The new musical “Miss You Like Hell” tells the story of a mother and daughter embarking on a road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles in a dilapidated pickup, but with two crucial twists that tap into the current zeitgeist. Not only does it place two Latina women at the center of its story, but the matriarch is an undocumented Mexican immigrant facing possible deportation from the country she’s lived in for nearly two decades, with a border wall threatening to separate her from her teenage daughter. The show, presented by Company One Theatre in collaboration with the American Repertory Theater, receives its New England premiere at Oberon in Cambridge through Jan. 27.
At a time when the federal government has been shuttered over President Trump’s demand for Congress to fund a wall on the Mexican border and when ICE raids have become a daily fear for many undocumented people, putting a human face on the immigration debate feels vital, urgent, and necessary, say “Miss You Like Hell” director Summer L. Williams and her two lead actresses. “It’s critical that we are telling stories of undocumented people in the United States at this point in time,” says Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda, who plays the show’s free-spirited matriarch, Beatriz. “We need to bring those stories out of the shadows.”
The show’s co-creators — singer-songwriter Erin McKeown and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes (“Water by the Spoonful,” “In the Heights”) — set the musical in 2014 during the Obama era when battles over the administration’s DACA policy and the proposed Dream Act were raging. But when it premiered in November 2016 at La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, the month that Donald Trump was elected president, the immigration debate had moved front and center.
“When we first started working on the musical in 2011, we ran into a lot of ignorance about these issues,” says McKeown, the longtime Western Massachusetts resident who penned the show’s music and lyrics. “Now the conversation is broader. I think anyone random walking in to see ‘Miss You Like Hell’ has a deeper understanding of immigration issues than they did when we first started.”
During a recent rehearsal at Oberon, Carlisle-Zepeda and her costar Krystal Hernandez, who plays daughter Olivia, eye each other warily as their characters attempt to reconnect after several years of estrangement. Beatriz is an artist who radiates an unconditional affection for her 16-year-old daughter. “She lives life on her own terms,” Carlisle-Zepeda says.
Olivia, on the other hand, may be whip-smart and a talented writer, but she’s filled with angst. “There’s a void in her life, and that’s caused her to mistrust people,” Hernandez says. “She’s afraid to let anyone in. When her mother comes back into her life, they don’t really know each other anymore, and there’s a lot of hurt, anger, and confusion.”
Beatriz pleads with Olivia to join her for an impromptu road trip to California, and after some prodding, she eventually agrees to come along. “There’s something about Beatriz’s ravenous spirit that I think Olivia is hungry for,” McKeown says. “She’s drawn to this life force that’s her mother.”
While Beatriz wants to mend the relationship with her daughter, she also needs her help. She’s facing an immigration court hearing in Los Angeles that could upend her life.
When Hudes approached McKeown in 2011 about the possibility of collaborating on a musical adaptation of Hudes’s play “26 Miles,” McKeown leapt at the opportunity. “I’m a card-carrying queer, so I was that kid in the basement with a hairbrush singing to the ‘Hair’ original cast recording. I love musicals and grew up wishing I could be in them, but I never thought about writing one,” says McKeown, who will perform stories and songs from the musical at Club Passim in Cambridge on Jan. 20.
A few weeks after the duo met over lunch to discuss the project, McKeown and a group of artist-activists departed for a weeklong “fact-finding” trip to Tucson and the border city of Nogales, Ariz., where they witnessed immigrants being detained at the border as well as a mass deportation. “[Quiara] was looking for someone who cared about and had experience with the issue,” she says, “so I think that’s part of what helped us connect.”
During their road trip, Beatriz and Olivia encounter a variety of colorful characters, from an older gay couple that they befriend to a junior park ranger in Yellowstone who’s an avid follower of Olivia’s blog. McKeown’s extensive experience touring the country to perform her own music gave her a window into the nation’s soul, she says, which helped in writing “Miss You Like Hell.” “It’s getting a bad rap right now, but America is extraordinary,” she says. “The people who are living here are incredible, every single one of them.”
And because the story centers on a cross-country road trip, McKeown says she wanted the score to incorporate a wide variety of American genres and idioms in order to reflect the diversity of the nation itself. The show’s rich musical vocabulary includes everything from folk, rock, and jazz to blues, gospel, and Tejano and Cajun flavors. “It’s that feeling where you’ve driving and you’re flipping through the radio dial, and it’s like, what comes up?” McKeown says. “Beatriz, for example, has a ravenous musical mind. She loves Led Zeppelin as much as she loves some of the folk music that she listened to in Oaxaca growing up, and there’s no reason why she has to express herself in just one way.”
When “Miss You Like Hell” opened off Broadway at New York’s Public Theater last spring, in the midst of the firestorm over the Trump administration’s family separation policy, it prompted McKeown to wonder about the downside of making a show that grapples with an issue that’s unfolding across our news feeds every day.
“From the outside, it might look like, oh, what a great topical musical. But I don’t know if it’s been good for the show to have it land in this particular political moment,” she says. “I think if ‘Miss You Like Hell’ gets reduced to an ‘immigration musical,’ then it’s giving short shrift to all of the things that we feel like it can offer. I just wish I could protect the show from the political rhetoric and from the fatigue and from the pain of watching all that stuff play out in the media.”
Miss You Like Hell
Presented by Company One Theatre, in collaboration with American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, Jan. 10-27. Tickets $25-$45, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.org