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Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company's production of '26 Miles,' a new play raising awareness about issues of divorce and suicide.

September 29, 2011 1:08 p.m.


Seema Sueko, Co-Founder & Executive Artistic Director of Mo'olelo. She is also the Director of '26 Miles.'

Jessica Van der Stad, Area Director of The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Hannah Rose Kornfeld, actor, plays the part of Olivia and is working for her first time at Mo’olelo.

Cassie Benavidez, actor, plays the part of Beatriz and has been in over 60 motion picture and television projects.

Related Story: '26 Miles' Balances Dark Issues With Wry Humor


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. A teenager in emotional distress. A mother who doesn't know how to help, and a kidnapping and a frantic road trip. Those don't really sound like the elements of a comedy, but critics say the new play being presented by Mo'olelo performing arts company is really quite funny. It's called 26 miles, takes its main characters and the audience on a contentious journey that ends in personal discovery. Seema Sueko is director of the Mo'olelo performing arts company, and the director of 26 miles. Welcome back.

SUEKO: Thank you so much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Jessica Van der Stad is president of the American foundation for suicide prevention. Hello.


CAVANAUGH: And we have a woman who portrays Olivia, one of the characters in 26 miles, Cassie Benavidez.

BENAVIDEZ: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Seema, 26 miles silent name of the play. Is this a play about travel?

SUEKO: In a way, it is. It's about an estranged mother and daughter who take a spontaneous road trip from Paoli Pennsylvania to Yellowstone, but less about the road trip itself. It's really a play about the journey of their own rediscovery of each other.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the playwright, Quiara AlegrÌa Hudes, won a Tony for the book of the musical, In the Heights. She seems to have a personal background that sounds an awful lot like the teenaged character in this play, Olivia.

SUEKO: The playwright as you said, she's half Puerto Rican and half Jewish. And in our play, the character of Olivia is half Cuban, half Jewish. And the play is very much autobiographical. Quiara's mother and herself -- the characters of Olivia and Beatrice were drawn as a reflection of herself and her mother. And the custody battle in the play is also reflective of the custody battle that she experienced as a child between her parents.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Again, another aspect that doesn't sound like comedy. And yet I is handled in a sort of bittersweet and somewhat funny way in the play. Olivia is actually in distress in the begin of this play. And this is the teen aged -- the 16-year-old character right?

SUEKO: That's right. When we meet her at the start of the play, she is throwing up. And we don't know why. Will we later discover that she had a particularly bad day at school where she was bullied. A particularly bad night at home where she was bullied by her stepmother. And she decides to swallow 16 Ibuprofen in a suicide attempt. As part of that, she realizes she wants to live and swallows ipecac syrup to throw up the 16 Ibuprofen, and that's when the play starts.

CAVANAUGH: And Olivia meets or is somehow reunited with her estranged mother in the play, 26 miles. Crazy things start to happen after that. Can you give us a brief idea of what happens after that without giving away the play?

SUEKO: Absolutely. First there's the enjoyment and excitement that the two women have about going on this journey together. They very quickly realize that they are very different. And that is a little unsettling for them. Then they start to find the areas where they're similar. Olivia writes in her journal throughout the play. And she learns about her parents and their woodstock background which provokes a dream ballet in the midst of the play. And then somewhere in the middle of South Dakota as they're heading toward Yellowstone, they meet a magical tamal seller who reminds Beatrice of her own past, and becomes a connector for Olivia to her own heritage. The whole play lives in kind of a magical realism style. And that's where you see these beautiful, magical, charming elements in their journey.

CAVANAUGH: Seema, you had Jessica from the American foundation of suicide prevention consult on this play. Why did you want that kind of input?

SUEKO: Well, are the play isn't about suicide. Two of the characters in the may have attempted -- in the play have attempted suicide. We don't see that attempting in the play, but we hear about it. And while the play is lighthearted and a comedy, I wanted to make sure that the actors had a sense of authenticity in those moments when they talked about their suicide attempts. So we called up Jessica, who very generously shared her time, and also Craig Horner who's on the board of AFSP, they joined us in the second day of rehearsal and shared their own personal stories. Craig himself had survived a suicide attempt, and it was important for us to hear how he talked about that.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let everyone know that we're talking about a new play being presented by Mo'olelo performing arts, it's called 26 miles. I want to bring in a second guest, Jessica Van der Stad, who is with the American foundation for suicide prevention. What kind of insights did you give the actors about suicide attempts as you helped to educate them on this portion of the play?

VAN DER STAD: As Seema mentioned, the play itself doesn't focus on suicide. But it does contain an element where the characters have dealt with suicide attempts before. Our main goal was to insure that the emotions expressed by the actors were both genuine and real. I was joined with my board member, Craig Horner, who is a survivor of a suicide attempt, and I am the survive of a suicide loss. And we both had the ability to share our stories and dialogue with the actors and answer any questions. And the unique thing about this play is that it not only sevens as an artistic piece, but it serves as an educational piece as well.

CAVANAUGH: Why is it important to get that kind of emotional distress right when you're portraying it? How can it be misportrayed and what's wrong about that?

VAN DER STAD: Well, the fact is that suicide has an amazing impact on our community. Every 40 seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide. And every 41 seconds, someone is left behind to make sense of it. And the Dee in understanding and preventing suicide starts in conversation. Conversation about suicide and mental illness. 90% of people who died by suicide have an undiagnosed mental illness at the time of their death. When we can talk about these topics, we can destigmatize the issue of mental illness, and courage those struggling to get help.

CAVANAUGH: One question to you, Seema, about that. Therefore do the actors have to find where their underlying mental illness or mental distress might have been that brought them to that point?

SUEKO: What was interesting about having Craig and Jessica in the rehearsal and listening to them talk about their stories was less than the emotional distress. What we heard in both of their voices was the will to live, and the will to survive and go forward, which is what both the characters, Beatrice, and Olivia capture. Also what was really interesting was Craig had this lovely sort of wry, self effacing way of talking about these attempts in a way that defused the situation and allowed conversation to happen. And that kind of happens in the play as well. Beatrice accidentally shares that she once tried to kill herself, and in her, being able to share that, it opens up Olivia being able to share what she just attempted.

CAVANAUGH: Let me bring in Cassie Benavidez. Hello, Cassie. Once again


CAVANAUGH: Beatrice is a role many actors would love to play. What's she like?

BENAVIDEZ: She's funny, passionate, and she's explosive. She is a woman who's on a mission to win her daughter back, and she will take on anybody who gets in her way.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Now you're going to perform a scene from the play for us. And because the actress who plays Olivia can't be with us today, Seema will play the role of the teenaged daughter today. Can you set this up for us?

SUEKO: This is while the women are on their road trip. And Olivia has been lying to her mother, telling her she's been having phone conversations with her dad. Now, Beatrice has told Olivia that she knows that that is not true because Beatrice has read her journal. This is how Olivia responds.

CAVANAUGH: This is a scene from the play 26 miles.

SUEKO: You want to upon what's in my head? Why didn't you fight for me? The woman who screams and yells in court, you just sat there! You were so polite, so quiet

BENAVIDEZ: Is that what Aaron told you?

SUEKO: I was there, mom.

BENAVIDEZ: A lot happened behind closed doors. Aaron had his own way of fighting.

SUEKO: But he fought for me.

BENAVIDEZ: I wasn't an American citizen, Olivia! And your father held it over my head. If they would have deported me, would that make you happy?

SUEKO: After you became a citizen, did you fight then? You moved on and so did I.

BENAVIDEZ: I have this one picture of me, four months after I lost you. You can see all my ribs. You could count each one. I couldn't get out of bed. I couldn't eat. I lost 50 pounds. My spine looked like those rocks. I tried to kill myself.


BENAVIDEZ: Boohoo, I was dead already.


BENAVIDEZ: I swallowed six Nydols.

SUEKO: So you didn't really want to die?

BENAVIDEZ: Then I swallowed 30 Valium.

SUEKO: What saved you?

BENAVIDEZ: Manuel was my boss. He took me to the hospital and told me to surrender. He said if it's in God's plan, she'll be yours again some day. All you can do right now is surrender.

CAVANAUGH: That's a scene from the play, 26 miles performed by Cassie Benavidez, and Seema Sueko. Thank you both for that. Do you find it difficult to blend the comedy and the emotional depth of this play?

BENAVIDEZ: Yes. I find the whole process of acting is difficult. I find it. But there's such a big payoff at the end that I feel so compelled to keep doing it and doing it over and over again

CAVANAUGH: How difficult was this play to cast?

SUEKO: In some ways, it was very difficult, and in other ways, it was very easy. I think every play can be hard to cast. Not only do you want to find the right person for the role, but you want to find the right cast for your particular production. So we had several days of auditions, and Hannah Rose Cornfeld who plays Olivia came in on day one. I called her in, she nailed it, she got it. End of day one, we've got Olivia cast. By the time we got to day two, I still hadn't fond my Beatrice. So I ended up calling my own local agent and I said, I'm look for a Latina in her '40s who's a really strong actor. Anyone you can send. And they sent over Cassie, and she nailed the role. So that was excellent. I should also mention there are two more actors in the play, Jacob Bruce, and Raul Cordona who play several of the men in these women's lives. And they have the challenge of being both character actors, having to play a variety of characters as well as having to be the straight man, and the leading man in some of the scenes.

CAVANAUGH: There's also another challenge in this play, and that is to depict a road trip. How do you go about doing that physically in this play?

SUEKO: It is a challenge. The playwright puts some clues in her script, she suggests that the car that Beatrice and Olivia travel in is made up of a chair from her mother's house, and hay chair from her mother's house. So she suggests a minimalism. When I spoke with her on the phone, she said she really wrote this as a chamber piece that would highlight the actors. Yet, at the same time, you have the challenge of going from Philly to Yellowstone, and making sure you don't bore the audience by just having two chairs on stage. So scenic designer David viner and our projection designer, marrilia marsion, decided to use a lot of video projection to help us on this journey. And taking a clue from using chairs as cars, everything on the stage becomes something else. The bed becomes the road, the desk box a counter, and stairs become mountains.

CAVANAUGH: I understand. You have to be very creative when you're doing this.

SUEKO: Absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Jessica, you're partnering with Mo'olelo performing arts company in this. How important is that to your group? What do you kind of get out of that relationship?

VAN DER STAD: Well, are it's a very unique relationship. We have a theatre production company and a suicide prevention organization. And obviously our missions do not really align. But through this performance, we're able to really show the need to talk openly about suicide. And it provides our organization a unique opportunity to do that. Preventing suicide does not lie in the hands of one individual or organization. It is a community effort. So the opportunity to partner and to spread suicide awareness is extremely important.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Seema, you have this heavy emotional play with a lot of light touches, a lot of laughter in it. You blend that all up. What do you want the audience to ply take away from this play?

SUEKO: That's a great question. The; isn't that correctly answer is, well, I hope they take away whatever they do. But I think the experience that I like to have when I watch the actors on stage running through the play is I -- at the end of the play, I feel that my heart is very full. And full because I've seen this journey of becoming comfortable in your own skin. Becoming comfortable with who you are, who your family is. Of and I feel like that is a journey that hopefully I think we all can relate to.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Cassie, is that sort of the emotional payoff that you were talking about?

BENAVIDEZ: It really is. It's exactly what I was talking about.

CAVANAUGH: And how do you feel at the end of this play besides tired?

BENAVIDEZ: Yes. I feel like a conquered an enormous fear.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that is tremendous. We are out of time now. I want to tell the audience that 26 miles begins previews tonight and runs through October 23rd at Mo'olelo performing arts company downtown on tenth avenue. And I've been speaking with Seema Sueko who is the artistic director of Mo'olelo performing arts company, Jessica Van der Stad, with the American foundation of suicide prevention, and actor Cassie Benavidez. Thank you so much.

BENAVIDEZ: Thank you.

SUEKO: Thank you.

VAN DER STAD: Thank you.