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Sunday, June 24, 2018

At the public theater, a mother, a daughter and deportation

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The creators of the musical "Miss You Like Hell," the musician Erin McKeown, left, the playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and the director Lear deBessonet, set it in 2014 but believe it speaks to the current moment. Credit Nicole Craine for The New York Times



The setting is 2014, the late Obama years. But the audience of "Miss You Like Hell," a musical production that opens on Tuesday at the Public Theater in Manhattan, sees its story of deportation through the refracted light of 2018. So much has changed on the politically scarred stage of immigration - and yet so little.

As tempting as it is to call this immigration theater, that is not entirely true, according to its creators, the Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and the musician Erin McKeown. Rather, they say, the piece is about a fractured mother-daughter relationship, with a deportation deadline driving the narrative.

That the show, which is still in previews, comes at a moment when mothers and fathers are being deported publicly and immigration policy is being debated in Congress, the courts and on Twitter by President Trump was intentional. The Public shuffled its lineup to move the topical production from summer to spring to enable a longer run.

It is what every theater artist hopes to attain: "The moment of a play meeting the world when the world needs that play," the director Lear deBessonet said in an interview last week.In the show, a Mexican-born mother, Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega), takes her estranged teenage daughter, Olivia (Gizel Jiménez), on a cross-country road trip that will end in an immigration hearing. Having initially hid her immigration status from her daughter, she sings about the anxiety of being undocumented in "Over My Shoulder."

 "A stranger at home / Looking over my shoulder / Every two steps back / Only one step forward / Treading water waiting for the tide to rise," she sings.Ms. McKeown, a singer-songwriter making her musical theater debut, first wrote those words with Ms. Hudes in 2013. Last June, Thomas D. Homan, the acting director of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, testified before Congress about how the administration was broadening its priorities beyond deporting criminals. He warned anyone living in the country illegally that they were deportable: "You should look over your shoulder," he said.

"As proud as I am of the song, I wish I was not so prescient as to how the phrase would get wielded in 2018," Ms. McKeown said.The idea for the musical began in 2011, when Ms. Hudes contacted Ms. McKeown through her website, suggesting they collaborate on turning her play "26 Miles," about a mother-daughter road trip, into a musical. Three days later, Ms. McKeown left on a planned trip to Nogales, Ariz., with other artist-activists to observe immigrants being detained at the border.

It took until later in 2013 for the pair to start writing. In the interim, Ms. Hudes (who wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning "In the Heights") won a Pulitzer in 2012 for her play "Water by the Spoonful." Then she had a baby. Ms. McKeown released another album.

On Nov. 6, 2016, "Miss You Like Hell," which was commissioned by the La Jolla Playhouse in California, opened. By the time the curtain fell on the second performance, on Nov. 8, Donald J. Trump had been elected president.
In 2017, in the context of daily immigration news, the women began rewriting to streamline the production into one act.

The bureaucratic immigration details are spot-on, as Ms. Hudes consulted an immigration lawyer based in New York. In an instance familiar to undocumented immigrants for decades, Beatriz was pulled over for a broken taillight, a violation. Because she was using someone else's license, the stop turned into a criminal arrest, with potential immigration consequences.

"Half my junior class has fake IDs, no one cuffs them," Olivia says, both indignantly and ignorantly. Olivia is a sheltered 16-year-old from Philadelphia struggling with anxiety and with resentment from having been abandoned by her mother. Her awakening gives the production its power.

Ms. Hudes said she established 2014 as the setting because in January 2015, California enacted a law enabling undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses. But while the script includes the time reference, the program purposely leaves it out, so as not to confuse the audience experiencing the piece in the present, Ms. Hudes said.

Still, Alexis Ramirez, 19, a student at New York University who is Mexican-American from California, was quizzical after seeing a preview last week. She said that Olivia's ignorance of immigration enforcement was the only thing that didn't make sense, since Olivia has an active online presence with a blog. "How did she not know what ICE was?" Ms. Ramirez said.

"People are much more hip to the issues surrounding an undocumented life on a daily basis," Ms. Hudes acknowledged.All three female creators of "Miss You Like Hell" have activist backgrounds. Ms. deBessonet founded Public Works for the Public, which incorporates community groups and actors in large-scale productions that try to cross social and cultural borders.

Ms. Hudes grew up in Philadelphia, accompanying her mother on midnight runs to the women's health center she founded, which often helped undocumented women fearful of deportation. Ms. Hudes's husband is a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society of New York, who participated in a recent walkout of lawyers at the Bronx Criminal Courthouse protesting ICE agents making immigration arrests there.

In her spare time, Ms. Hudes is also a writing mentor for the Migrant Leaders Club, in Mount Vernon, Wash., where children of Mexican agricultural workers share their fears in words. The club will be traveling to New York for the show on Friday, participating in a talkback and also visiting two schools in the Bronx to discuss their experiences.

"The notion of trying to write individuals and communities out of the shadows feels particularly important at this moment," she said.Of course, plays by and about immigrants have long been fertile sources for the stage, including two recent productions in New York.

A revival of the 2007 play "De Novo" - about a former member of the transnational gang MS-13, which has roots in Los Angeles and El Salvador, challenging his deportation - ran in December as part of New York Theater Workshop's Next Door series.

Another play, "queens," about immigrant women sharing basement living quarters in that borough, recently finished its run at Lincoln Center Theater and will open at the La Jolla Playhouse in July.In "queens," written by Martyna Majok, Mr. Trump is not named. But a character in Ukraine does refer to him, in broken English, when advising another woman who wants to come to the United States: "Things it's changing over there in America, past few months. With this orange guy. Things it's not really so great anymore over there."


 The writer works at The New York Times

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