Hilary Bettis: Haunting Portraits of Survival

Probing the capacity for harm and deliverance within individual families and society at large, Hilary Bettis’ plays render the darkest depths of the human experience alongside its most poignant heights. Bettis’ characters include cowboys and addicts, gang members and wayward teens, heiresses and immigrants in plays that crisscross North America. Although she now calls Brooklyn home, Bettis spent her childhood growing up in many different states—California, Colorado, Georgia, Minnesota, New York, and the Carolinas—and this mobility has perhaps informed her chameleon-like ability to immerse her writing within multiple locales and contexts. She explains that “the older I get, the more grateful I am to have lived in so many different places. They’ve all showed me such different perspectives of humanity in ways that forced me to question my own assumptions and prejudices at a young age.”

Bettis did not dream of writing as a child, believing that her “career is, quite legitimately, a byproduct of survival.” Using the power of her voice, Bettis has gone from homelessness on the streets of Los Angeles to graduation from The Juilliard School’s Lila Acheson Wallace Playwriting Fellowship. Her plays draw directly on the theme of survival—Bettis’ characters find themselves in tense and sometimes lethal situations, forced to decide what they are willing to give up and what they are willing to bargain with in order to protect the things and people they can’t live without.

Alligator—set in the backwoods of the Florida Everglades—examines alcoholism, sex, and family in a mode of blended realism and surrealism. The play follows teenaged twins Emerald and Ty, well beyond their heyday as gator wrestlers in a sideshow, whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of Lucy, a slightly younger runaway, whose entanglement with the siblings turns deadly. Bettis worked to capture the “raw, visceral energy” that she finds in “dirty, grungy rock clubs” and translate it into this play. Her efforts certainly paid off; Alligator received the 2017 Drama Desk Award for Best Music in a Play, the result of Bettis’ collaboration on an original score with an indie rock trio. The play premiered Off Broadway with New Georges as a part of The Sol Project, which “amplifies and supports Latinx voices in the American theatre.” Alligator earned a place on the New York Times 2016 Memorable Theater List and was included in the 2016 Kilroys List, an annual industry survey or notable un- and under-produced new plays by female and trans playwrights.

Bettis explored her own Mexican heritage in The Ghosts of Lote Bravo—a play set in Ciudad Juárez, a border town where Juanda works in a maquiladora, manufacturing American flag t-shirts duty-free for a US-based company. Juanda’s daughter Raquel has gone missing and Juanda fears she’s another life lost to the more than 400 feminicidios in the city since 1993. Juanda’s search for her daughter brings her into confrontation with a dangerous and omnipotent gang, the strength of her own religious beliefs, and aspects of her daughter she never knew. Bettis explains that “part of writing this play was like digging up my own family ghosts and things that I personally had always been afraid to talk about, because my family never talked about them.” Her grandfather, originally from Caohuila in Northern Mexico, concealed the scars of the poverty and violence he witnessed growing up. Bettis, too, experienced violence and assault during her adolescent years. Examining the wounds of her grandfather alongside her own, Bettis aims to not only shed light on violence against women, corruption, and brutal working conditions in the play, but also demonstrates the saving power of close family ties. The play was on the Kilroys List in 2015 and received a rolling world premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre; the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, MO; and Borderlands Theater in Tucson, Arizona in 2016 through the National New Play Network.

A sampling of Bettis’ other works include Dakota Atoll, which tells the story of the Huestead family, ranchers in South Dakota. The play, set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, examines the themes of war and morality as a strange cowboy comes to town and disrupts the family’s daily life. The play was a finalist for the Kilroys List in 2014; Bettis has the distinction of being recognized by the Kilroys List every year since it was first released in 2014. The History of American Pornography (Kilroys List, 2015) tells the story of a forty-year-old heiress to a porn empire who is looking to lose her virginity and find true intimacy after a life around an industry where sex and money intertwined. Mexico (2013) probes the fantasy life and present reality of Middle American mother Beatrice, who works at the Dairy Queen her father owns and whose dream world comes crashing into her everyday existence with the return of her high school crush. American Girls (2008), Bettis’ coming-of-age tale about church-going, straight-A fourteen-year-olds Amanda and Katie, scrutinizes the price of fame in addition to American religion when the girls make a deal with the devil to achieve stardom. Monologues and scenes from the play have been included in several anthologies, and the show premiered Off Broadway in 2008 at the 45th Theatre.

With two screenplays under her belt in addition to dramatic works, as well as two seasons as a writer for FX’s hit show The Americans, Bettis will continue to blaze new trails as she explores moments of tension and redemption from people crossing borders geographical, communal, and cultural. The theatre that most excites her, she writes, is “something that hits me in the gut. Something that shows me the world from a new perspective. Something that lingers with me long after the production.”

Alexandra Kennedy