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(From left to right) J Hernandez, Amanda Schoonover. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile
(From left to right) J Hernandez, Amanda Schoonover. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile

Talking to the Latin cast of 'The Motherfu**er with the Hat'

The South Philly theater’s 25th season brought the Stephen Adly Guirgis play to their stage. AL DÍA spoke with three cast members to get an inside look.

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Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**cker with the Hat first premiered on Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in Spring 2011. Earlier this February, South Philly’s Theatre Exile and The Brothers’ Network made the play’s Philadelphia debut possible. 

The play from Guirgis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, is a verbally viscous, tense piece exploring infidelity, addiction, and the mystery of friendship into adulthood.

Often censored as The Motherf**cker with the Hat, or The Mother with the Hat, the play’s title makes it known early that its contents will be explicit. 

Guirgis’ The Mother follows a sometimes cutthroat cast of characters navigating life in close proximity and often dealing with a personal sense of alienation.

Theatre Exile has brought the cautionary play to Philly’s stages with their February production. Directed by West Philly native Ozzie Jones, the crew has brought the Guirgis play to life for the city.

J Hernandez stars as lead Jackie, alongside Scott Greer’s Ralph, Amanda Schoonover as Victoria, and Daniela Malavé and Zach Valdez as Jackie’s oldest companions — his high school sweetheart and younger cousin, respectively.

Jackie has recently been released from prison, and is prepared to turn his life around, but he has a change of heart when he discovers a mysterious hat in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend.

The Latin cast members of The Motherf**cker with the Hat

The show’s star, J Hernandez, drew attention and praise back in 2013 for his acclaimed performance as Iago in Othello from the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theater.

Hernandez, Malavé, and Valdez each made their debut on Theatre Exile stages with the production, braving the consistent push and pull of the ongoing pandemic and its threat to in-person theater.

Amid the ongoing health worries, the subject matter of the play was a challenge within itself. Luckily, the team was always prepared to tackle both.

“With a show like this, it’s not easy, because we are dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter, so with something like this, it definitely takes a team,” said Hernandez. 

The Mother details Jackie’s journey after prison as he navigates sobriety. Jackie’s insecurities open a series of events and revelations settled by vulgar arguments and budding egos. 

Despite the heavy subject matter, the Theatre Exile crew came equipped with support and open hearts.

(From left to right) Daniela Malavé, J Hernandez. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile
(From left to right) Daniela Malavé, J Hernandez. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile

“I don’t think I could have done this show if it wasn’t for my co-stars, my team, the other actors,” said Malavé. “It is such heavy material, and it is a roller coaster of a ride, and we just really have each other’s back.”

Hernandez and Malavé may have a complicated on-stage relationship, but off-stage the two share a friendship of respect and collaboration.

Malavé sees her role in The Mother as somewhat of a full-circle moment. Malavé auditioned for the same role in a 2015 production in New York, but wouldn’t take on the role until this year.

“I commend Daniela… it’s  not easy material to do, and she was courageous from day one,” said Hernandez. “Not everybody can do this, and not everybody can sell it, and that’s pretty much what Daniela is doing right now."

This was both Valdez and Malavé’s first show in Philly, and Valdez’s first show overall since 2017. The actor plays the headstrong Julio, the cousin of Jackie.

Jackie and Julio grew up in Puerto Rico together, where Jackie first met Veronica. Julio cares for Jackie, but often cites his kindness as being solely in honor of Jackie’s late mother.

Jackie’s mother, although an off-screen character, often carries the philosophy of the story. Julio points to Jackie’s sweetness as a child, his mother’s good deeds, to encourage Jackie in believing there is inherent good in him.

Off-stage, Malavé is Venezuelan-American, while Valdez and Hernandez are both from Texas. Hernandez grew up in South Texas, about 20 minutes from the Mexican border.

The younger years of Jackie, Julio, and Veronica play into the story’s themes of forgiveness and friendship. The purer, bygone days of a childhood in Puerto Rico stand as the emotional tether these three characters have to one another, and their often hidden love.

(From left to right) J Hernandez, Zach Valdez. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile
(From left to right) J Hernandez, Zach Valdez. Photo: Paola Nogueras / Theatre Exile

The cultural background of the characters speaks to the play as well. Their backgrounds informed how some of the performances were handled.

“I grew up around Latino people. I know what it’s like to have my aunts and uncles dancing to music, but then towards the end of the night, either fighting or crying,” said Valdez. “That’s very much a cultural thing. It’s one of those things: if you know you know. You know what it’s like to hear that music… hear those jokes… the slangs and all that.”

While the themes and complications of The Mother are not relegated to Latin communities, the play upholds the truths and struggles of its characters in more ways than one.

Hernandez recalled not having had a Latinx partner as his on-stage mutual in years, since moving from Texas around 2006. 

When it came to Hernandez’s sentiment, Malavé agreed, stating that the chance to act opposite someone of Latin descent was welcoming.

The cultural backgrounds of the characters are intended to make up a diverse locale such as New York City, where the play is set. In this iteration, the connection to Latin culture and backgrounds is particularly strong.

As for the takeaway in The Mother’s hectic plot, the cast hopes audiences leave with a greater understanding of human nature, and why people make the mistakes they do, or why they hurt people how they may.

“I hope that the takeaway is to not completely judge these characters, and that there is a reason why they behave the way that they do," said Malavé. "There’s reasons why people have addictions. Addiction is a trauma response. Every single character is incredibly flawed, but they’re human.”

Trauma responses are not exclusive to substance abusers, and the play hopes to make note of that. The Mother seeks to portray the sickness of addiction as one of various forms and intensities.

“As far as addiction goes, I think that’s something we can all relate to as far as being addicted to something,” said Valdez. “The process of getting clean or getting rid of that substance, or whatever that is you’re addicted to. [It’s] a lot harder to get rid of because you have this practice of using it for so long. That’s very much a human thing.”

How to catch The Motherf**cker with the Hat

Tickets for The Motherf**cker with the Hat at Theatre Exile are available now. Be advised, the play features frequent profanity, drug use,  violence, and suggestive imagery. The content is intended for mature audiences. 

This Theatre Exile production was made possible by The Brothers’ Network, a partner of the theater. 

The Brothers’ Network is a Black-led, Black-run social enterprise non-profit arts organization dedicated to “addressing racial inequity through the lens of the Arts, culture, literature, history, and heritage.”

The capacity for Theatre Exile has been lowered from 125 seats to 60, per the company’s safety guidelines. Audiences and staff must wear masks when indoors, and show ID & proof of vaccination before entering. 

Theatre Exile’s address is 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147. A full list of remaining show dates are listed below: 

  • Friday, Feb 18, 8PM
  • Saturday, Feb 19, 8PM
  • Sunday, Feb 20, 3PM
  • Monday, Feb 21, 7PM
  • Wednesday, Feb 23, 7PM
  • Thursday, Feb 24, 12PM & 7PM
  • Friday, Feb 25, 8PM
  • Saturday, Feb 26, 8PM
  • Sunday, Feb 27, 3PM
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