“We’re just trying to return people’s humanity,” an Interview with Stephanie Gomérez 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 Stephanie Gomérez, who plays Olivia, a book obsessed teenager who decides to go on a road trip with her estranged mother Beatriz (played by Lorraine Velez). 

When you did In the Heights in Cincinnati you said that Olivia was one of your dream roles. Did you have an idea this would happen so soon or have you just had an incredible year?

I saw Miss You Like Hell at The Public with Daphne Rubin-Vega and Gizel Jiménez and then I saw the Olney Theatre was holding auditions for it but I think it was in between one of my cities, so I was going home for two weeks and it was due the day after I got home, but I just woke up so exhausted that I said I can’t, I just can’t. So I didn’t end up going to that audition and then that little questionnaire came out and I was like, you know what, that is an amazing show. I was in the vibe of like Latinos and power and family and all of that, I heard the recordings, I was memorizing songs. when my agent got me an appointment and I said, oh, well this, I’d have to go to. I went in for the auditions and callbacks knowing that if I got the role of Olivia, I would have to give up doing the fourth city of my In The Heights tour, so I actually had to turn down an extension of In the Heights so that I could do this.

That must’ve been heartbreaking but also exciting.

I mean it’s meant to be that the universe gives you what you throw at it. And I spoke it into existence I guess.

Olivia is such a beautiful, complex character, what’s your take on what drives her?

On the outside she might seem a little, a little cold, cause she’s got such issues with her mother. But I think the thing about Olivia is that she has so much feeling or she wants to feel so much and she’s so smart. She’s a 16- year-old girl who lost her mother and she feels angry. She feels like she needs someone to blame, her life is not a fairy tale.

What did you see of yourself in Olivia?

Her humor is very smart, she’s very sarcastic because she loves books and putting herself in another world, any world that’s not her own. I’m an avid reader, I love books, I love the places that I get transported to. I can identify with that when she says books are my passport to the world. And that’s a lot like myself.

When you were in college, you played Diana Morales in A Chorus Line, and then you did In the Heights. So essentially you played most of the parts in musicals written for Latinas in your age bracket. How is it to do Miss You Like Hell with that awareness?

When you play something that you know, there’s a connection that nobody else can do. When I was doing In the Heights and we started doing our table reads, we were all talking about just the way we were raised and things we used to do when we were younger. And there’s just such a pride and a community and a love that comes with being a Latinx person. We have so little opportunities for us to show our culture and our heritage on the stage that when you’re given that opportunity, you have to go 100% and you have to let people know.

We’re not trying to throw anything in anyone’s faces on stage, we’re not trying to do anything. All we want to show people by bringing ourselves into theater, into plays, into musical is that we’re humans. We’re exactly like you. There’s no difference. We might’ve grown up a little bit differently, but to our base, to our core, we are just people trying to live this life, trying to make money, trying to find love, trying to get an education. We all want the same things and we’re all humans and it’s beautiful to be able to share your culture on stage with other people who unfortunately at this period in time are afraid of anything that’s different.

The show is about two women which in itself is another rarity, given that they’re not competing for the same man, rivals in any way, or lovers either. They’re mother and daughter.

For some godforsaken reason, women have just been set against each other. I feel it’s just a distraction so that men can be buddy buddies and they can rise and get their power, and women have always thought they had one position so let all fight for that one position instead of let’s all fight together to get more positions. Latin culture is very matriarchal. You don’t mess with your mother, you don’t mess with abuelita, they are the powers that be. It’s nice to be able to show that we are not weak. Crying is not a weakness. Being a woman is not a weakness. We are powerful. We are strong, we are capable just as much as you are, cause we have to go through the same struggles and then some. So it’s beautiful to have someone like Lorraine to work with, because she is amazing and it’s just beautiful female strength. Our director and our music director and a bunch of creware women too and it’s beautiful.

Unleash the feminine divine, as Beatriz says.

Yes, the future is female.

What’s your process like working with Lorraine specifically, since you need to forge such an intimate relationship?

A lot of our relationship has been solely in the rehearsal room, which takes up most of our day. While I’m in the rehearsal room with Lorraine, I find people connect a lot with humor and with joy. And because this show is so heavy and Olivia and Beatriz have such a complicated relationship and a lot of it is just butting heads, when we’re not Olivia and Beatriz, I really just like to mess around with Lorraine, dance around her or try to make her laugh, try to make her break. I feel like it bonds people. I think everybody loves a good joke, everybody loves to laugh and it’s so nice to laugh, especially in a show that’s so heavy and I think we need it for our mental stability honestly.

It’s very surreal to see a show like this in 2019, which was written during the Obama years, and hear people assume kit was written yesterday to tie in with the current narrative on immigration. What is it like for you to do a show right now when this administration is so desperately trying to keep parents separated from their children?

It just makes it that much more important for us to give this to audiences because it’s very easy for people to just turn off the news, to not read articles, to turn a blind eye. Ignorance is bliss and if you don’t want to hear about it because it’s not happening directly in front of you, it’s easy to ignore it. So if you’re coming to this show, we’re not letting you ignore this issue. And even if it was written however many years ago, this is relevant, this is happening. Families are being separated, people are being pulled out of hospitals, traffic court, etc. Logistically you say these people don’t have papers, they shouldn’t be here, they broke the rules.

But I think that with this show, we’re just trying to return people’s humanity. If you just stop thinking about the logic and the money of it and the business of it, and we don’t need all these people in it. If you just stop and think, is this right to separate families? Is this right to send people back when they are terrified for their lives? And I think that’s what this show is trying to do. We’re trying to just take these blinders of fear that unfortunately our president has enforced.

He’s leading through fear and everyone’s afraid of the people that are coming to take our jobs.That’s not true. We’re just people. We’re just a mother who wants to be with her daughter. We’re just a worker trying to support their family back home. We’re just trying to seek solace because I am unsafe in my country that I was born in. It’s not anybody’s fault where they were born, but it’s despicable to kick them out and just have no humanity and no heart behind any of it.

And this show brings me to tears every time I do it because it’s really disgusting the way that our government is going about these situations. People really need to just come and see this, you can’t turn us off. You bought your ticket, you’re sitting in this seat now, and unless you want to walk out and waste your money, I’m going to make you sit there and watch what’s happening. This is happening in real life.

How do you wash off Olivia after each performance? Do you just take her pain home?

For me it’s humor from the minute, from the minute I sing my last note I need to laugh, I need to joke, I need to just completely remove myself from the situation and just talk to my friends who are amazing. It’s very easy to have this sit with you, to have it weigh you down and to, and to carry it with you. And I know that that’s not healthy. So for me I use humor and I’ll joke around or I’ll run around, I’ll jog around, I’ll dance around, I’ll just do something that is the exact opposite of what I was just doing.

The other day we did a run through and I turned to Lorraine and I was upset and I was crying and I said, “fuck, let me hug you, I know this isn’t real, so let me just hug you right now cause I can’t hug you in the show.” You have to find the lightness in this situation because as actors we basically put ourselves through mental and emotional hell so that we can share these stories with audiences. I’ve found ways to get myself out of that mental state, so I don’t let it sit with me and stay with me for days and days.

What is your favorite kind of tamale?

I’m a vegetarian and the first time I ever had a tamale was a Trader Joe’s vegetarian, corn and green tamale. In the restaurant that I used to work at, they used to buy them out of a minivan and they would bring them in, but I never tried one. But now I’m a vegetarian, but I gotta say the Trader Joe’s tamales are pretty dang good.

Could you share one of your favorite things about your cultural heritage?

It’s very stereotypical, but I love me some mangú, some plátano maduro and pastelón de yuca. I don’t know if it’s particularly Dominican, but my mother makes a bomb ass pastelón de yuca I don’t stay long. It is world renowned, if you know my mother, you know her pastelón and if you’re gonna need some, she has no problem making one for you, having you put it in your freezer and save it for a rainy day. It’s so good.

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

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