Making Deportation Politics Personal: MISS YOU LIKE HELL at Baltimore Center Stage
All politics is personal, as the saying goes. Seldom is this point made with greater dramatic clarity than in Miss You Like Hell (La Jolla 2016, New York 2018), now opening Baltimore Center Stage's new season, the first season with Stephanie Ybarra unambiguously in place as Artistic Director. It is evident that the selection of this play is a statement by Ybarra, who in a program note describes herself at 16, the same age as Olivia, the show's point-of-view character, as "a half-Mexican, self-identified-tomboy-bookworm-mouthy nerd with a penchant for oversized flannels," a description that accurately captures Olivia as well. The tale of Olivia (Stephanie Gomérez) and her cross-country journey with her unconventional mother Beatriz (Lorraine Velez) is the kind of story that probably would not have been told in earlier days at Center Stage, especially before the tenure of Ybarra's predecessor, Kwame Kwei-Armah, who did a lot to shake up the repertoire in his six seasons at the helm. (Or perhaps seven; there is some lack of clarity about who deserves Artistic Director credit for the 2018-19 season; the Center Stage website attributes that season to Ybarra, but in the program Ybarra herself calls the present show "my first production as an artistic director.") In any event, there is now a new sheriff in town, and the choice of this show is how she tells us that.
And the show in question, a musical, with book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes, with music and lyrics by Erin McKeown, explores the way in which policy, in this case the Obama administration's push to deport then-unprecedented numbers of Central American immigrants, personally impacts the immigrants, their families, and the world. Beatriz, we discover, is a Mexican immigrant with an old marijuana conviction, which is enough in the light of harsh Obama-era policies to warrant her removal back to whence she came. Olivia, her daughter, carries half her genes, but also half those of a white American father, and is protected by citizenship and the non-deportability that goes with it. The union between Olivia's parents having sundered earlier, when Olivia was younger, and Olivia having perhaps cracked under the tensions of shared custody, she had pushed her somewhat unreliable mother out of her life, which the mother then ratified by leaving the family's hometown, Philadelphia, and moving to California and out of Olivia's life.
The musical begins at the moment Beatriz unexpectedly reappears, seeking to reclaim a place in her child's life, imploring her to come along on a road trip in a beat-up borrowed Datsun truck. The invitation is accurately described by Olivia as "half kidnapping," but she reluctantly goes. Of course, as quickly becomes clear, Beatriz has a larger agenda than merely rebonding with her daughter. In a week's time she must face a deportation hearing in Los Angeles, meaning that: a) she needs a daughter in the hearing room, to establish the potential hardship for an American citizen (Olivia) that might constitute legal grounds for suspending deportation of a Mexican (Beatriz); and b) if the ploy of getting Olivia to plead Beatriz's case turns out to fail, and they must spend the rest of their lives in separate countries, the week spent with her daughter will likely prove to have been the last chance Beatriz will ever receive to mend the rift between them. Whichever outcome the trip is building towards, it is now or never to act on the opportunities presented.
This setup could have led to breakneck buddy comedy with a bittersweet ending, and we do inevitably get the bittersweet part, and even the buddy part, but the breakneck has been swapped out in favor of a kind of picaresque idyll. We're all going to look for America here, in divey motels and local court clerks' offices, and along roadsides, where acquaintances of some consequence may spring up almost at random. Among those acquaintances are an old gay couple, Mo (Michael Medeiros) and Higgins (Raphael Nash Thompson), who are finishing off the unlikely stunt of getting married to each other in all fifty states, and Manuel (Ceasar F. Barajas), a tamale vendor who seems willing to join the expedition at the drop of a hat. I liked this choice of approach. It turns out you can repair frayed family bonds just as well in idyllic circumstances as in frantic ones.
That said, I did not entirely buy the way the fruits of that repair are presented in Olivia's inevitable speech to the (unseen) immigration judge. She calls Beatriz "my history, my recipe, my family," all claims that Beatriz's conduct has made implausible. From the evidence presented by the show, it seems that Olivia has actually been thriving during Beatriz's absence. Olivia has initiated, in an intelligent way, her own youthful sexual explorations, and she's developed an online support community through a well-followed blog, and in neither of these pursuits has her mother furnished a recipe. There is no evidence that her relationship with her father is bad, either. And since, whatever Olivia may be telling the judge, her mom has simply not been "a family," Beatriz is no longer necessary to Olivia the way a more ordinary mother would be. The fact that Beatriz brings out the dancer in her daughter (Dance With Me), though it's a positive, hardly fills that void. The other plausible claim of Beatriz to matter in Olivia's life is simply the example provided in what Hudes, in a program note, calls "Beatriz's celebration in the face of hardship," that she is what the lyrics call a "lioness."
Show business people seem to believe more than we ordinary mortals do in the curative powers of female indomitability. Show them an Auntie Mame or a Dolly Levi or a Momma Rose or a Roxie Hart or an unsinkable Molly Brown and they feel invigorated. Most of us would be exhausted (or worse) at having any of these characters as a mother. In order for us to respond to the ending the way Hudes wants us to, however, we have to sign onto that notion. But Olivia has already shown herself too astute for that. Has the road trip revived her love for her mother? Yes, and plausibly so. But has it restored Beatriz to the central position in Olivia's life Olivia wants to convince the judge of? Not at all. And Beatriz hasn't made Olivia a "lioness" because she was already well on the path to becoming one. (In a sour adolescent way, of course, but it's still hard to miss.)
By any reasonable yardstick, then, Olivia's testimony ought to be a lie. A well-intentioned lie, a lie of which most of us would approve, but a lie nonetheless. It is not true to the facts of the drama, or even, really, to the deeper points Miss You Like Hell has been making. Yet, while it is hard to be certain, it appears Hudes wants us to believe Olivia's testimony is emotionally true. I know I am not the only member of the audience who cannot follow Hudes that far.
Which is far from saying that all is lost. Without going into spoiler-level detail, let me concede that the ultimate ending, what comes after the hearing, remains powerful, but more because of the politics of it than the personal aspects. You do not need a normally-intense mother-daughter bond to make the threat of stretching any family bond over an impermeable border an unspeakable attack on the dignity of the family involved. National boundaries should not be permissible or acceptable ways of excluding those who have a need to come into a country or who have established ties in its communities. National sovereignty is never a valid excuse for marginalizing people like Beatriz, or for forcing them to live without a driver's license or legitimate ways of working, or for making their families live under the threat of removal. Miss You Like Hell illustrates, in a very personal and detailed way, how these policies do damage and destroy lives and families, even away from the border, and this has little to do with what we've seen of the Beatriz/Olivia relationship. You have a right not to be touched by such hateful policies even if you can't fully reclaim the place you abandoned in your daughter's life. And conversely, you can be a human dynamo with a thirst for all that life has to offer, and all these hateful policies may still be more indomitable than you, particularly in the short run. (Though, as the finale, Epilogue, makes convincingly clear, where there is hope and faith in the long run, and an expansive sense of community, everything good remains possible.)
On balance, then, even if one does not fully believe in the evolution of the depicted family along the lines that Hudes would apparently wish, this is an enjoyable and uplifting evening of theater. The performances are Center Stage quality, which is to say stellar, and well-directed by Rebecca Martínez. Velez and Gomérez make a marvelous mother/daughter team. I loved Rachel Stern in a short but memorable turn as a court clerk and Jaela Cheeks-Lomax as Pearl, one of Olivia's blog supporters out in the ether. McKeown's music is always agreeable and occasionally inspiring, and well-performed by a tight band under music director Tiffany Underwood Holmes.
So Ms. Ybarra has made an auspicious beginning. We shall watch with great interest to see how she follows up.
Miss You Like Hell, book and lyrics by Quiara Alegría Hudes, music and Lyrics by Erin McKeown, directed by Rebecca Martínez, through October 13 at Baltimore Center Stage,700 North Calvert Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21202. Tickets $25-$74 at centerstage.org or 410-332-0033. Adult language, smoking, sexual activity discussed in detail, distressing events.
Photo credit: Bill Geenen.