An American Tragedy: Quiara Alegria Hudes Changed Her Mother/daughter Drama into the Musical 'Miss You like Hell,' Then the World Changed Even More

By Tran, Diep | American Theatre, January 2017 | Go to article overview

An American Tragedy: Quiara Alegria Hudes Changed Her Mother/daughter Drama into the Musical 'Miss You like Hell,' Then the World Changed Even More


Tran, Diep, American Theatre


FOR MOST ARTISTS, THE HARSHEST CRITIC IN their life isn't The New York Times, it's themselves. Case in point: Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. "No one scrutinizes the work more than I do," she said over Skype from La Jolla, Calif., last October, as she was readying her newest project, a musical called Miss You Like Hell. It wasn't just based on her 2009 play 26 Miles; it emerged from her dissatisfaction with the original.

"It was one that I felt never lived up to its full potential," she explained. "But the idea itself I thought had greater potential, so it was hard for me to let it go."

It wasn't that the play hadn't been successful--it had well-received productions across the country, and was published in American Theatre's July/Aug. '09 issue--or that Hudes needed to recycle material. Her most recent play, Daphne's Dive, received a much-lauded run at Signature Theatre in New York City last year, following the national success of her "Elliot Trilogy," which won her the 2012Drama Pulitzer for its middle installment, Water by the Spoonful.

But she felt more than a vague discontent with 26 Miles; in recent years, Hudes had gone so far as to pull rights on a few productions because of her unhappiness with the play. While she felt the story--of an estranged mother and daughter on a road trip across the U.S. to repair their relationship--had merit, she felt she "never captured the scale of the America I wanted to capture, I never captured the mother and daughter the way I wanted to capture them." Hudes had a personal connection to the work: It was inspired by a road trip she took with her own mother to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

At the center of Miss You Like Hell is the mending of the relationship between a mother, Beatriz, and her daughter, Olivia. The original play, though, was too vague on the details, Hudes felt: "Where are this estranged mother and daughter going and why? What is the ticking clock of their road trip? Also, why are they estranged?"

In updating the original play, which was set in 1986, to the present day, she found a through-line that felt truer--and more timely. Olivia is still the daughter of a white father and a Latina mother (now Mexican, changed from Cuban), but this time there's a new wrinkle. "They were separated because the mother was not a citizen, and that got her into trouble when there was a custody case," explained Hudes. "That was a reason for them to be estranged, and it's also a reason for them to get back together, which is that the mom is facing her final [immigration] hearing."

This ratcheting up of the dramatic stakes would prove unfortunately prescient. Miss You Like Hell opened at La Jolla Playhouse on Nov. 6, just two nights before Donald J. Trump was somewhat unexpectedly elected president. And quite suddenly this mother/daughter drama took on a new layer of meaning in the incipient Trump era. Even before the election, Hudes was calling the piece "a theatrical fantasia on the state of the union." Now, as La Jolla Playhouse artistic director Christopher Ashley put it, "What a gift to my theatre that this is the play we're doing at the moment we turn this corner. I think it's important, and I think it speaks in really humane ways to this issue."

TO CREATE THE MUSICAL, HUDES teamed with singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, director Lear deBessonet, and actor Daphne Rubin-Vega. The material resonated strongly with both McKeown and Rubin-Vega, in different ways. For McKeown, it was the story's road trip, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, with many stops along the way, that she related to most closely. "It definitely meshes really well with my life," said McKeown over the phone after a rehearsal. "It's one of the great pleasures of my singer/songwriter career, honesdy--to get to know America in that very intimate, town-to-town way." Similarly, her score for Miss You Like Hell incorporates musical idioms from different regions in the U. …

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