ASK PLAYBILL.COM: Those Pulitzer Finalists
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
Meet Rinde Eckert, Eisa Davis and Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Ask Playbill.com is a new weekly Playbill.com column that will answer questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live. This week's question comes from the Playbill.com staff.
Question: When David Lindsay-Abaire's Broadway play Rabbit Hole won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama on April 16, a big surprise was the Pulitzer Prize Board's decision to make the rare move of bypassing the jury's three nominated finalists and give the award to a fourth play. But perhaps more surprising was the relative obscurity of the three finalists, who beat out such Broadway shows as Spring Awakening, Grey Gardens, Radio Golf and The Little Dog Laughed. Who are these writers and what are their plays like?
Here are the finalists in brief:
"I didn't even know I was in the running," says Hudes, who got the call from the producers at Page Seventy-Three Productions while she was sitting at her computer typing emails. "I was just kind of like speechless."
"It was utter surprise considering my work is somewhat on the avant-garde side," says Eckert.
"I do think that it is amazing that the Pulitzer jury nominated these three plays that were so far off the money-making radar," says Davis. "That actually is an inspiration to a lot of playwrights that I've been hearing from — especially writers of color and women writers — who are very excited that two women of color can have plays that are poetically-driven be considered on such a national level," referring to herself and Hudes.
Davis says she has no hard feelings against Lindsay-Abaire, who is an alumnus of the prestigious playwright support organization New Dramatists, to which Davis and Hudes currently belong. Eckert's wife Ellen McLaughlin is also an alumnus.
One striking similarity among the three finalists is that they're all musicians and performers as well as writers. Davis is currently in rehearsal to perform in the musical Passing Strange at the Public Theater. She is also a singer-songwriter set to perform at Joe's Pub May 21 (she says her music is hard to describe but "minimalist soul" fits best).
Eckert came from an opera-singing family, and all of his siblings are musicians. He has recorded four albums of music, and his works for the stage tend to be interdisciplinary, bridging the gaps among plays, musicals, concerts, opera, poetry and avant-garde performance art. Hudes performs with a piano soul band, has written scores to theatre and dance shows and wrote the book for the new Off-Broadway musical In The Heights.
Hudes' play Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue, about three generations of Puerto Rican soldiers in Iraq, was inspired by members of her family. The lead character is based on her cousin Elliot, who was 17 when he was one of the first Marines shipped to Iraq, and was later seriously injured. Another character is based on Elliot's father (Hudes' uncle) who was injured in the Vietnam War. A third character is based very loosely on her great uncle.
In the play, Hudes explores Elliot's reasons for going to war. She says of her cousin, "His parents didn't really go to college or anything — he comes from a poor household and not one of the best public schools in Philadelphia, but he wanted to do something with himself and contribute financially to his family, and he thought of it as a good option. He didn't have that many other options."
Regarding the Pulitzer citation, Hudes says, "It hit me pretty heavy because the play itself, it's a story about my family," she says.
Hudes is half Jewish and half Puerto Rican, though her parents separated, and she was mainly raised by her Puerto Rican mother and Puerto Rican stepfather. "That side of my family was so full of stories," she says.
Hudes only recently moved to New York after graduating from the MFA playwriting program at Brown University. She has a daughter who is two-and-a-half months old — she was born during previews for In the Heights.
Eckert's work, Orpheus X, was commissioned by ART and came out of conversations he had with Woodruff, ART's artistic director. The pair had previously collaborated on Highway Ulysses, another mythology adaptation.
Eckert says he was initially inspired by two sources: his earlier music piece called "Four Songs Lost in a Wall," and the Czech novella "Two Loud a Solitude," about "this subterranean world where this guy compacts waste paper in Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia." Eckert picked up on the subterranean aspect and merged the piece with the Orpheus myth, in which Orpheus, a poet and a musician, goes to retrieve his deceased wife Eurydice from the underworld. On their way out, he famously disobeys the rule that he not look back at her before they reach the upper world, and she vanished.
In Orpheus X, the title character is a world-famous rock star whose cab hits a downtown poet. After she dies in his arms, he becomes obsessed with the complexity of her poetry and withdraws from his own relatively superficial life and music.
Eckert's work takes a "feminist perspective" on Orpheus' famous turn-around, he says. Orpheus goes to the underworld to find the poet, but "Eurydice doesn't want to go back to the world," Eckert explains. She wants to be "made innocent of her complex thought and feeling. She wants to return to a kind of childhood." She forces Orpheus to look at her, and goes back to the underworld to bathe in the River Lethe, which causes forgetfulness. The story is presented through music, movement, text and videos.
Eckert's next project — his play with music Horizon, which will be presented at New York Theatre Workshop in June — is similarly esoteric. The work is about an American theologian who has been fired from his seminary position because of his radical interpretations of the Bible, and is writing a play about masons working on the same church foundation for 1,700 years. He falls asleep and then wakes up in his own play. "We spend a night in his head," Eckert says. "It's a comedy — it's a lot of fun in his head."
Davis' play Bulrusher also has religious connections, as the title character is a girl found as an infant floating in a basket in the river, like Moses. Bulrusher is brought up by a teacher without knowing who her parents are and eventually begins to discover her African-American background.
Davis, who is African-American, lives in Brooklyn and grew up in Oakland and Berkeley, but since her childhood she has frequently traveled to the Mendocino, CA area, which is where the play takes place, in 1955. The area is the source of the regional dialect used by the characters, known as Boontling.
Some aspects of the play relate to Davis' life, such as the fact that she grew up not knowing her father (but has since reunited with him). But the play mainly sprang from her imagination, inspired by a composer friend asking her to write eight poems set to a song cycle for piano and soprano. When she wrote the poems, "the entire skeleton of the play was revealed," she says.
"It almost fell out of me," says Davis of the play. "It just kind of moved with a sureness that I don't normally feel when I'm writing plays…I'm actually not surprised by being considered a finalist because I loved the play so much. But at the same time, of course, who am I? Nobody knows who I am, nobody really paid much attention to Urban Stages, and there are a thousand plays like this every year and I feel like in some ways I'm representing that."
She added, "There's just so much rejection in this field, and it's nice to have a good day."
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