Chicago’s Justina Machado knows gentrification, the theme of her new series

She plays a woman fresh from prison in ‘The Horror of Dolores Roach,’ a Prime Video show called ‘a contemporary “Sweeney Todd.” ‘

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The title character of “The Horror of Dolores Roach” (Justina Machado) is a masseuse working at an empanada shop owned by a friend (Alejandro Hernandez).

Prime Video

When Justina Machado returns home to her native Chicago, she barely recognizes it. Machado grew up in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square — all of which she says have been gentrified.

“You love the good restaurants, you love all this beauty, but you’re sad that your people get pushed out because who doesn’t want great restaurants and great places and safety? Who doesn’t want that? The problem is, a lot of my people get pushed out... Taxes and property are like three times what you could buy in the ’80’s, ’90s and early 2000s. It’s sad to watch.”

Gentrification is also a catalyst for Machado’s new dark comedy series “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” now streaming on Prime Video.

Machado plays Roach, a woman who has spent 16 years in prison on marijuana charges. When she gets released, the world around her looks completely different. Told she has “magic hands” as a masseuse in prison, Roach opens a massage parlor in the same building as an empanada shop. She has the best intentions and wants to live a normal life, until one day she has to use her special hands to save herself from a dangerous situation. The story unravels from there and those empanadas occasionally feature a mystery meat that patrons find delicious.

“Dolores says, ‘I’m just like you, if everything went wrong,’ ” said Machado. ”You empathize with her. Part of the reason that you have compassion for her is because you see this girl that gets 16 years of her life stolen for something that now you can buy in every corner with dispensaries. One day she’s just let out and she has nowhere to go. She has nobody. And that’s more of a common story than we like to think about because it’s too hurtful to think about what happens to someone after they get out of jail and they have to survive. You don’t want to think about those things.”

“The Horror of Dolores Roach” began as a one-woman play written by Aaron Mark, and is inspired by the fictional story of “Sweeney Todd.”

“I was a playwright in [the New York City neighborhood] Washington Heights. I lived there for 10 years,” said Mark. “I was watching the neighborhood gentrify at the speed of light and I felt like I was watching this neighborhood cannibalize itself. Really, That was the image. I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m watching a community feed on itself.’ And that, sent me to ’Sweeney Todd.’ I thought, ‘OK, there’s a cannibalism story to be set in this neighborhood. And what better cannibalism tale has our species ever produced than ”Sweeney Todd” ’?”

Mark wrote the play as “a contemporary ‘Sweeney Todd’ set in Washington Heights” with Daphne Rubin-Vega in mind to play Roach. She agreed and the play was staged off Broadway in 2015. Mark then pitched the story for TV where, he says, “people thought I was out of my mind. I was laughed out of rooms.”

He then decided he had enough material to make a serialized podcast with Rubin-Vega and Mark turned his focus to that. One month after the first season of the “Dolores Roach” podcast was released, Mark says there was a bidding war for the TV rights. Mark is now a co-showrunner and co-executive producer on the series.

“In the casting process, we had a Zoom with Justina and she said to me, ‘I’m Dolores Roach. This is my part. What do I got to do?’ And I just remember thinking, ‘What do you have to do? We’d be lucky to have you.’ You put the camera on Justina’s face and innately we love her.”

Machado has appeared in many memorable roles including “Six Feet Under,” “Jane the Virgin” and the remake of “One Day at a Time,” but “Dolores Roach” is her first real lead role.

“I was in every scene and every shot because this is told through Dolores’ gaze. This is her P.O.V. So when Dolores walks out of the scene, the scene is over. If I wasn’t on set, I was in my trailer or in my apartment in Toronto learning lines, so it was a much different process. A lonelier process, to be quite honest,” said Machado.

Leaning in to the madness of Dolores’ situation, though, was fun.

“It’s so fun to play something that is outrageous and out there. There’s no boundaries. There is no limit to what she does. It’s just the rawness in even the way she looks... I mean, I didn’t love it so much when I saw it later,” said Machado with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh, God!’ But, everything was just free, Barely any makeup, just hair crazy, I loved it. It was very, very freeing.”

Adds Mark: “I like to say Dolores Roach is a serial killer who is not a sociopath. That is debatable, but that’s how I approach her. She’s me. She’s you. She’s relatable. She’s all of us.”

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