|“Rough and magical”|
|Wednesday, February 06, 2013|
A life wrought by the word
Story by Debralee Santos
Water by the Spoonful is the second of the playwright’s The Elliot Trilogy.
When one of the world’s most prestigious awards was bestowed upon her, Quiara Alegría Hudes was among the last to know.
The playwright and educator was teaching her Advanced Playwriting class at Wesleyan University, and as is her way, she was too immersed in work-shopping student plays to have noticed the news that had thrilled her extended family of friends, family and colleagues and electrified her legion of fans.
Already a 2008 Tony Award winner (for the book for In the Heights) and Pulitzer Prize finalist from 2007 (for the work Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue), Hudes was awarded the Prize last year for her play Water by the Spoonful, the second in what is known as The Elliot Trilogy.
But she had not known that it was that April afternoon that the awards were to be announced, or even that she was on a shortlist.
“It was not on my radar,” she explained with a small shrug.
When she did receive the news, however, the response was powerful and instant.
“It was hard to see straight,” she recalled.
When she spoke to her husband after class, they both agreed that she would need to stay on campus in Middletown, Connecticut for a few hours before driving home to Washington Heights.
“Yes, I might crash the car,” she agreed, such was the impact and sensation of having become the first Latina, and second Hispanic, to win the vaunted prize.
Water by the Spoonful, a play about a wounded Latino soldier returning to his Philadelphia neighborhood after serving in Iraq, had received national and critical acclaim. Upon his return from war to Philadelphia, the young veteran struggles to put aside the images that haunt him while his mother, a recovering addict, battles her own demons. The play brings to life a family tossed about by conflict and grief, and people that both yearn for and fear the warmth of connection. There are characters too from all around the world, as part of the play is set in an Internet chat room.
The contradiction of the writing life as a solitary pursuit and of live theater as a far noisier enterprise is not lost on Hudes.
“I am a loner,” she laughed recently. “I like to be steeped in the writing life. And I also love a live event. The energy of a live performance is beautiful, is a gift.”
Water recently opened in New York on Second Stage Theater to rousing reviews.
“Ms. Hudes writes with such empathy and vibrant humor about people helping one another to face down their demons that regeneration and renewal always seem to be just around the corner,” exclaimed Charles Isherwood, The New York Times theater critic.
The third in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will be produced at the Goodman Theater in the spring.
In person, Hudes, who is half-Puerto Rican and half-Jewish, is a serene presence, whose thoughtful responses are eclipsed occasionally by a quick flash of full-throated laughter.
Given her extensive work, and success, in both musical and dramatic theater, she observed that the process for each piece is distinct.
“Each project finds its own voice,” she explained. “Each play of mine lives on a trajectory.”
Originally trained as a musician, Hudes studied classical piano, Afro-Cuban piano, American music, and composition, receiving a bachelor’s degree in music composition from Yale University and a master of fine arts degree in playwriting from Brown University.
“Quiara has a beautiful sense of family that resonates with me a great deal,” explained Zabryna Guevara at Second Stage’s premiere of Water by the Spoonful.
In writing plays in which Latino characters are central to the narrative and not mere outliers, she has been a catalyst in creating work for talented actors and directors of color and for many in production and staging.
“When I write, yes, there is a sense of pride in that I am creating jobs,” observed Hudes. “The world of theater is small, and it is a community I return to. I will need them now, and will need them later. This is a life I am setting up for myself.”
Harlem actress Zabryna Guevara played the role of Yazmín “Yaz” Ortiz in Water.
The character is a music teacher and composer going through a divorce, while also struggling to provide emotional support for her family.
What drew Guevara to the play were the closely knit characters wrought by Hudes.
“Quiara has a beautiful sense of family that resonates with me a great deal. I come from a very large family. I have 187 aunts, uncles and cousins on my mom’s side,” she said. “Sense of family is paramount.”
Guevara also empathized with the struggles Yaz confronts.
“I’m familiar with the journey she’s had,” she said. “You don’t get to choose your family, but you do get to chose to love it.”
It was Hudes’ mother who was the one who urged her towards playwriting.
A lover of words and poetry, her mother was also fiercely independent and loving.
“We were a very physical family, always had our hands on each other,” she explained of the close-knit group of women that surrounded her in childhood. Her mother was one of four sisters, and together with her grandmother, hers was a matriarchal family based in north Philadelphia.
“The instinct of nurturing and yet having to be strong, that came in hand-in-hand for me,” she explained. “This was my default, seeing the world through a woman’s eyes.”
An indelible memory from childhood was forged during a visit to Puerto Rico, her mother’s homeland.
“I was about 4 or 5,” she said. “We were visiting a farm. My mother lay with me on a hill, and read poems to me. I didn’t understand all the words, but I liked the sound of them.”
The memory of resting on atop a lush space of earth beside her mother has remained with her – as have some of the words uttered that day: el pecho, la tierra.
“I really remember the color of green, the music in the words,” she added. “And the language of the body in relation to the earth.”
Hudes’ instinct for family extends to the network of artists, writers and colleagues she calls her own. She actively engages the group by having them over for an informal salon in her living room in which they read each others’ work and share insights.
“It’s in the safety and privacy of my home, so it’s very rough, and it’s magical,” said Hudes.
She is at once modest and philosophical about her work, which has seen her return to North Philadelphia, to Latino characters, and to many of the sisters, aunts, and cousins she knows deeply.
“All I can write is what I can write,” she observed. “I have a real sense of purpose, and I know why I’m writing. And I’m not done yet.”
For more on the work of the job-creating Hudes, her advice for young writers, and her identity as a Latina playwright, please visit www.manhattantimesnews.com.