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Hilary Bettis on her new play 72 Miles to Go… at Roundabout Theatre Company
Long before she dreamed of becoming a playwright, Hilary Bettis wanted to be a veterinarian. "How people treat animals tells us so much about their values and their soul," she says. That perspective is evident in 72 Miles to Go…, Bettis' exploration of man's capacity for inhumanity as seen through the eyes of a family ripped apart by U.S. immigration laws. In 2008, undocumented Anita (Maria Elena Ramirez) is deported from Tucson to Nogales, Mexico, leaving her three children in the care of their American-born father, Billy (Triney Sandoval). Over the next eight years, Aaron (Tyler Alvarez), Eva (Jacqueline Guillén) and Dreamer Christian (Bobby Moreno, Bettis' real-life husband) struggle to make it through while their father desperately tries to bring his wife home.
"In a lot of ways this play is more autobiographical than anything I've written," says Bettis, who identifies as Chicana. Her grandfather came to the U.S. from Mexico and served in WWII. She also has brothers in the military, which influenced the arc of Aaron, a sweet teen who adores animals. "He's so empathic," explains Bettis. "He decides to show his love for his family and why they belong in this country by going to war, losing his innocence along the way."
Despite its underlying politics, 72 Miles to Go… isn't agitprop. It's kitchen-sink realism through a Latinx lens as Bettis recasts a genre that has traditionally focused on white characters. "Here's an everyday American family that happens to be Mexican American and living on the border," Bettis says. "They're not in cartels or running from cartels. There's no sensationalized American Dirt kind of story. They're going through things we go through that citizens take for granted."
Each scene is set in a different year, and the vignettes offer glimpses of how the immigration situation impacts the family over time. The dialogue is rich and the details telling. Eva gives an impassioned speech about her mother at her high school graduation and Aaron nurtures an abandoned turtle. Phone calls are the sole way the splintered family stays connected.
72 Miles to Go… starts during the Obama years and ends a few months before the last presidential election to illustrate that anti-immigrant sentiment and unfair policies are not new, they're longstanding problems. "If you set a play in the present day, any issue that you're talking about will be bogged down by people's anger," she says, citing the polarized state of the nation. Instead, she wants audiences to "focus on the bigger picture."
Born in South Carolina, Bettis had a nomadic upbringing and survived a great deal of childhood trauma. A production of Death of a Salesman sparked her interest in theatre, and in 2013 she won the Acheson Wallace Playwright Fellowship to study at the Juilliard School. She's written for the stage (Alligators) and screen (The Americans), and early on she even contributed articles to TDF Stages.
Bettis' earlier plays featured fantastical characters, moments of magical realism and, according to the playwright, "were overwritten because I wanted to put everything in there. You can't have a 10-hour play unless you're Taylor Mac!" At 90 naturalistic minutes, 72 Miles to Go… is a stylistic departure that's still packed with emotion. Directed by Obie winner Jo Bonney, it's Bettis' most high-profile and personal play to date.
Despite its autobiographically inspired elements, she also did a lot of research. In addition to interviewing Dreamers and immigration attorneys, she hit the books to learn about how the U.S. has treated Mexican immigrants over time, notably the lMexican Repatriation during the Depression, when countless birthright citizens were deported.
"This has been happening for generations," Bettis says. "We look back at the Obama era as a time when things were perfect, but deportations were happening, detention centers were being monetized and privatized. There's always been a history of violence and cruelty towards Latinx people in this country."
Top image: Jacqueline Guillén, Triney Sandoval, Bobby Moreno and Tyler Alvarez in 72 Miles to Go…. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.