In the Heights Librettist Quiara Alegrķa Hudes Bears Witness to Her Twin Communities
By Mervyn Rothstein
Quiara Alegría Hudes, the Pulitzer Prize finalist who penned Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue and the book to In the Heights, continued Elliot's story in Hartford Stage's recent Water By the Spoonful.
"I've always had the need to bear witness," playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes says. "Even as a child. To the things I saw, the world I lived in, what it means to be a person."
Hudes has had success doing just that. At 34, she has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize: in 2009 as librettist for the Tony-winning musical In the Heights and in 2007 for her play Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue.
In Elliot, three members of a Puerto Rican family — son (Elliot), father and grandfather — recall their wartime experiences in, respectively, Iraq, Vietnam and Korea.
In her new play, Water by the Spoonful, which premiered this fall at Hartford Stage, she continued Elliot's story. Like A Soldier's Fugue, it is set in Philadelphia, her hometown.
"A lot of it is about addiction and recovery, a topic that felt close to me and close to the community in north Philadelphia I started writing about in Elliot. It's a topic I wanted to address for years, but I was nervous to address it in part because I don't particularly want to create more roles for Latino actors that are addicts or junkies or criminals. A few years ago I had the idea of making it about recovery. That really opened up a lot of doors for me creatively."
In A Soldier's Fugue, "Elliot's in his teens — he graduated from high school, enlisted in the Marines, and within six months of getting sent to Iraq got a leg wound, was honorably discharged and returned to Philadelphia. This play is a few years later. He has no prospects. He has a dead-end job. It's about life after the service and coming of age. Who is he going to be? What kind of life is he going to set up?"
In part, "he left north Philadelphia and enlisted because he wanted to get away from problems plaguing the neighborhood — addiction, poverty. He's back in the midst of these things he tried to escape and he's with a family that has had troubles with addiction for years. So the need to leave is stronger than ever because he feels stuck and does not want to become part of that. His birth mother leads an online forum for recovering addicts. But he has a very fraught relationship with her."
Hudes graduated from Yale and earned a master's in theatre at Brown; her mother is Puerto Rican and her father Jewish. "I was always the kind of brainy one in the family. I was the kid in the corner watching, listening, absorbing. I come from a family with a lot of fascinating stories. Half my family is from Puerto Rico — I'm the first generation born here. My mom's story of coming to Philadelphia, my grandmother's story of life in the islands — a life of poverty, humility, natural disasters. Really incredible stories that are very different from the life I grew up in.
"Half my family is Jewish, and their stories of Holocaust, coming to the United States and starting anew after tragedy, are stories I grew up hearing. I felt even then that the act of bearing witness is the most human way to deal with these stories. I decided to become a writer to do that act of bearing witness."
How does it feel to have been a Tony nominee and two-time Pulitzer finalist? "I think it's very fortunate icing on what is already a good cake. It gives me freedom. I don't feel the need to prove myself. And it certainly makes my mother very proud."
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