A Lover’s Guide to American Playwrights

Quiara Alegría Hudes

Let’s start with music. When I began to write about Quiara Hudes, I turned on the stereo and played Bach. It’s cliché, almost, writing to Yo-Yo Ma bowing the cello suites, the music straining upward and tumbling down, that perpetual, articulate cascading, aspiring rise and soulful descent. Bach blends divine joy, the exquisite pleasure of invention and sheer math within the eternally mournful echo chamber of the cello’s body.

Let’s start with Bach to consider the playwright whose first giant step in the theatre was called Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, a play using that composer as inspiration and the fugue form as a structural guide. “Of everything Bach wrote,” says Grandpop in Elliot, “it is the fugues.”

The fugue is like an argument. It starts in one voice. The voice is the melody, the single solitary melodic line. The statement. Another voice creeps up on the first one. Voice two responds to voice one. They tangle together. They argue, they become messy. They create dissonance. Two, three, four lines clashing. You think, good god, they’ll never unite themselves. How did this mess get started in the first place? Major keys, minor keys, all at once on top of each other. (Leans in.) It’s about untying the knot.

The fugues spread outward, voice to voice, passing the theme along, varying it, elaborating in counterpoint. In Elliot the themes are repeated in the person of three generations of marines, as they describe the wounding of young Elliot in Iraq. The voices are those of Grandpop (Korea), Pop and Ginny (Vietnam), and Elliot (Iraq). Listen:

GINNY
A road outside Tikrit.
A mile short of Saddam’s hometown.

GRANDPOP
Cars are allowed out, but not back in.

POP
The boy was standing guard.

GRANDPOP
He saw an incoming car.

GINNY
The headlights approached.

POP
He fired into the car.

GRANDPOP
The horn sounded.

POP
The car collided into the barricade.

GINNY
The concertina wire slinkied onto his legs.

GRANDPOP
Two seconds ago.

ELLIOT
Sarge! Sarge! Waikiki!

GINNY
Seventy four thorns dig deep into his skin.

POP
Seventy four barbs chew into his bone.

GRANDPOP
It is not a sensation of rawness.

GINNY
It is not a sensation of rawness.

GINNY
It is not excruciating pain.

POP
It is a penetrating weakness.

GRANDPOP
Energy pours out of his leg.

GINNY
Like water from a garden hose.

ELLIOT
Sarge!

POP
The boy knows he is trapped.

GRANDPOP
He doesn’t know he is injured.

GINNY
He does a military style inspection.

            (Elliot reaches up his pants leg.)

GRANDPOP
His hand enters the warm meat of his calf.

ELLIOT
Oh shit. Stay calm. Put the tourniquet on. Lay back. Drink a cup of water.

Beyond music, too, beyond the precision waterfall that is Bach, fugue has another meaning: those mental flights—fugues—that nullify memory, a nullification that leaves its own eternal, mournful echo. That which is forgotten, that which is lost, that which is buried or killed off, will still haunt us. The silence around memory is of great import to Quiara, and so she composed a trilogy concerning men whose lives are changed by battlefield experiences they never transform through story. She transforms these experiences for them, centering this trilogy around the story of her own cousin, an Iraqi war vet haunted (in the plays at least) by the ghost of a man he killed, and whose passport he carries.

silhouette of soldier on a hill above four screens and three performers with their backs turned

L-R: (below) Caro Zeller, Rubén Garfias, Jason Manuel Olazábal and (above) Peter Mendoza in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Similarly, in works of major key, like 26 Miles and Daphne’s Dive, or minor key, such as Water by the Spoonful, the abuse, neglect or abandonment of a child can’t be erased by flight, whether literal disappearance or escape through alcohol or drugs. Flight, of course, is a third meaning for fugue, another theme with variations in Quiara’s plays, most explicitly in the impromptu, fugitive road trip of the reunited mother and daughter in 26 Miles.

Bach is a natural beginning, but we could have as easily begun with Puerto Rican folk songs or Broadway-inflected Dominican hip hop, with John Coltrane—the sublime or the noisy Coltrane—or Latin pop, with strains from the guitar-like Puerto Rican cuatro or an Iraqi oud. You could start in almost any of these places, because Quiara starts in music. Her ear on the world is a musician’s ear. You can hear it in her language and feel it in the bones of her plays. They are full of music. They turn on it. A life can snap like the neck of a cuatro. It’s no surprise that one of her recurring characters, Yazmin Ortiz, is a music professor. It’s no surprise that Quiara herself lives this parallel life as a playwright and librettist/lyricist—as with the exuberant In the Heights, Barrio Grrrl, the Latin pop musical based on her own play, or the most recent, Miss You Like Hell. Bach tells only part of the story, because Quiara’s plays also make you want to get up and dance.

Her ear on the world is a musician’s ear. You can hear it in her language and feel it in the bones of her plays. They are full of music.

Maybe, though, we should start with love. That’s where Quiara herself starts in “High Tide of Heartbreak,” a keynote address to the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference from August 2018, later edited for American Theatre magazine. If music provides a structure and score for Quiara’s work, love is both pulse and impulse. Love is impetus: I love these people, so I will write them.

two sisters

Quiara and her sister Gabriela Sanchez, the keynote speakers for the 2018 ATHE Conference

The playwright’s love for her characters is so foundational—as is their love for each other—it can take every kind of lump. Quiara’s people are tough, complicated family, beautiful and broken, always dancing on, even on raw bloody feet. “I know things got ugly for a while but family is family,” says Ruby, who was eleven when Daphne found her behind a dumpster, studded with glass from the third-floor window she ran through when cops came to her door. Ruby knows ugly. She also knows the love of family, like her adoptive mother Daphne, who nails the eleven-year-old’s shoe to her bar and keeps it there, year after year, the invitation—and promise—to stay.

Music stands in for love, a metonym. They are both connectors, and Quiara hones in on connectors. She looks in the streets, she looks in the garden, she looks in the kitchen. What connects is good, whether it’s the Internet chat room for recovering crack addicts in Water by the Spoonful or the protests in Tahir Square in The Happiest Song Plays Last. It could simply be a pot of soup, like the ones from which Yaz in Happiest Song feeds a homeless friend named Lefty and just about everyone else in the neighborhood.

LEFTY
It smells like chicken and macaroni.

YAZ
(Pointing to the stove.) That pot’s yours. I knew you were coming today. Eat what you want, take the rest with you.

LEFTY
Look at those pots, mom. Stacked up like Legos.

YAZ
(Pointing to a pot.) That one is for Dona Manza’s grandkids. She has to work double shifts all week, no time to cook. (Pointing to another one.) Pasteles for the blind woman on the corner. Her home care person just got deported. (Pointing to another pot.) Sopita for Miguelito’s boy in the hospital.

JOAQUIN
They still got that kid on all those machines?

YAZ
Last time I brought him soup his IV line was clogged all the way back into the bag. There wasn’t a nurse on the entire floor. Go to that hospital, you just get sicker.

JOAQUIN
Verdad.

YAZ
(Back to Lefty, pointing.) These four pots are for the Three Kings party. Friday night. You’re coming, right?

Lefty nods, serves himself. Yaz returns to her foot rub.

JOAQUIN
Do you have to leave your doors unlocked?

YAZ
Open door, open stove.

People must feed one another. It’s part of how we love. If we don’t the results are tragic; we will literally die. In Water By The Spoonful, the second part of Quiara’s Elliot trilogy and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the twenty-four-year-old Elliot confronts his birth mother Odessa, a recovering crack addict, who has become a kind of online savior for other addicts.

ELLIOT
My sister and I had the stomach flu, right? For a whole day we couldn’t keep nothing down.

ODESSA
Three days…You were vomiting three days straight.

ELLIOT
Medicine, juice, anything we ate, it would come right back up. Your coworker here took us to Children’s Hospital.

ODESSA
Jefferson.

ELLIOT
It was wall to wall packed. Every kid in Philly had this bug. ER’s were turning kids away. They gave us a flier about stomach flu and sent us home. Bright blue paper. It said give your kids a spoonful of water every five minutes.

ODESSA
A teaspoon.

ELLIOT
A small enough amount that they can keep it down. Five minutes. Spoon. Five minutes. Spoon. I remember thinking, wow, this is it. Family time. Quality time. Just the three of us. Because it was gently, the way you said, “Open up.” I opened my mouth, you put that little spoon of water into my mouth. That little bit of relief. And then I remember being like, “Wow, I love you, mom. My moms is alright.” Five minutes. Spoon. Five minutes. Spoon. But you couldn’t stick to something simple like that. You had to have your thing. You couldn’t sit still like that. That’s where I stop remembering.

ODESSA
I left.

ELLIOT
A Department of Human Services report. That’s my memory. Six hours later a neighbor kicks in the door. Me and my sister are lying in a pile of laundry. My shorts was all messed up. And what I really don’t remember is my sister. Quote. Female infant, approximately two years, pamper and tear ducts dry, likely cause of death, dehydration. Cuz when you dehydrate you can’t form a single, lone tear.

The difference between life and death, between love and neglect, between connection and separation is so small—a teaspoon of water, a bouquet of flowers, a couch to sleep on, a pot of food, a letter home from war, a musical instrument, a pair of golden high heel shoes or a sneaker, a story, a passport. “Love calls us to the things of this world,” the poet Richard Wilbur writes, in a poem that describes waking to a cry of pulleys, a clothesline outside the window and in the moment after sleep, mistaking sheets hung out to dry for angels. Quiara is a writer of lucid, hospitable attention, and love calls her, too, to the things of this world, first in her North Philadelphia neighborhood or barrio, where, as a granddaughter of Puerto Rico, she was a sponge of the familiar—sights, sounds, smells of cooking. From there her gaze travels in ever-expanding circles: to Sapporo, Japan; Azraq, Jordan; Egypt and Iraq. The world things she awakens us to offer a chance for care, legacy, grace, forgiveness, communion—for witness.

In The Happiest Song Plays Last, Elliot, now in his late twenties, meets Ali on a film set in Jordan. He discovers that Ali is, in fact, an Iraqi refugee. Remember, Elliot fought in Iraq—and killed there.

ELLIOT
You got anyone still there?

ALI
My mother and father.

ELLIOT
You got anyone young there?

ALI
My cousin Nasser. Very short and fat man. Always he wants to play basketball but he is short and wide like bosta.

ELLIOT
Bus?

ALI
Good Arabic my brother. He stays in Iraq, to rebuild. Iraqi National Basketball Association. He tries to create this. Smart man.

ELLIOT
I got something. If you could send something to him. Maybe he could track down an address and deliver it?

Elliot pulls a passport from his pocket, gives it to Ali.

ALI
This is Iraqi passport you know?

Silence.

This is Iraqi person you know?

Silence.

ELLIOT
He’s my first.

Silence.

ALI
Why you bring this today?

ELLIOT
Every day. It lives in my pocket. Every day since 2003 it’s in my pocket.

Silence.

He wrote his address here. Or some address, I’m guessing it’s his. If maybe your cousin Nasser could go there. I know it’s a big country. But if you could send it to him and maybe he could go there and give it back to the family. Give it to his wife and son.

ALI
How you know he has wife and son?

ELLIOT
After I…I seen them…

Elliot pulls money out of his pocket, hands it to Ali.

How much does it cost to send a package to Iraq? Or actually, to send a messenger? I want to send money so Nasser can get a driver and go to this address.

ALI
Put this money away.

ELLIOT
For you to send the package. You gotta send it secure, it has to make it there.

ALI
You pay, I take you to Petra. You pay, I take you to Dead Sea. This, you do not pay.

Elliot puts the money back in his pocket.

[…]

ALI
How you know I don’t put this in trash can?

Silence. Ali puts the passport in his pocket.

No forgive. I cannot forgive. But you know real who I am. I know real who you are. Witness for each other.

Having started with music, or with love, let’s end with heartbreak, which is where Quiara ends her recent keynote/essay. As I read it, her heartbreak begins in wounds shared by many playwrights—the terror of writing, the lifelong stress and fear that accompany production and opening, responsibility for the livelihoods of others, the harm of critical reduction and misreading. These painful common causes, though, reside for Quiara Hudes, as for many artists of color, in the context of a more extreme psychic violence: that of writing within, performing for, and being reflected by a dominant culture, a dominant audience.

“How will the audience view my Latinx stories,” she asks, “and if they are mostly white does that mean my cast is performing race, and doesn’t that injure our pride, our self-determination? How will it feel to go out onstage and once again not be afforded the luxury of neutrality?” No matter how much outreach she—or again, any artist of color—does in her community, only a drop of the audience will reflect the culture she writes from and for. In other words, she can never, in theatres of a size befitting her professional eminence, have a conversation with the people she’s talking to.

In a 1967 essay entitled “American Theater: For Whites Only?” that led to the founding of the Negro Ensemble Company, Douglas Turner Ward voiced “a screaming need” for “a sufficient audience of other Negros,” not as the only audience, but as the “primary audience, the first persons of [the playwright’s] address.” How liberating it would be, Ward imagined, to speak without having to explain, teach, over-illustrate, or literalize fantasy for white audiences who, well-intentioned though they might be, cannot help but be blinkered on matters of race and culture, on worlds they read as “other.”

Now, fifty years later, a Tony- and Pulitzer-winning playwright cries out from in front of the funnyhouse mirror of whiteness, wealth, and the accepted aesthetics of decades of American playwriting (or maybe centuries of white Western drama)—a mirror reflecting back the images of her heart and mind distorted. “It is discombobulating and even humiliating to write Latinx characters who will be seen my mostly white audiences. It feels like either their brownness or their humanity is the primary performance…” This humiliation is made more severe because it “replicates many of the old structures and dynamics” in Philadelphia that led Quiara to write in the first place.

woman smiling

Quiara Alegría Hudes

Of heartbreak, George Bernard Shaw says, “It’s only life educating you.” Quiara appears to agree. “Tending our wounds is central to loving,” she writes. “To love is to face the wound honestly and then let the wound be less than one’s entire truth, to love despite the wound.”

If theatre stands for anything, though, it’s that we also grow by witnessing the pain of another. Your heartbreak is also life educating me. As part of my generation’s “disproportionately…male leadership…beholden to the white aesthetics and values they have built themselves upon for decades,” including marketplace values, I have not suffered this cultural rupture Quiara describes. For those of us who haven’t, it’s time to listen and change or get out of the way to let others man the door. Instead, this valuable artist is pressing pause on the theatre. She’s only one of several major artists of color I know who are at this moment leaving, at least temporarily, the field. Their heartbreak is a warning that needs to be heeded, a bell that tolls for all of us.

What’s the cure for heartbreak? One answer Quiara offers is her sheer honesty. Another is wholly continuous with the aesthetic values of her writing, its music and loving attention. That is, a reimaging of our theatres as places of hospitality, not just wealthy white spaces programing for wealthy white ticket buyers and run—increasingly as yet another generation of artistic directors turns over—by wealthy white boards and the administrators who speak their language. “My art is hospitality and an open door,” she writes. “Entra, come in, can I serve you? […] It is my profound honor to host you. Let me show you my beautiful house.”

What’s the cure for heartbreak? One answer Quiara offers is her sheer honesty.

Yes, theatre speaks in many voices, and it’s hard to hear them. Seeing the world through the eyes of another is even harder. It requires a suspension of self, self-interest, and self-satisfaction that goes against the worst qualities of our national life and, therefore, our national culture. It requires just the sort of new hosting Quiara speaks of, the shared ownership that can remake our theatres from houses of the same few to houses a different many. It requires new models for curation, pricing, funding, and audience welcome. It requires hearing the heartbreak of others and taking it as a cue for change.

That which is lost, we know from her Soldier’s Fugue, will still haunt us. I don’t want to lose this artist. I don’t want to lose her music or the things of this world to which love calls her. I want her to host a table of her own, pots of soup stacked like Legos. I want her to seat the people she would break bread with and speak to. I want to know her beautiful house still stands.

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Thoughts from the curator

An ongoing series of tributes to contemporary playwrights.

A Lover's Guide to American Playwrights 

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