, Gonzalez said, “the brutality of my experience” was “really shocking” to the rest of the creative team. “To me, it’s like that’s what I did. That’s the way it was. I thought I had a great childhood, and I think I did. It had its rough spots, but there was enough love and protection and caring to give me the basis to lead a wonderfully productive and rich life.”
Gonzalez described a scene about “the gantlet,” a hazing rite-of-passage on his block in the Bronx every boy had to go through “to get into the next age group of coolness.” The boys on the block lined up in two rows, “and you had to run through this punch path. And the rules were: You cannot cry, you cannot run away, and you cannot fight back. And I did that.”
He had been staging the scene as if he was running through the gantlet, but the other day, he flipped the staging. “It’s me embodying the boys who are punching and kicking,” he said, a switch that brought out “the stark brutality” of the moment.
“It’s all surprising to stand in this magical world of the stage. The emotional truth of those moments, even though it’s fictionalized. There’s still a vital kernel of truth in it.”
Saturday and Sunday in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW, 202-467-4600, www.kennedy-center.org.