Last night, OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network debuted its newest series, David Makes Man. The coming-of-age-drama centers on the life of 14-year old David (Akili Mcdowell), and explores the vast complexities of Black boyhood and manhood via a large cast of supporting male characters which includes his classmate and friend Seren (Nathaniel Logan McIntyre), his brother JG (Cayden K. Williams), his ghost father figure Sky (Isaiah Johnson), Sky’s son Raynan (Ade Chike Torbert), and Mx. Elijah (Travis Coles). It’s obvious from episode 1 that women also play a key role in David’s development — how amazing is Phylicia Rashad as Dr. Woods-Trap? But no one has as strong an influence on David as his mother Gloria, played by Alana Arenas.
From the first moment we saw Gloria on screen, I was enamored. The first thing I noticed was her accent which brought an authenticity to the role that only a Miami native like Arenas could bring. She and David’s dynamic also reminded me of my relationship with my own mother. How, as a child, sometimes you just want to break down and tell your mom you’re struggling and you need help, but you also don’t want to put more stress on her because, as Gloria put it in last night’s premiere episode, “You ain’t the only one who’s had a hard day.”
“Isn’t she every woman?” Oprah said when I had a chance to chat with her and Tarell Alvin McCraney who created the series and also co-wrote 2016’s Moonlight. The media mogul even broke out in song (“I’m every woman!”) as I talked about being drawn to Gloria’s character more than anyone else. Interestingly, McCraney shared he has a special connection to Arenas.
“I grew up with Alana,” McCraney told me. “We’ve known each other since we were 12 years old and I made her audition because I knew where we were going. We were going on a platform that has an audience that is engaged with Black women. I wanted people to see what she brought to the audition and if they then said, ‘This is what I want,’ then that’s what I would do but I didn’t want it to look like I was out there picking my homies to come in and do the job. I wanted people to really see that the artistry and the authenticity was there. No one knew that I new Alana until after we had cast her.”
Oprah said she saw Arenas’ excellence immediately. “She was my first choice. I saw her and I saw the read and I just went ‘whoa.'”
Later in the evening, I got a chance to chat with Arenas about what it means to her to represent for Black women from Miami whose stores often aren’t told on the big or small screen and she said she’s proud to be an example for the Black experience as a whole.
“I just have so much love for Black people in general,” Arenas told me. “We all know the history in our country, that there are a lot of stereotypes out there, and to be a part of a story that is sort of squashing that and saying, you know, let’s really examine these circumstances and if you put that on yourself, put that on your soul, if you had to walk that out, how well would you do?”
When it came to having to audition for her part, Arenas said she was happy to step up to the challenge because of her relationship with McCraney.
“We’re watching a legend, so when it comes to work I respect our work relationship. I’m not interested in trying to abuse any types of friendships or relationships so getting a call to audition? I will take that.”
As a mother of three herself – Arenas has a 15-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 1-year-old — the DePaul university grad also feels a special connection to her character Gloria.
“I don’t know if I really would have understood Gloria as much if I didn’t have my own children. Becoming a parent — that’s a thing. The ferocious love that you have for your children and the desire to protect them and see them go as far as you want them to go is a real thing and I feel like I have that in common with Gloria.”