'Art is not neutral’: Baltimore Center Stage kicks off season by stepping into the political arena

Left to right: Ceasar F. Barajas and Lorraine Velez star in CenterStage's production of 'Miss You Like Hell.'
Left to right: Ceasar F. Barajas and Lorraine Velez star in CenterStage's production of 'Miss You Like Hell.'(HANDOUT)

Baltimore Center Stage artistic director Stephanie Ybarra’s ancestry is part Mexican and part Czech. Her family has lived in the U.S. for four generations.

But in the 1980s when Ybarra was in middle school, a planned trip to her grandparents’ ranch was canceled. Much later, she learned that older relatives (now long dead) had made death threats against her and her sister.


“My cousins didn’t talk to us at family reunions because we were the ‘dirty Mexicans,’ ” said Ybarra, Center Stage’s artistic director. "Generations later and as far removed as I was from the immigrant experience, I’m still feeling the ripple effects.”

Ybarra is opening Center Stage’s 2019-2020 season with “Miss You Like Hell,” a musical that tackles the immigration debate head-on — signaling that under Ybarra, the 56-year-old troupe is likely to start becoming more actively involved in political and social issues than it has been in recent memory.

When Republican legislators held their annual retreat in Baltimore earlier this month, Center Stage issued an invitation to the lawmakers that managed to be both a veiled taunt and a model of polite manners. A truck drove around town displaying a billboard that read:

"Dear House Republicans,

"Welcome to Baltimore. We invite you to a joyful musical about an undocumented mother and a U.S.-born daughter. We think you’ll find it illuminating.

“Baltimore Center Stage (Maryland 7th)”

None of the legislators have taken Center Stage up on its offer, according to a spokeswoman —at least as far as administrators know. But Ybarra, who’s seriously considering having the phrase “art is not neutral” tattooed on her forearm, said that this will not be the last time Center Stage takes a political stance. (That’s a quote from one of Ybarra’s favorite books, Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emergent Strategy.”)

“In every single show that we’re doing this season,” Ybarra said, “there is a conversation that some folks might call capital P ‘political’ but that I would call life.”


“Miss You Like Hell” depicts a road trip taken by a mother and daughter. Beatriz is an artist and an undocumented alien from Mexico. She desperately wants to reconnect with the child she hasn’t seen in four years — especially before the upcoming court hearing that will determine whether she can legally remain on this side of the border. Her daughter, 16-year-old Olivia, was born in the U.S. and lives in Philadelphia with her father. But the teen struggles with depression and feelings of abandonment.

After Olivia joins her mother for a one-week, cross-country trek in a rundown pick-up truck, the pair meet strangers who help and hinder their journey.

The musical was written by Quiara Alegria Hudes, (a Pulitzer Prize-winner who collaborated with Lin-Manuel Miranda on his first Broadway musical, “In the Heights”) and Erin McKeown.

“This show makes me think of the diversity of what we consider immigration stories,” said Rebecca Martinez, who directed the production. “It makes me think of how fluid borders are and how arbitrary the definition is of who belongs in this country and who does not.”

In a recent round-table discussion, Martinez and two of the show’s actors told tales of their lives that illustrated the truth behind the feminist rallying cry: “The personal is political.”

Below are the stories, in the trio’s own words:


Director Rebecca Martinez

"My ancestors lived in the southwest part of this country before it was the U.S., before it was Mexico and before it was New Spain. [After the Mexican-American War ended in 1848] the the boundary line between the two nations was arbitrarily changed.

Folks were told, ‘If you want to become U.S. citizens, you can stay and keep all your lands. Or you can move thousands of miles to Mexico.' Ninety percent of them had no other option but to stay.

“When my grandmother was a girl, she lived on a little ranchito called Las Aguitas in what is now southern Colorado. One day, in the early 1900s when she was about 5-years-old, her family had to move. Their land was just taken away.

"They went to a small town and lived a basic existence. The men worked on the railroad and in the fields. Eventually, they joined the military.

“That’s when my family finally began to move up economically.”

Actress Lorraine Velez (Beatriz)

"I’m first-generation. We never considered ourselves to be immigrants because Puerto Ricans are Americans. But Puerto Rico is the poor cousin of the United States and is made to feel so.

"When we first moved to Rockaway Beach in Queens in the 1970s, it was very difficult. The unofficial slogan was ‘KKK for a Better Rockaway.’ It was predominantly white and the neighborhood kids were not allowed to play with us. But there were eight of us kids in our family, so we didn’t care.

"One day, after we’d been living there for about a year, it began snowing and we went outside to play. The girl next door came up to us. She must have been about 12 and she said, ‘Can I play with you?’

"My older sister Jackie said, ‘NO! You wouldn’t play with us before!’

“But my sister Margie said, ‘Of course you can play with us.’ That girl ended up becoming Margie’s best friend. They’re still best friends to this day.”

Actor Ceasar F. Barajas (Manuel)

"I’m first generation Mexican, and I grew up in Texas. My mother’s first words [after seeing the musical] were ‘I can’t believe how many people I know with this exact same story.’

"My parents had friends who were deported. Or, they stayed and became undocumented. There are a million tiny complexities you can’t imagine in the life of any undocumented person.

[In a scene from the musical, Beatriz is stopped by a police officer for a burned-out tail light on her truck. When she can’t produce valid registration, she’s hauled off to jail. Though Beatriz owns the pick-up it’s licensed under her Irish landlady’s name.]

"My parents were immigrants. But luckily they became naturalized citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"My pops worked as a jack of all trades and my mom went from driving the school bus to becoming an ESL [English as a second language] teacher.

"The only requirement my parents had for my brother and me growing up was, ‘You’re going to go to school.’

"He and I joke about it to this day. You could wake up and be holding a lung in your hand, and my mom would say, ‘You’re going to school.’

“Now, my brother and I both have master’s degrees.”

If You Go

“Miss You Like Hell” runs through Oct. 13 at Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets cost $20-$74. Call 410-332-0033 or go to centerstage.org.