Finding hope amid grief: Inside ‘Extreme Home Makeover,’ the new play at South Philly’s Theatre Exile
The new play from playwright Makasha Copeland opened at the theater on Nov. 3, 2021. AL DÍA recently got the chance to talk to the cast and creator
The play details a Tejano family’s experience living in the Borderlands of Texas around the Summer of 2007, while reeling from the untimely passing of one of the group’s leading adult figures.
Throughout the play, each member of the family — the Vega’s: mother Valentina, son Marco, daughter Lupe, and grandmother Guadalupe — handle the death of their husband, father, and son-in-law differently.
The cast of four is assembled by local Philadelphia actors Jessy Gruver as Valentina, Angel Sigala as Marco, Krystal Rosa as Lupe, and Yajaira Paredes as Guadalupe.
The play was directed by Deborah Block, Theatre Exile’s Producing Artistic Director.
The premier of Extreme Home Makeover welcomed Theatre Exile’s first live production since March 2020. The premiere also rang in Theatre Exile’s 25th overall season.
Tickets for Extreme Home Makeover are available now. Twelve nights of the play remain, and they will be held at Theatre Exile between Nov 10 and Nov 21, 2021.
Copeland’s Extreme Home Makeover was inspired by their own childhood.
The Vega's story pulls similarities from Copeland’s childhood, and the fact that Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was a childhood favorite show for the playwright.
In the play, during a period motioning through grief’s stages, the Vega family find themselves auditioning for a fictionalized version of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.
Copeland had returned to the original series later in life, with adult eyes, and picked up on the absurdity and saviourism embedded within the show.
“With this play, I wanted to laugh through experiences from three generations of my family’s childhoods, the intersection of generational poverty and grief, and the pressure to commodify ones suffering in order to get access to life-affirming opportunities and resources,” said Copeland.
In the play, the fictionalized Extreme Home Makeover is perceived by Valentina as the answer to all the family’s problems: financial insecurity, worsening health, and a house with failing infrastructure.
When Valentina involves the whole family in her unconventional grieving method, the Vega’s start to face additional hardship spurred from the ongoing creation of their audition tape.
As Valentina’s pursuit of a winning audition tape develops, she loses herself in the attempted capsulation of their expanding grief.
In conversation, Copeland posed the question: “How do you heal wounds that those in power would rather watch you pick?”
The play is filmed as if the audience are watching the Vega’s audition tape, allowing for a layered depiction of the family, who may or may not be putting on a guise for potential ABC representatives.
Throughout, the family develops an almost parasocial relationship with the fictionalized ABC network, to the point that the television station feels like a character itself, and perhaps the story’s antagonist.
When it came to depicting a contemporary Tejano family, cast members trusted the writing while pulling from Latin backgrounds.
Some cast members also reached out to friends with similar backgrounds as the characters to create an informed portrayal.
When getting into the role of a grieving mother, cast member Jessy Gruver pulled from stories and experiences of loss.
“Valentina is trying her best to push ahead and deal with her family and financial obligations and isn’t ready to deal with the loss of her husband,” said Gruver. “She is exhausted, overworked, and overwhelmed but trying to put on a happy face.”
On playing grieving children trying to be strong for their mother, Angel Sigala shared that he had a connection to Marco and Lupe, and hoped for them to have a happy ending.
“I wanted so badly for these kids to have an easy grieving process and have a happy ending. But that wouldn’t be truthful to this family. It is in their struggles and their love for each other... that we find the hope to keep moving forward,” he said.
On the other hand, Rosa felt a personal connection to the grief Lupe experienced, and inserted this into her performance.
She tapped into the feelings she felt when her grandmother passed, and how she had wanted to remain strong for her own mother.
“I have dealt with the loss of my grandmother a few years back so tapping into that feeling of not seeing a close loved one anymore was easy to get into,” shared Rosa.
Unlike the characters Lupe and Marco, Guadalupe is the most disapproving of Valentina’s grieving methods in the play.
Yajaira Paredes shared some thoughts on Guadalupe’s careful but stern approach to walking Valentina through her grief:
“It was very interesting to discover Guadalupe through the words written by Makasha. Her love for her family, her support, constancy, positivity, and hope that everything will work out,” said Paredes.
"I love the moments in which Guadalupe imposes herself, but, at the same time, she doubles down with love without forgetting that the union in the family is the most important thing,” she continued.
The cast members also relished the opportunity to finally go back in front of a live audience as performers.
Each found themselves in a place of gratitude for the audience that showed up to support the production, and shared that a connection was felt in the return.
The opportunity to put on a naturally unique version of a production for a number of days is a rewarding experience, and one the cast of Extreme Home Makeover values.
As Extreme Home Makeover’s open celebrated Theatre Exile’s return to in-person productions, the theater is hoping to keep the magic of opening night going.
This can be achieved through continued support of the local South Philly theater.
Tickets for the 12 remaining productions of Extreme Home Makeover are available now, with shows taking place between Nov 10-21.