When playwright Hilary Bettis (The Americans) writes about the U.S. border with Mexico, her portrayals of its people are not caught up in the drug cartels and narco violence that have become the only image some people have of that land and its people.
"My grandfather was Mexican. He grew up in San Marcos. He and his family and his parents grew up in a landscape with a lot of prejudice and also poverty and being undocumented. So it's always been part of the conversation in my family. Who we are, where we come from," Bettis says.
"My mother grew up on the border in Tucson, Arizona where the play is set and so for her and her experience at the border it was always about family and community and it's this place that has always been incredibly important and special to her."
In the play about to start at the Alley Theatre — 72 Miles to Go ... (the distance between Tucson, and Nogales, Mexico) — Bettis tells the everyday story of a mother deported to Mexico who has left her American-born husband and children behind. During the eight years that follow the family struggles to maintain their connection as the children grow up.
Bettis who first saw her 90-minute play workshopped in January 2019 as part of the Alley's All New Festival, had continued to tweak the play right up to its first night's off-Broadway performance with Roundabout Theatre Company in Manhattan.
"The play shut down the day after it opened because of COVID," she says. "We were making changes and tweaks up until opening night so there were some ideas I had with this play that I really didn’t get to explore. I'm still making changes; I'm still making rewrites. Becoming a mother over COVID has really given me this bigger and more nuanced view of this story. I think I'm writing from a completely new perspective also.
"I always had great empathy for parents separated from their children but it was abstract and theoretical until I had a child of my own and it’s unbearable. To think about the reality of so many families that really do have to live like this and the reality of both the mother in the play who is separated from her children for almost a decade and the other character in the play who becomes the father. The choices that you have to make and the choices that have become so politicized — people aren't thinking about that stuff when you're literally thinking about my child and my baby."
"This play it's about a family dealing with deportation and it's really about how does this family stay connected and hold onto intimacy and each other when all they have is a phone. I think in a lot of ways the relevance of the play has become a lot more immediate because we have all lived this lifestyle now since COVID."
The play set from 2008 to March 2016, stars new Alley Company members Melissa Molano (Murder on the Orient Express, The Winter’s Tale) will portray Eva and Christopher Salazar (The Humans, The Winter’s Tale) will portray Christian in the production directed by Jose Zayas.
"I purposely set it before the Trump administration," Bettis says. "It’s become so divisive. I wanted to stay away from those very immediate emotions that people have. I also wanted to show that this conversation around immigration has been going on for a very long time. A lot of very well meaning people on the left think that immigration and the plight of undocumented people in this country really happened because of Donald Trump. And I don’t want to let an audience off the hook. I really want people to understand this has been happening for generations. This has been something that both political parties are equally responsible for. The Clinton administration really cracked down on undocumented immigration and the NAFTA policies really destroyed economies in Latin America, she says, adding that President Obama's administration deported thousands of people. "This has been happening for hundreds of years."
Bettis says she also sought to avoid the stereotype "that everybody has to be like this pobrecito, put-upon immigrant and they're both toxic and they're both extreme and dehumanizing in their own ways. This is a family that has their flaws and they make their mistakes and they do mess up but they also love each other deeply and they're genuinely decent people. that are trying to figure out how to keep their family together in an impossible circumstance.
"By the end of this play, legally speaking, just about every character in this play is a criminal or about to become one. But I'm also really interested in what do these labels actually mean. If this was your family your baby, your wife, your husband, your brother, your sister, you don’t care about that stuff. You're not thinking what Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott have to say about these people. You're thinking about how do I make sure that my child gets to go to school and my child gets to eat and I get to share a bed with my wife.
"My hope with this play and this story is to be to illustrate the human side of being undocumented in America and not just the big sensational news stories, but really the everyday life, the everyday struggle. I hope it opens doors to more compassion for these people."
Performances are scheduled for October 15 through November 14 at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. Following COVID protocols, all audience members will be required to wear masks and to show proof of a negative COVID test within the last 72 or proof of vaccination. For more information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.com. $47-$60.