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'This moment is all about adapting': what happens when your play gets cancelled | Stage

On 10 March, Hilary Bettis’s 72 Miles to Go …, a play about a Mexican American family straddling the Arizona border, held an opening night party at Bond 45. “Everybody was accidentally hugging and then being like, ‘Oh wait, oops, I should have not done that,” Bettis said when I spoke to her the next morning. “So I feel like if somebody had it in that restaurant, we all probably have it now.”

It, of course, was Covid-19, the novel coronavirus. When we spoke, Broadway theater was shuttering and soon off-Broadway would shut, too, including plays like Bettis’s, which closed the day after our conversation. Last week, the Roundabout Theater Company received permission to allow ticket holders, donors and students to watch a video of an early preview and then join a community conversation. Students have also been provided with an online learning toolkit (Since then, for just $20, anyone is now also able to watch the performance too).

Bettis hadn’t anticipated sharing this version of the play. “72 Miles To Go … evolved so much in previews: designs, dialogue, staging, entire scenes, several versions of the ending. I’m heartbroken audiences won’t get to experience the final version on the Pels stage,” she wrote to me last week. “But this moment is all about adapting to things we haven’t anticipated.”

Bettis, who grew up all over, “like seven different states”, she said, now lives in Brooklyn, with her husband, the actor Bobby Moreno, one of the stars of 72 Miles. “Trying to live together and work together, it’s been really complicated,” she said. “You always go in thinking, like, ‘Oh no, we can totally do it and not bring the play home.’ And then cut to, like, 3am and we’re like crying and yelling at each other, trying to figure out why a scene doesn’t work.” She is pregnant with their first child, due in May.

In 72 Miles, set in Tucson, Arizona, and just over the border in Nogales, Mexico, Anita, a Mexican woman who entered America without documentation and married an American man, has been deported. Her children, including Christian (Moreno), also undocumented, hope that she will return home. But even in 2008, when the play begins, there’s little hope of legal re-entry. The same holds true in 2016, when the play ends, months before the presidential election would have made the family’s situation that much worse.

Bettis began writing the play before the 2016 election, thinking particularly of her Mexican maternal grandfather, whose American citizenship the family could never confirm. She wanted to try to write something intimate and grounded, a departure from her usual magical realist style. “We’re so obsessed with narco culture and cartels and violence and that’s not who my family is, it’s not most Mexican American people I know,” she said. Early readings included several actors who are undocumented. “So right away I had very early perspectives about what everyday life was like for people dealing with this,” she said.

After the election, a Republican victory that had been fueled, in part, by anti-immigrant sentiment, the play seemed more urgent. It made her think about the kinds of plays that she had written previously, “very raw and dirty and angsty and in your face and messy”, Bettis said. “I didn’t want to write that kind of stuff any more.” She also didn’t want to write a dissertation or a screed – she doesn’t like plays to lecture her. Instead, she built 72 Miles along naturalistic lines, encouraging audiences to sympathize with this family, whatever its citizenship status. She chose a structure that spotlit small struggles rather than explicit tragedy.

Hilary Bettis

Hilary Bettis. Photograph: Jo DeAngelis

The idea was, in part, to erase borders between audience and character, to argue for a shared humanity, to make spectators feel, as she feels, that there ought to be amnesty for America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. “People wouldn’t be coming here in the first place if they had safe homes,” she said. “The people coming here love their countries, they love their culture, they love who they are. They’re not trying to steal and take. They’re just trying to live.

“We really need to start seeing all of these people as our own families and our own children,” she added. She made the father in the play a minister, just like her own father, and the daughter a nurse, like her mother. As she sat through “gazillions of previews” she found that some people did want a dissertation. Others wanted trauma porn. She has seen criticism of the show that demanded a more brutal story. “But why?” she asked. That isn’t how most Mexican Americans live, she said. And she wondered if critics would have wanted that for a black family or a Jewish family. There is tragedy enough, she suggested, in a girl deferring college or a boy enlisting or a mother and a father celebrating an anniversary by phone, a country away.

“They’re making sacrifices of their dreams and their potential, they’re passing this trauma down to their children,” she said. “If that’s not heartbreaking enough for a person, that’s really more about who you are, than the play or the family.”

The abrupt closure of the play, Bettis’s biggest production to date, is itself a small heartbreak. But if Bettis has doubts about the video providing an adequate substitute for the live experience, she did observe that some audiences may feel closer to 72 Miles now. “We are all living in isolation and uncertainty,” she wrote. “For our country’s 11 million undocumented people, that is a permanent way of life.”

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