“I am a lioness, I am a warrior.” That’s how Latina mother Beatriz (incarnated by two-time Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega) introduces herself in this musical about a woman who’s trying to get her life back together after being estranged from her daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez). A fearless mother, Beatriz looks to protect her child from everything—including the difficulty of her own past.
Beatriz’s separation from Olivia was not necessarily an easy choice. Undergoing a trial with the risk of possible deportation, Beatriz risks a lot by traveling across state lines to check on her daughter, who had written a suicidal post on her personal blog. Driving without a valid driver’s license, facing a hearing soon to determine her permanence in the country and with a weed possession offense dating back to when she was 19 years old, doesn’t make it easy for any judge assigned to her case. Beatriz isn’t exactly the kind of immigrant white folks would want to keep.
While news coverage may suggest that mass deportations and anti-immigrant sentiment are a new plague in the Latinx community under the Trump administration, Miss You Like Hell is set in 2014, which is under the Obama years. Many in the Latino community, especially immigration rights activists, remember Obama as the “Deporter-in-Chief.” Millions of undocumented immigrants were deported and separated from their families. Coverage of that was next to insignificant.
Aside from the politics of the play, this is, at its core, a story about love, forgiveness, and endurance of the human spirit. Olivia, though living with her father, doesn’t feel a close bond to him and even acknowledges that Beatriz leaving her broke her heart for years. She confesses that she slept with phone in hand, hoping for a call from her mother—to no avail.
But there’s a reason for Beatriz’s behavior. A host of factors prevented her from staying by Olivia’s side, and although the play doesn’t spell out exactly why she left, we get a sense that she didn’t feel empowered to care for her daughter. Both her legal status in the country and her own psychological being seemed to contribute to her difficult decision to move across the country, away from Olivia.
Finally convincing her daughter to join her across the country, Beatriz and Olivia set on a journey taking them from Philadelphia, Ohio, South Dakota, Yellowstone, and California, encountering a series of characters—an empathetic gay senior couple, a rigid legal clerk, a hard-working immigrant who wears his heart on his sleeve, and a vivid and young castaway (a term coined for readers who follow Olivia’s blog) who urges Olivia to give mutual love with her mom a second chance.
But what’s so unique about Olivia? She’s a bookworm equipped with references to Allen Ginsberg and James Baldwin, but even with her encyclopedic knowledge of prominent literary revolutionaries, Olivia is still a kid. She’s a girl who’s hurting and whose abandonment issues still run deep. She’s angry, confused, and struggles —like any girl her age— to understand that other people’s pain, especially her mother’s, could be greater than hers. One of the most touching moments in the musical is when Beatriz and Olivia get to talk about sex and sexuality, with no shame, no qualms. It’s a sincere conversation between two people who care for each other.
Another side to this cross-generational story is the significance of ancestry and roots. Since Olivia is estranged from her mother, she doesn’t get to live what many would consider the typical Latinx experience in the U.S. One eye-opening moment is when Olivia asks, “What’s ICE?” This is the first time she —and the audience— notices the stark difference in privilege between Olivia and her mother. However, one can’t help but stop to think, really Olivia, you don’t know what ICE is or stands for? It’s fairly out of character for a street-smart, “woke” person like Olivia.
However, Olivia’s ignorance concerning the reality of most undocumented immigrants reveals an important dilemma for her: not being in touch with her Latinx identity. The food, the language los dichos, ¡todo lo cálido! But Beatriz makes sure to introduce her to the rich history of her ancestry, the sounds and the smells. Little by little, Olivia goes back in time to when she was only a toddler in her mother’s arms, listening to her mother’s voice in Spanish or the times she ate her mother’s tamales.
Throughout many musical numbers, most notably “Yellowstone,” “Over My Shoulder,” “Mothers,” and “Sundays,” created by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, we get to hear from the actresses’ voices about the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, about a mother hiding hardship from her daughter, and about memories from a not so distant past where both mother and daughter proved that love was real.
The Latinx community is starting to take charge of their own narratives. There’s still a lot of work to do in terms of how POC manifest in art, but Miss You Like Hell is a touching portrait of one mother-daughter relationship. Lionesses and warriors. Latinx and proud.
Playwright: Quiara Alegría Hudes
Music and lyrics: Erin McKeown
Choreography: Danny Mefford
Director: Lear Debessonet
Luis Luna works at the Futuro Media. After working in the Theatrical Department at GKIDS. He has also worked on the programming teams at various film festivals, including Hamptons International Film Festival, Brooklyn Film Festival, and others. He received a dual B.A. in Film Studies and English from Hunter College. Born and raised in Jackson Heights, his favorite things include queer cinema, world travel, dancing to Rihanna, and a good cemita. Follow Luis on Twitter @luarmanyc.