From North Philly to the Heights…A Pulitzer Prize Story

For Quiara Alegría Hudes, the recent news that she had won a Pulitzer Prize last month was shocking. “It was so far from my radar of anything that would possibly be happening in my life,” said Hudes, who lives in Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. “It gives me permission to keep doing what I’m doing, which I love.”
The Puerto Rican-Jewish playwright’s Water by the Spoonful, is the second play in a trilogy about the experiences of Iraq war and other military veterans. Hude’s previous play, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2007, and the third, The Happiest Song Plays Last, will make its world premiere next year at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“The first play deals with Latino men who have been in the Marines,” said Hudes. “Elliott decides to enlist, already knowing that his father had been in Vietnam and had a very traumatic experience, but had never spoken about it with the family,” she explained. “It’s about how fathers and sons repeat history and make the same mistakes, because it’s hard to talk about them.”
In Water by the Spoonful, Hudes decided to create characters of varied ethnic backgrounds. She spent hours combing through chat rooms and message boards for ex-servicemen struggling with substance abuse.
“I became absorbed following the threads of these individuals as they posted their struggles about sobriety and they’d hit rock bottom, and recover, and laugh, and come together for support,” Hudes said.
Although the 34-year-old playwright’s first love is dramatic theater she came into prominence for her music writing when 2008’s In the Heights was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. Her involvement in the play was, like so many showbiz successes, fortuitous and her chemistry with Heights writer and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was instant.
“I had just arrived in NY and one of the producers of In the Heights happened to hear a reading of a play of mine, so they thought here’s someone doing something very similar, but bringing a whole different energy than Lin’s,” said Hudes.
“We have a lot of common things in our upbringing, from the after-school programs of our abuelas, to having fathers who are leaders in the Latino communities.”
Hudes was raised in a North Philadelphia neighborhood that’s ethnically similar to Washington Heights. She was close to her Puerto Rican stepfather who had “a very keen sense for business and community,” and ran local stores — from bodegas to pizzerias and a glass-making company. Miranda’s father, Luis, founded the influential Hispanic Federation.
“Lin’s original version of In the Heights reminded me of Avenue Q and Rent — it was a sexual coming of age story,” said Hudes. “I felt what made his music most exciting and made the story most different was the story about a neighborhood.” Change informed much of the playwriting process, according to Hudes. “We decided that the plot would become how the neighborhood changes in the course of those few days,” she explained. “Gentrification is big in North Philly and Washington Heights.”
Hudes’ started out her creative process getting educated in music, and not in writing plays. She received a B.A. from Yale University’s music program before getting an M.F.A in playwriting from Brown University. “Looking back on it now, I feel all of my music training was playwright training,” she said. “One of the things you learn as a musician is how to be alone for eight hours a day working on your own craft, and forcing yourself to be better and better.”
Hudes shares this experience with young writers when they ask for advice. “Try sitting down and spend eight hours a day for two years writing. If you want to keep doing that for the rest of your life,” she said, “That’s a good sign.”
She used her music writing abilities again in 2009 for the children’s musical Barrio Grrrrl!, which premiered at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Hudes also is currently working on a musical adaptation of Laura Esquivel’s novel Like Water for Chocolate with Mexican-American songwriter and vocalist Lila Downs.
The award-winning play trilogy follows it’s own pattern of music, drawing from classical, avant-garde jazz, and Puerto Rican jíbaro music, respectively. “Elliot, The Soldier’s Fugue is structured like Bach preludes and fugues,” she explained. “I was imagining these generations — son, father and grandfather running their stories at the same time, and visually it looked like a fugue when you laid it out on paper and you have this theme that kind of repeats,” Hudes said.
“For Water by the Spoonful I went with the jazz in part because the piece is about recovery and the chaos of addiction. I’m a big Coltrane fan and some of that late Coltrane is really difficult and really wild.
The third one [The Happiest Song Plays Last] is about nostalgia, so I felt jíbaro music would be the perfect way to show the importance of sentimentality in Puerto Rican culture.”
Hudes’ wide-ranging skill-set has to do with her cultural mix. She identifies as a proud Latina while recognizing her Jewish roots. “People ask if I feel half Latina, which is kind of odd,” said Hudes. “I feel totally Latina, but I was close to a lot of my Jewish family as I was growing up. The language that I love the most is the language that people talk in the community in North Philly, because they’re going in and out of Spanish. I want to use language to give people joy.”
(Photo: Joseph Moran)

originally published in Univision News (Inglés)

One Comment

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  1. thank you.
    what i hear most clearly in this revealing and instructive creation narrative is this: —

    “be alone… eight hours a day… working on your own craft… [your] writing. if you want [with all your heart] to keep doing that, that’s a good sign.”

    “i love the language… that the people talk… because they’re “going `in’ and `out’….”

    “that late Coltrane is… really wild.”

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