Music Feature

Drama Queen: Quiara A. Hudes

by Kim-Thao Nguyen
The Central High alumna discusses her Pulitzer Prize win, personal influences and growing up in West Philly. With Joshua Pelta-Heller
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Catching up with Quiara Hudes through email was an amusingly warm interaction, despite the electronic divide. Amusing, but not surprising, for this locally born-and-bred playwright and musician was recently awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play, Water by the Spoonful, which is largely set in cyberspace. A master of her crafts with a natural talent for incorporating multiculturalism into her work, Quiara answered a few of our questions about her award-winning pieces, creative process, and describes what it was like growing up as a young artist in West Philly.

You are lauded as a multitalented force in the national arts community, as a playwright and a musician. Can you tell us how music influenced your writing process, particularly for The Elliot TrilogyPracticing piano and composing music taught me how to spend eight hours a day alone in a room and use my time productively. That transferred very easily into my writing life, that habit of solitude. 

After my actual cousin returned from Iraq I went to meet him in California, where he was on base recuperating from a combat injury. He still had the same spark in his eye as ever, but also there was something different--clearly the experience of war had exposed him to some new truths. I knew I wanted to write about him. For me, part of the question was--why did he enlist and go, when he knew his father had a difficult experience as a Marine in Vietnam? I interviewed them both and imagined their life stories stacked up on top of each other--some threads in unison, some threads in contrast. I realized, as I walked and imagined, that this looked in my mind much like a fugue looked on manuscript paper. There is a musical theme and another voice enters above or below it with an altered version of the theme and they play in counterpoint to each other. That became the structure of my play.

I then wanted to continue my exploration of music in plays, but I also didn't want to repeat myself. So in part two, I chose to explore jazz, which is much more freewheeling than the tightly-confined rules of a fugue. Finally, I wanted the third play to come from the heart, so I made it about folk music. 

Can you describe your research process for Water by the Spoonful, especially in formulating multicultural personalities in a cyberspace?  My research focused mostly on recovery from addiction. I visited open NA and AA meetings. I also read a lot of online recovery chat-rooms and message boards. I was swept away by some of these threads--people online who had never met keeping each other alive for years on end. And then one day one of them simply stops logging on and all his online friends are left guessing... I was also influenced by the biting and self-deprecating sense of humor of people in recovery. They know how to tell a joke at their own expense. I think the humor was a large part of coming to terms with their flaws and past trangressions.

Water by the Spoonful has been described as upbeat and lighthearted, although it deals with heavy introspective themes. What can we expect from the third installment of The Elliot TrilogyThe Happiest Song Plays Last?  Though Spoonful certainly uses humor throughout, it's a serious drama and it's not upbeat. It's a challenging play, but I found in Hartford the audiences were willing to meet its challenges for the rewards that came with them. The third play, The Happiest Song Play Last, is the play that finally offers actual comedy and redemption. Happiest Song deals with nostalgia, and Hollywood, and the Egyptian Revolution. It is a romance. Elliot, the central character of the trilogy, finally grows up and decides what kind of life he chooses to live in this messed up modern world. He is a young man with blood on his hands--after his military service in Iraq--but by the end there is a glimmer of hope that he can redeem himself, take accountability, and also be free from it to a certain extent.

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Can you tell us about your play My Dreams About Girls for which you won first place as a teenager in the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival?  My first Philly play. I was in tenth grade when I wrote it. I closed my eyes and thought, "What's the first image I see on stage?" I imagined a girl's bedroom window directly facing a bedroom window across the alleyway. A very different girl moves in next door and they spy on and try to help each other's lives, but they find there is too much difference between them to change anything. All they can do is become fleeting friends. I also learned a big lesson--don't use wigs at a dramatic moment. I had scripted that one of them shaves her head as a form of rebellion. When the actress walked onstage in the bald cap, what I had imagined as a poignant rite of passage moment because a riotous scene of laughter. 

Your work is known to cover universal issues but is often set in the context of Latino culture. Many of your plays have also been set in Philadelphia. How has your culture and upbringing inspired your work?  Philadelphia is historic and diverse, and it has all the joys and problems that accompany those things. It's a microcosm of the American experiment--can our country succeed? Can we ever live up to the values and rhetoric in our founding documents? Philadelphia is succeeding in some ways, and failing in others. It's a fascinating setting in which to write about our country's promise and shortcomings. Its neighborhoods are emblazoned in my mind's eye: my aunt working the coffee counter at Fante's in the Italian market. My mom running Case Comadre in North Philly back in the day. Chinatown. West Philly (where I grew up) with various musicians--including the Roots--playing on street corners and out their windows on the weekends.

Water by the Spoonful is due in New York's Second Stage Theatre come December. Can we expect your work to premiere in Philly any time soon?  It would be a dream for my plays to finally reach my hometown. Perhaps they're too close to home. I admit, I'll be quite nervous the day my plays open on Philly stages--will I make people proud? Will I challenge and honor the communities I write from? The future will tell. For now, I can thank Jose Aviles, who was the first director in Philly to bring my work there. And Jane Stojak at the Triangle Theater gave me an early boost.

How did your time at Central High School inform your educational experience, specifically, and in turn how did that specifically inform your growth as a writer?  In light of the decline of the public high school system in Philly, what do you think Central continues to bring to the table as an argument for sending a child there?  Central High spoiled me and gave me a somewhat utopian glimpse of society. Sure, there were cliques and clubs, but there were also many hallways, classrooms, and hangouts where young people from all walks of city life came together. We brought our different cultural and class experiences to the table--it was a given that your friends didn't necessarily have the same background as you. When I arrived at Yale, it was a culture shock for me and it took me a while to adjust to a more homogenous population. Central reflected Philly in all its promise and problems. The combustibility and excitement of a world in which very different people are thrown into rooms together to solve problems and build community. As a person who was decidedly "in between" (half Puerto Rican, half Jewish) the intersection is always where I've felt most at home. I still crave it in my writing. When I sit at my writing desk, I think, "Who can I throw in a room together?" and I look for unusual answers, unexpected connections. It reflects the world I live in, the world as I feel it.

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Follow me @keemthao

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