“Lewis and Clark, Jack Kerouac, and me: hitting the road!” That’s the cheesiest line in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ 26 Miles, now showing at Profile Theatre. It may also be the most important, as a nerdy teenage girl, Olivia (Alex Ramirez de Cruz), earnestly announces her place in a pantheon of iconic road narratives.
26 Miles is the latest in Profile’s season of plays by Quiara Alegría Hudes. Following last year’s focus on Sarah Ruhl, this season reflects the company’s relatively new initiative to spotlight work by women and people of color. It’s a sensible approach to counterbalancing theater’s well-documented diversity problem, and one the company, which each year dedicates an entire season to work by a single playwright, is uniquely positioned to take.
It’s exciting to see this in practice with Hudes’ plays, which are varied in structure and storytelling. 26 Miles follows the company’s previous production of Hudes’ much darker Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue. In 26 Miles, Olivia and her estranged mother, Beatriz (Julana Torres), drive west from suburban Pennsylvania without a plan. They crash in motel rooms and eat tamales and dream of spotting bison in Wyoming. They talk about sex and race and the various ways men—Olivia’s father (Chris Harder), Beatriz’ partner (Jimmy Garcia)—have disappointed them. Olivia is gawky and kind of annoying, which is a testament to Hudes’ writing, because it’s how teenagers actually are. Beatriz is flamboyant and smart and a little bitter. The cast does well with Hudes’ funny, warm material, but Torres stands out; her Beatriz is charismatic and fun, but she’s also multidimensional, with a legible sense of underlying pain.
26 Miles may seem less ambitious than a play like Eliot, but it also feels more personal, and in that sense it may be a braver story. Hudes grew up with a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother, and she’s known for the way her plays incorporate music into their storytelling. It’s easy to see Olivia, who likes Chopin’s nocturnes and writes obsessively and grapples with her biracial identity, as a stand-in for the playwright.
There’s also something exciting about seeing a road narrative that focuses on a mother and a daughter, and digs into issues of race and immigration complications, as well as the way the world can be a cruel place for smart teenage girls. Maybe because we’re so starved for this in a cultural landscape where female-led road narratives are so few and far between. There are exceptions: Thelma and Louise, plenty of YA odysseys, and Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, which in 1986 set the gold standard for the genre with a rebellious wandering heroine played perfectly by Sandrine Bonnaire—and hasn’t been equaled since. Women’s travelogues tend to be dismissed outright as unserious, and that’s a shame because iconic stories of travel tend not to include us, or to include us in ways that are offensive and flattened. I’ve always loved traveling, but a lot of the stories about hitting the road that are tagged as important make me bored if not mildly queasy. I tried to read On the Road after a year of living abroad and traveling aimlessly in my early 20s—a time that book is arguably most relevant—and I couldn’t finish it. I found its masculine swagger affected, its sexism and racism embarrassingly dated, its insights shallow and uninspiring.
Conversely, in a talk before the play’s opening show, Profile’s Artistic Director Josh Hecht described 26 Miles as a relatable story, and it is, in the best way possible. I’ve never hit the road with my bros to slum it up and do a bunch of drugs until my trust fund kicks in, but I have gone on a road trip with my mom. I have freaked out over seeing a bison in real life.
Of course, the subtext here is important, too: Maybe we have so many of these Men Traveling and Having Thoughts stories because it’s logistically easier to be a freewheeling young white straight man in a road narrative, because freewheeling young white straight men enjoy the privilege of unfettered movement. For women and people of color, this is rarely the case. This is why a play like 26 Miles is so useful, and even instructive: It reclaims the road for those of us who’ve never gone through a Kerouac phase. It nods at all those other journeys, the ones we don’t read about in books or see in movies—journeys across borders and state lines and across divisions of age and identity. By standing in for these other, invisible stories, 26 Miles transforms a tired genre into something full of new possibilities and wonder, and like hitting I-94 and driving until you can’t drive anymore, it makes the ordinary world look new.