Exclusive Interview with playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes

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If you haven’t heard of Quiara Alegría Hudes, you’ve heard of her work. Somewhere between being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 and actually winning the Pulitzer Prize in 2012, she wrote the book for a little Broadway number called “In the Heights”, which brought her a Tony nomination and yet another nod for the Pulitzer.

With numerous works to her name, among them the critically lauded “Elliot Trilogy”, Quiara’s plays have traveled the U.S. and abroad, playing in some of the nation’s most prestigious theaters and racking up more honors than can fit on this page along the way.

Taking advantage of an upcoming reading at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, I sent Quiara a few questions to get a sense of what it’s like for a Puerto Rican girl from Philly to find herself on top of the American theater scene. Here’s what she said.

ASV: Could you talk a little bit about how you began your career as a writer – why specifically did you tend toward writing as a form of creative expression? How did you pursue it? Was there a moment when you felt like you had “made it”?

QAH: There’s not one moment I can pinpoint that I became a writer. In fact, looking back at my early childhood I recall a lot of imaginative play–I would play alone in the woods, talk to trees, make up songs, and write poems. So I was writing as a way to play. It was one of my earliest impulses, to play with words. I am not sure why we are drawn to the things we are drawn to, but there’s something about how words arm you to express the limitation of, well, words. I was working on a rewrite today and the thing about drama is that you can’t make your characters too articulate. They can’t say how they feel. There is no drama, no play, no suspense or humor in it. You must articulate their stumbling attempts at expression, but what goes unsaid should be just as palpable, just as present. I think, growing up, I felt that so much injustice went unsaid in our society. And I was compelled to say things that were left silent. To shine a spotlight where it hadn’t yet been shone. Most of the time, it is a challenge. I think sitting in the audience of my first New York production, “Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue”, was a major turning point for me. It was the first time I felt like I had fully articulated the story exactly as I wanted to tell it. That is very hard to achieve, and I achieved it with that play. Another moment was when my play “Water by the Spoonful” arrived at my door in its hardback splendor. I saw that and thought, my dream has come true today.

ASV: As a young artist, how did you imagine your career playing out? What were some of your goals?

QAH: My goals have changed remarkably little. Essentially, I want to spend my days, and my life, writing plays. There are so many stories to tell. I am drawn to Latino life because it’s a vivid part of the American fabric. There are great American stories to tell from Latino life. I am also drawn to write diverse plays, because my lens is Latina but also reflects the diversity within my family and my city and my people. (Latinos, of course, are a very diverse bunch.) To me, a full writing day is a day of great privilege, joy, and challenge. So that is my goal–with integrity and compassion to tell the story of a people.

ASV: “In The Heights” was a project that Lin-Manuel Miranda began developing in college – how did you get attached to the project?

QAH: A producer on the project heard of a play of mine and got my phone number. It was right place, right time.

ASV: What was your working relationship like with Lin-Manuel? What do you think made for a successful collaboration?

QAH: It was joyous and fun. We both love writing, but we are very different in terms of our expression. So I think teaming up expanded both of our palettes. Plus, we are both fundamentally optimistic people. So we saw only possibility with each new writing day. Being discouraged was never really an option. Our writing days reflected the joy of the process.

ASV: How do you continue to find inspiration despite the high expectations and pressures placed upon an artist of your stature?

QAH: I ask people to tell me their stories. I read voraciously. I walk, which is my way of clearing the chatter and noise from my mind. I listen to music. Before I knew how to write a play, I would listen to music and pace. I listened to “Santissimo” which is Afro-Caribbean worship music by Emilio Barretto. That helped me move into a more spiritual mythical place. (My mother is a Santera and that music also helps me connect to a deeper place in my heart.) I also listened to Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” a lot. Ultimately, these musics found their way quite literally into plays of mine.

ASV: You’ve spoken about your multi-cultural upbringing in a diverse neighborhood of West Philly – how did this inform your sense of Puerto Rican identity? Has your sense of being Puerto Rican evolved over time?

QAH: Puerto Rico is multicultural. Look at any Puerto Rican family. Their hair types alone run the gamut. Body types, skin colors. I know at my family’s Thanksgiving table we have Ivy League degrees, a City Council rep, and people below the poverty line all carving from the same pernil. All in one family. So Puerto Ricans are multicultural. When I was in high school my mother gave me a copy of Bartolome de la Casa’s “A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies” so I could begin to understand the depth of violence in the history of the Caribbean. She also gave me “Doña Licha’s Island” so I could understand the political history of Puerto Rico. And yet I grew up in a primarily African-American neighborhood and went to Quaker meeting on Sunday mornings, all while she was a practicing Santera in our living room. It was an incredibly rich tapestry, my upbringing.

ASV: How do you feel your work fits into the long tradition of Diaspora writers? What are the convergences? What are the differences?

QAH: I didn’t really have access to Latino literature growing up. It wasn’t until my adulthood that I discovered Borges, Nilo Cruz, Lorca, Laura Esquivel. Growing up the Latino art that influenced me was music. I soaked up musica jibara–mountain music–and studied Afro-Cuban piano. I saw Cachao and could hear the Western European and African roots in his glorious music. I did my best to keep up dancing to Ruben Blades and Ray Barretto. I think this music continues to influence me, which is why I continue to include live musicians in my plays.

The other big influence is feminism. My mother was an activist in the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia, in particular for women’s reproductive health. There were so few services when she began, and she had to fight for every penny she could get to bring some basic services and counseling to the women of el barrio. So I began to read about feminism and understand that it could not just be a trickle down movement from upper-crust, educated elite female leaders. That it had to be a boots-on-the-ground grassroots movement from women in the neediest communities. I think that profoundly feminista point of view is in the spirit of all my works. Because it was by witnessing the humble, ferocious power of unsung heroes like my own abuela, who nurtured an entire community with only a grade school education–it was from Puerto Rican matriarchs such as her that I learned about the sensuality, strength, and ferocity a Boricua woman must hold in her heart.

ASV: It could be argued that the Puerto Rican diaspora had its break-out cultural moment in the 70s, with Salsa and the Nuyorican movement. 40 years later, what does it mean to be part of the Puerto Rican diaspora? What do you think are some important questions that this younger generation of Puerto Ricans in the US must face?

QAH: It’s brilliant to follow in the footsteps of these major artists and leaders. Julia de Burgos paved the way. Fania paved the way. Pedro Pietri paved the way. But the work is far from over. This may sound controversial, but a lot of urban communities that were primarily Puerto Rican forty years ago are now becoming more Dominican and South American and Central American. North Philly is like this, also Washington Heights in New York where I now live. The world is getting smaller and I think something that’s important to the younger Boricua generation is that we are one Latino family. We happen to have the privilege of US citizenship, and it falls on our shoulders to now advocate for our Latin American brothers and sisters here in the US who face an uphill battle with citizenship. With great power comes great responsibility.

ASV: What do you think is the connection between art and cultural identity?

QAH: It is something like the connection between the ribcage and the heartbeat. They feel each other, they live in the same warm place, they nourish each other.

ASV: Due to the Island’s status, the Puerto Rican experience here and on the island has always been a very politically charged subject – Is there a political dimension, either explicit or implicit, in your work?

QAH: Putting Latino characters onstage, without apology, with drama, comedy, despair, love, and integrity is my daily political act. Saying, “This is the American story,” that is my ongoing political act.

ASV: What attracts you to the theater versus other literary pursuits? Do you have any interest in exploring other literary forms?

QAH: You know, I’ve tried. I’ve tapped into film and tv work. But it wasn’t the same. The live actor, the act of speech in person, it’s sacred to me.

ASV: What are some recurring themes in your work? How has your personal experience informed this thematic universe?

QAH: I have noticed, throughout the years, some images that keep coming back. Gardens. In North Philly, there was a movement to convert abandoned lots into gardens. This movement was led, in part, by my aunt Ginny. Healing. My mother, as a Santera, also has healing gifts, she has a healing touch. Water. Food. Sex. Blood. All feminine things. All tactile, feminine things.

ASV: And, the obligatory: What’s next for Quiara Alegría Hudes?

QAH: My play “The Happiest Song Plays Last” which opened at Goodman Theatre last spring, has its off-Broadway premiere in February. I have rewritten the play and I look forward to its second life.

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Andrew Stehney Vargas

is a writer, director, producer, actor and proud Nuyorican. A graduate of the International Film and Television School in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba, his award-winning short films have been featured at film festivals across the U.S., Latin America and Europe. In his free time, he works in the promotion and distribution of Latin American cinema as Assistant Director of Cinema Tropical.