How does one skilled playwright cap off years of public acclaim, trophies and Pulitzer Prize finalist spots? Ask Central High alum Quiara Alegría Hudes, the affable, West Philadelphia-raised graduate of Yale and Brown universities who penned the libretto for the Tony Award-winning 2008 musical In the Heights. Four years later, she nabbed that Pulitzer, this one for her dramatic play, Water by the Spoonful, the second chapter in her “Elliot Trilogy.” Water—which chronicles the life of a fictional Iraq War veteran named Elliot Ortiz upon his return home, exploring the emotional impact of his time in combat—has been running at the Arden Theatre in Old City since two weeks into the New Year, and its final dates are slated for mid-March.
Haven’t seen the play’s on-stage predecessor Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, or its follow-up entry? Fret not, Hudes says. “The plays were intended to be stand-alone pieces,” she told PW via email from Manhattan, where the trilogy’s final part, The Happiest Song Plays Last, is premiering this week. “Perhaps one day I’ll see them performed together in repertory, and that will make the experience fuller, but each play is supposed to be its own experience, too.”
PW: Other than your being from Philly, why did you decide to set this trilogy in the city?
QUIARA ALEGRÍA HUDES: I remember years back when they broke ground to build the Constitution Center. As they were digging farther into the earth to lay the foundation, they were excavating clay pots and pipes and unmarked graves. The history of our city—our nation—lay quite literally below our feet. Every time, as a teenager, I would walk those cobblestone paths in Old City, I’d be aware that I was walking on legacy, on heritage, in all its glory and shame. So, there’s the history angle. In addition, I simply love the neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and it is on this city’s streets where I learned the value of storytelling within the community. There was Adimu in West Philly, who made instruments out of recycled materials and performed for us children. There was Abuela Yuya in North Philly, who told of the discrimination Latinos faced upon arriving in the ‘60s. My childhood was overflowing with fascinating stories from the city’s streets.
The play seems very personal. Are there any personal situations that created the basis, or, say, any specific scenes in Water by the Spoonful?
The play is quite personal, though a work of fiction. They’re all personal, and there’s a seed of me in every character. This one, in particular, is inspired by a cousin of mine who got caught in a web of addiction but somehow managed to crawl out, get into recovery and stay sober for decades. She is still sober today. The will and strength involved in her sobriety always impressed me.
How do you feel about the Arden playing the second part of the trilogy, rather than the first?
They have opened their arms to me and to the community. I am grateful for the outreach they have done and how they believe in my story.
The Happiest Song Plays Last is about to premiere in New York. What does this project coming to fruition mean to you?
I have been texting with Armando (Riesco)—who has originated the role of Elliot in all three plays—today. We have been haggling over a line change I made in the final minutes of the play. We had a heated text exchange—probably unwise in any circumstance. He was fighting for one version of the line; I was fighting for another version of the line. And it ended with us reflecting on how much every word matters because we’ve spent so many years on this project, put so much of our hearts into it. We are both very invested. We have the jitters. And we’re proud.
Are you working on more plays now?
I am writing a new musical with composer/lyricist Erin McKeown about an estranged mother and daughter and their immigration story. It’s a commission for La Jolla Playhouse in California. I also have a new play called The Rooster Room that is set in a corner bar in North Philly and follows seven bar regulars over the course of 20 years.
Do you hope to look into similar themes in your coming works? Things like family, regret, spirituality?
My themes come and get me. They creep up on me, they appear in my dreams, they embarrass me and mock me and trap me. Things like family, regret and spirituality. Things like the body and women and earth. Things that make up life. I wake up and sit at my writing desk every day.
It’s now been almost two years since Water by the Spoonful won the Pulitzer Prize. What’s the biggest change in your life been since then?
My second child, a son, Julian, was born. He just turned one. Life trumps prizes. I wake up to life every day.
Through Sun., March 16. Various times. $36-$48. The Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. 215.922.1122. ardentheatre.org