The other day a radio contest was announced as I was driving through town. It was offering tickets to some show I’d never heard of, so I called on a whim. It turned out that because of a giant windstorm, everyone’s electricity was out and I was the only caller. Talk about luck! This never happens to me. Normally, I’m the Susan Lucci of radio contests, always a runner-up, never a winner! But for some reason that day, the winds of change pushed me into the winner’s circle. The musical is called “Hands on a Hardbody” by Doug Wright, music by Amanda Green and Trey Anastasio. It is the tale of several contestants who entered to win a truck in the heart of Texas, where the slow economy had driven people to stand for days in the hot sun holding onto a vehicle in order to be the last one standing.
Due to scheduling conflicts, Mr. Fox couldn’t go, and so I took a risk and took my oldest daughter. Normally, any stage production that isn’t specifically Rodgers and Hammerstein or Disney is usually inappropriate for the youngsters, but I was told there was some mild swearing and nothing alarming. So I took 11, lecturing her the whole way there that she wasn’t to repeat anything she heard.
The production was in a small, intimate theater. The only set piece was one big, red truck in the middle of the stage. We were excited, but I was prepared for a lot of left-wing propaganda that is usually so prevalent in the arts. I figured a musical about Texans was bound to rely heavily on ugly stereotypes. (Cue the toothless guy with the cheek full of tobacco and penchant for animal cruelty!) While there was some of that, it was a surprisingly honest depiction of struggling Americans in the Southwest whose way of life deteriorated when their jobs moved overseas or EPA regulations put their oil rigs out of work. I was shocked at how much truth made it through. Each character had a story of hardship and difficulty in this modern America, where the middle-class life is slipping away. The character of Norma Valverde was portrayed as a deeply religious woman who relied on her faith in God to get her through tough times. She was never seen as ridiculous or foolish and actually converts two other contestants by the end of the show! I was amazed by this. Normally, any Christian character is written as an unlikeable hypocrite. Valverde was written as devout, caring, lovable and strong. And “I Feel the Joy,” her theme, is amazing. The music in the whole show was superb, but Valverde’s solo was beyond memorable.
By intermission, there hadn’t been anything overtly anti-American or offensive to the flyover states. My daughter and I went to stand in line for the bathroom and buy snacks when I overheard two older New York ladies behind me. “These are the people who did this to us! They’re the ones who elected him.” The other one sighed and said, “I know. But what can we do? They exist.” Ugh. Mr. Fox pointed out later that I should have turned around and said, “And in front of you, too!” But I’m never quick on the spot like he is, and so I said nothing and waited to hear more. But it appeared the realization that they’re outnumbered by Americans who are struggling to put food on the table, who believe in God, and who can’t buy a truck was depressing enough to keep them silent on the issue.
We settled in for the second half and I knew there would be something unappetizing coming. There simply had to be or this crowd was going to revolt. Sure enough, one of the car dealership employees started harassing a contestant of Hispanic descent for his green card. But the laughs really began when his character, Jesus Pena, began his number “Born in Laredo.” Well, dummy, you’re an American! So who cares if someone asks for your green card … show her your birth certificate instead! The crowd just loved this number. It gave them an excuse to feel good again because a white Texan was painted as a racist who hates immigrants and is ignorant about natural-born Americans of Hispanic descent. I don’t think it had the effect the writers thought it would. No one who voted for Trump’s immigration enforcement or reform wants to send native-born Americans to Mexico. Pena was born in Laredo, Texas, so …. not an immigrant and not illegal. His whole story line was stupid and irrelevant. A person like Pena would never be deported. But the song was catchy.
Another theme that developed was a pro-veteran storyline highlighting the untreated trauma that is affecting our Afghanistan and Iraq vets. This is a serious problem that hasn’t been addressed by the VA and, in fact, has left many veterans without any help at all. Suicide is at epidemic numbers in the service. The writers of this musical were very effective at bringing that struggle to life. I have friends who served in the current wars who suffer from PTSD and it’s a very misunderstood and stigmatized, yet crippling, illness. The character of Chris Alvaro is a Marine who is recently home from war and struggling to fit back into civilian life. His song “Stronger” is touching and poignant without being anti-war.
Virginia and J.D. Drew have a tearjerker of a duet called “Alone With Me” that touches on the empty-nester syndrome and the loneliness that can be felt within a marriage. Their story is deeply captivating and well written. Even 11 cried during that song. The only offensive character was Benny Perkins, the stereotypical southern redneck racist who makes racial jokes and sings about how he loves watching animals he shoots die. Really. By the end, he’s literally on his knees begging God to release him from his prejudice. It isn’t that prejudice doesn’t exist, but for once I’d like to see the bigot cast as a non-white who hates white people like Lara Witt at Teen Vogue magazine who tweets endlessly about how white people are evil and Jews should die in rocket attacks. That would be really different and edgy, wouldn’t it? The old white redneck thing is getting snoozy.
Overall, it was a great show with terrific music and fun for most of the family. The mild swearing turned out to include two “F” words, which I would not characterize as “mild” but my daughter was so caught up with the lights and the dancing that I don’t think she even heard them. It was satisfying to see people of faith, military men, and struggling married folks portrayed in non-offensive and real ways. If you get the chance to see “Hands on a Hardbody,” don’t miss it.