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Tony nominee Daphne Rubin-Vega plays an undocumented immigrant in the new musical Miss You Like Hell
Mother-daughter relationships in musicals -- as in life -- are often complex and combative (see Gypsy). But the interactions between the mother and daughter at the center of Miss You Like Hell, currently playing at the Public Theater, are particularly intense because the stakes are so very high: Beatriz (Daphne Rubin-Vega) is an undocumented Mexican and her estranged American teenage daughter Olivia (Gizel Jiménez) is suicidal. At Beatriz's insistence, they embark on a weeklong road trip across the country that ends in an immigration hearing. But while they reconnect along the way, the threat of deportation threatens to tear them apart permanently.
Based on the play 26 Miles by Pulitzer Prize winner Quiara Alegría Hudes, Miss You Like Hell has songs by folk-rock singer-songwriter Erin McKeown with a book and additional lyrics by the dramatist. Two-time Tony nominee Rubin-Vega (of Rent fame) has been with the musical since its earliest workshops in 2014 and originated the role of Beatriz at California's La Jolla Playhouse in fall 2016. Donald Trump was elected during that run and suddenly the show's illegal immigrant narrative became even more urgent.
"Frankly, I was fetal for three months," says Rubin-Vega, who came to the U.S. from Panama at age 2 with her parents. "The level of unsafety that I felt was visceral. To turn around and go to parties or social events where people didn't look like me, didn't understand what I was saying, was nothing short of heartbreaking."
These days, the media is full of stories about families being fractured by new (or more strictly enforced) immigration laws, which makes Miss You Like Hell seem incredibly current. But as Rubin-Vega notes, "It was timely four years ago!"
Jiménez, whose parents emigrated from Cuba to the U.S., agrees. "I learned in school that America was founded on immigrants and it was a place where immigrants came to be free," she says. "Now it's lost its purpose, in a way, and it's derailed into this misconception that only certain people can be here. I hope that people are able to open their eyes and realize that it's not worth doing this to families and to innocent people, especially children."
Of course despite the show's ripped-from-the-headlines topicality, at its heart is the mother-daughter relationship, which is relatable to all audiences regardless of citizenship or ancestry. Rubin-Vega and Jiménez's onstage bond is palpable and believable. They've become close off-stage as well, in part because they both lost their mothers as children.
"I fell so much in love with Beatriz," says Rubin-Vega who has a teenage son in real life. "So much about her spoke of my memories of my mother: of being a hero, of being the woman that sees a burning building and goes in to rescue and doesn't think twice. Beatriz has to stand up and it's not that she's unabashedly brave or courageous, it's that mothers fucking lean into the wind when we have to."
For Jiménez Miss You Like Hell has been an equally emotional journey. "It is quite exhausting," she admits. "Knowing how important the story is and how important it is for actual teenagers in this era (as well as parents who are having trouble with parenting) to see this piece, it's what drives me to be able to do it every night."
All those things drive Rubin-Vega, too, though she admits she also has political motivations. "Art is propaganda," she declares with her usual bluntness. "Everything has an agenda. I had this realization to not forget that in my own life: I have an agenda, too. And this is it."
To read about a student's experience at Miss You Like Hell, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
Howard Sherman is an arts administrator, journalist, and advocate. Follow him at @hesherman. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Gizel Jiménez and Daphne Rubin-Vega in Miss You Like Hell. Photos by Joan Marcus.
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