by Len Lear
Quiara Alegría Hudes, 37, may not be a household name now, but her name may one day be as familiar to theater buffs as names like Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill and Neil Simon were when Quiara was a student and aspiring musician/composer at Central High School two decades ago.
Hudes, who was raised in West Philadelphia by a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother, wrote the book for the smash hit Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play “Water by the Spoonful.” Another play of hers, “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. (In 2009 she was a Pulitzer Prize finalist again for “In the Heights.”)
The story of “In the Heights” is set over the course of three days, involving an ensemble cast of characters in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights in New York City. It opened on Broadway in March, 2008. This production was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography and Best Orchestrations. It also won a Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album.
Hudes was also recently inducted into the Central High School Hall of Fame, only the second woman to receive this honor since the school’s founding in 1836. She is on the board of Philadelphia Young Playwrights, which is a kind of payback since they produced her first play when she was just a 10th grade student at Central.
Another of Hudes’ plays, “Lulu’s Golden Shoes,” is currently being performed through Aug. 2 by Flashpoint Theatre at University of the Arts’ Caplan Studio Theatre, 211 S. Broad St. One scribe called it a “terrifying and titillating sexual awakening story of one young Latina, the battle of good and evil that rages in her heart and the trashy, resplendent women whose legacies she will change forever.”
“I always wrote when I was a kid,” Hudes said recently. “I wrote poems, little magazines and stories, even made my own magazine. I was always surrounded by amazing stories of the people around me, who came from all walks of life. When I got older and people close to me were passing away, I felt a call to arms. I felt a mission to tell their stories to all the people who do not know these stories…
“One thing I have treasured about Puerto Rican culture is the notion of being humble and of service. There is a sentence in ‘Water by the Spoonful’ from a character who says he refuses to be enslaved but lives to serve. That is very Puerto Rican. I try to emulate that in any way I can. I ask, ‘How can you be a modern woman and still be of service to the community?’”
Although she was constantly writing as a child, Hudes did not start out to be a playwright. She studied piano at the Mary Louise Curtis Branch of Settlement Music School. She studied music composition at Yale University, where she earned her B.A., and then playwriting at Brown University, earning an M.F.A.
“My goal was to be a musician and composer,” she explained. “I had an aunt who composed for something called The Big Apple Circus. I’d sit on the bandstand with her. She gave me piano and music lessons. She’d take me to shows in New York. She snuck me in to see a reggae band when I was 8.
“She took me to the ballet and classical music recitals. I saw Baryshnikov dance for an hour. I was captivated. The first musical I saw was ‘Serafina’ at Lincoln Center when I was 11. The theme was apartheid. It was an entryway into a whole new world and had a profound impact on me. I became interested then in theater as a way to get an immediate experience of something you previously had no exposure to.”
But Quiara still planned to be a composer, which is why she studied composition at Yale. After college she worked as a professional musician for several months, “but for the first time in my life I felt bored. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you take the writing seriously?’ so I went back to school (at Brown University) to learn writing.”
She obviously learned her lessons well. Hudes’ first play, “Yemaya’s Belly,” received the 2003 Clauder Competition for New England Playwriting, the Paula Vogel Award in Playwriting and the Kennedy Center/ACTF Latina Playwriting Award and had productions at the Portland Stage Company (2005), the Signature Theatre (Arlington, Virginia, 2005) and Miracle Theatre.
Her play “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” based on a cousin named Elliot who was seriously injured fighting in Iraq, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2007. The New York Times reviewer wrote that the play was “a rare and rewarding thing, a theater work that succeeds on every level while creating something new.”
“When Elliot came back from Iraq,” Quiara said, “he was not the same happy-go-lucky person. He was very different. He told me about the first time he killed a civilian…I knew I had to write the play. I held it in, but a year later I wrote ‘Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue.’ When I took Elliot to see the play, I had no idea how he would react. I thought maybe it would be too painful for him, but he loved it. This tough Iraq veteran cried throughout the whole thing.
“I thought it was the best thing I ever wrote, so I decided to make it a trilogy.” The second play in the trilogy was the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful,” and the third was “The Happiest Song Plays Last.” Both got nothing but laudatory reviews from critics. Quiara’s next play will be “Daphne’s Dive,” which will premiere next year at New York’s Signature Theater.
When Hudes comes up with an idea for a play, she may spend a year or more doing research and interviews on the subject. Then she will lock herself in a room and write a first draft, which may only take a week. “That’s the part I hate,” she said. “At that point the play is a mess. It makes no sense. Then I spend a year or so taking that first draft and turning it into an actual play…I’m not good enough yet at playwriting, so I am going to keep on writing and trying to improve.”
Hudes also wrote a children’s book, “In My Neighborhood,” published by Arthur Levine Books in 2010. She now lives in New York with her husband and children. For ticket information about “Lulu’s Golden Shoes,” visit www.flashpointtheatre.org or call 215-997-3312.