“It is a proud moment in time to be Latino,” an Interview with Lorraine Velez of Baltimore Center Stage’s “Miss You Like Hell”

In Miss You Like Hell, a cross-country journey between an estranged mother and daughter becomes a trip to the center of the soul itself, as the two learn to accept, understand, see, and eventually love each other. The musical by Erin McKeown and Quiara Alegría Hudes is the first production of Baltimore Center Stage’s new season, now under the helm of the visionary Stephanie Ybarra.

Meet Lorraine Velez, who plays Beatriz, an undocumented Mexican woman trying to make her way through the bureaucratic labyrinth of immigration courts, while trying to make amends with her teenage daughter Olivia (played by Stephanie Gomérez). 

As a Latina what does it mean to you to be in this show in 2019?

First of all as a performer and as a Latina performer, I feel so happy and honored to work on Latin productions and tell our stories in ways that haven’t been told before. I am full of pride and I’m honored to be in a production like this where I can represent Latinx people in this period of time where we actually get to speak and be heard.

Erin and Quiara started writing this musical almost a decade ago, but it was performed for the first time last year and it seemed to a lot of people assumed that they wrote it overnight, that they were reacting to something that they thought was new because I think people just didn’t want to see what was happening at the border. And this is not new to this administration, this administration has put it on the map in a horrendous way. But this has been happening for a very, very, very, very, very long time. And I wonder for you as a performer and as an artist to be doing this on stage right now. Does it in any way help you make sense of what’s going on?

Ni hay palabras para decir como me siento. I just know that whatever you do, you have to do it with love and coming from a place of of light and informing and doing whatever you can to be part of the good. I’m not part of the destructive.

So I was aware of this situation many, many years ago. I’m boricua so we’re under fire in a different situation. But I believe the human condition these days is just groups of people: brown people, black people are under fire. And so I feel it’s my responsibility as an artist to use any gift that I’ve been given to throw light on the situation in the most positive way possible.

There’s something about bringing people together under the medium of theater that I believe helps us connect in a different way than if you’re watching the story in the news. All of a sudden the beauty of writing and music that forces actually go into a human being in a different way than just observing it would do. You’re forced in a funny way to engage in this situation. You can’t turn away. You can’t turn the TV off. You can’t you just can’t look away because it’s unfolding in front of you. When you connect with something profoundly onstage, your body, your mind, your heart, no longer know it’s a play they’re watching.

I’m not an actor so I’m always in profound awe of what you do onstage. For you right now, for instance, you’re in a position that’s in a way privileged because you’re given direct access to have empathy with an undocumented Mexican woman. And not all of us have that.

I agree with that. It is a privilege. That’s why I use that word earlier because it is an honor to portray at this moment in time something that is literally happening to millions of Mexican women.

But it’s also really scary I would think. Because how do you as Lorraine at the end of the day, wash off all this emotion and just become Lorraine again?

You don’t Jose, you know, when you play a part, you never wash it off completely. You keep a piece of that person. As a human being when we go through experiences with other people, they change us and we have to let them change us because that is how we become more human. So I, Lorraine as a human being will remain intact but I will know more about the life of an undocumented Mexican woman. I’ll just know more and that’s going to inform something about me for the rest of my life.

That’s beautiful. It makes me feel better when I see actors doing harrowing work onstage. At least they’re getting some personal growth out of it.

Mind you, I just finished Oedipus El Rey by Luis Alfaro. It doesn’t get worse than gouging your son’s eyes out and committing suicide on stage. I thought I would not survive Jocasta, but she gave me so much strength that when I finished that show I felt stronger in my ability to endure life. I can’t really explain it, but she actually gave me something that I still have that I’m able to give Beatriz in this show as well.

Oh, that’s beautiful. But I’m going to say we need to find you a comedy next.

Oh my God, please!

This show represents what America is today. The conservative media for instance would not be able to say this show is about liberals in New York. It’s a show that covers everyone in America. You played Anita in West Side Story which means you got to sing Sondheim and Bernstein’s “America,” in Miss You Like Hell you get to do modern America. What’s your insight about about these two Americas? Has it changed at all?

It’s interesting because my parents were part of that migration from Puerto Rico to New York at that time. And so watching West Side Story for us was like “wow, this is what mami and papi went through.” That was an America, to me, that had a different kind of hope. Puertorriqueños, Latinos, Chicanos, people from other Latin American countries were having that experience. But somewhere underneath, I honestly believe there was the feeling that if you worked hard enough, you could be part of this country and build a wonderful life for yourself. That was the promise. That’s why people came over and they endured what they endured, but they still had a different opportunity to create a better life for themselves.

Today I believe people have that hope, but there’s a desperate feeling in it. There’s so much fear, duck so you don’t get caught, duck so you don’t get shot, duck so that you can live. I believe that Latinos survive. We survive and beyond that we find the joy and the beauty in a cafe con leche, un beso de mami, una visita con Titi. We find those tiny bits of joy and satisfaction and I think that’s the only way people in Puerto Rico survived that horrible hurricane because no matter what you just go on, you live. We have that inside, es puro amor por la vida.

I agree with you because this show really captures that. People are used to seeing us suffer. We’re the drug dealers, the undocumented, the people trying to cross the border. We’re always suffering and there’s a dissonance for people who don’t know about this joy. I as in such awe of Puerto Ricans when people took to the streets to protest their Governor. There was anger but there was also a celebration, people saying we are not putting up with this anymore.

For me that was the main thing, the absolute power in coming together as a group of people who say no more. Just the power of the joy in coming together to express something and to go change.

Miss You Like Hell is about two women, specifically a mother and daughter. What is it like for you to be in a show that centers on women and it’s not about romance or pitting them against each other?

These women are not cardboard stereotypical characters. This daughter is highly intelligent, Beatriz is a very complex human being who has to survive by ducking and diving, but also has found a way to live and be passionate about living. She’s an artist. At the root of it is their relationship and it has been shaped by outward circumstances, but nonetheless, they take it into their own hands to refine that relationship for themselves. That’s a universal theme, it’s a story about what happens when a mother and daughter lose touch with each other.

You’ve been in Fame and you’ve played Mimi in Rent, so you’ve basically played most of the Latina parts in musicals, which is quite sad. Are there any other of those few parts you’re dying to play?

I never set out to play Latin roles. I set up to do what I love. And, and be lucky enough to do it. I’m thrilled to play these roles. I don’t have specific Latina roles in mind that I’d like to do. I just have a deep desire to, to work and explore all different kinds of roles. Especially now Broadway has taken on this interesting mix of writers, and I don’t wanna say diverse because I hate that word, so let’s say out of the box casting or inclusive casting. When they hire me as a Latina to play a part that maybe they didn’t think a woman of color could do before.

That’s what I’m excited about when I look at things like Oklahoma! or even Waitress and just things I’ve seen. There are different roles available to women and people are starting to broaden their minds a bit about who could play what and still keep the integrity of the show. Because actually we have those experiences too. Guess what, we’re not just in the kitchen making plátanos and rice and beans. We actually have dreams, ambition. Wow. Imagínate! We cut ourselves and we bleed red blood. We need oxygen, the way everybody does. So we should be able to portray the human experience as well as anybody else. So, Shakespeare is where I want to go next.

This is not the first time you’re playing a part that Daphne Rubin-Vega originated, and you also played Anita who both Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno have portrayed. Besides them who were some of the Latina trailblazers you admired?

My sister Luna Lauren Velez, is my standard. I’m astounded by the choices that she made, her fearless dedication to explore on different kinds of material, especially at a time when there weren’t any Latinas. There’s many others too, Daphne herself was a trailblazer. Sara Ramirez with this incredible voice, my God! There’s J.Lo, don’t even get me started on her. I don’t care what anybody says, she is my style icon, and one of the most hardworking, dedicated Latinas in the world. Rosie Perez, Zoe Saldana too. These are people to me that I think fantastic and are paving the way. I aspire to have the breadth of talent to do all kinds of different things.

Would you share a little bit about your process working with Stephanie since she plays your daughter and you’re together on that stage for most of the show. And I wonder what your process, working with her specifically is like ?

When I saw Stephanie, I had an immediate connection to this beautifully talented young woman. One, because we look similar and I think if I had a daughter, this is what she might’ve looked like. She’s also unbelievably talented, and still accessible emotionally and so willing to be open as she goes through the material physically, emotionally, spiritually. She’s 100% present to work with and that’s been a joy because this is a very emotional piece. The process has just been us finding those places, not just where we’re angry at each other, but where the love is between us.

What is the one song in the musical that you’re just dying to do?

There’s so many, I don’t even know if there’s one, but my daughter sings a song called “Now I’m Here,” which is about finally arriving to where you feel well enough to be in the present moment. The feeling is so beautiful and so uplifting that, I can’t wait to hear the music coming up my ears. I can’t wait to experience that with the audience because it’s really beautiful.

Beatriz is a lioness, she has a full song about that. When you first read the script and were doing your own work and your own research to get into Beatriz, when did you know you’d found her?

Beatriz has loss she has to cover or she will not survive. She’s lost most of her family because she left Tijuana very early and had to live with relatives but never had a place of her own. She finally had her daughter and had to give her up too. And I feel that that loss is one of the most defining things about her. I layer my own daily life as I layer things to keep going into rehearsals and keep doing the show. I see Beatriz’s process of layering her daily routine, leaving for work, getting in a truck, going to work, hoping not to get caught, and deciding to be a free spirit, all the while living with this loss and fear that she’s constantly with. So for me, the process has been finding the parallel of that loss and having to continue anyway.

What is your favorite kind of tamale?

I had tamales for the first time last week when Ceasar F. Barajas who plays Manuel brought tamales for the whole cast. They reminded me of Puerto Rican pasteles and they were delicious. It was heavier than I thought it was gonna be, but it was just delicious.

Do you remember what kind it was? Pork or chicken?

It was a chicken tamale and all I could think of was, oh man, I’m so lucky I’m gonna get to eat tamales every night.

As a boricua, what is the thing that you love the most about your culture?

You want me to say one thing? Soy boricua, it’s never one thing! La comida, el café Bustelo, the people, la vida. Oh my God, just the sense of life. People have this idea that boricuas don’t work. They are so hard working. They are so full of love for family and so full of pride for being boricua. Honestly I can’t give you one thing. There are too many.

What better example of a hard worker than J.Lo?

Absolutely, and there’s so many others that don’t have J.Lo fame. I work with a director Luis Caballero who is always at his craft, producing things, writing things, putting things up. Luis Salgado too, he did an experiential take on Shakespeare last year that had me come up to him and say “if I can be involved in any kind of way let me know.” These people are just up there doing their thing, making us proud. It is a proud moment in time to be Latino.

For tickets and more information on Miss You Like Hell go here.

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