In the afterglow of her Pulitzer win, the feminist playwright opens up about border-crossing, why she’d make a terrible critic, and her master teacher, Paula Vogel.
Image via Quiara Alegría Hudes
It was raining when I headed to Washington Heights to interview Quiara Alegría Hudes, who had recently won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play, Water by the Spoonful. Despite wearing minimal makeup and no shoes when she answered the door, she was strikingly beautiful. She served me a Café Bustelo in a mug she had gotten at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, where she had been a resident playwright. (Hudes is a self-described “geek” about her “lucky” mugs.)
Hudes’s Pulitzer win was far from shocking. She had been a finalist for Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue (2007), and then again as a collaborator on the musical In the Heights (2008). Hudes’s repeated success reflects the consistently high standard she sets for herself and her work. But Hudes’s win ultimately came for the work that has so far been most challenging to audiences. “We got a lot of people saying that they came back twice,” Hudes says, “because there’s so much in there they wanted to hear again and spend more time parsing.”
The challenges of the play lie not in language but in difficult themes: the body, spirituality, and identity. The latter, in particular, has been a hot topic in her various interviews. “People ask me a lot, do I consider myself to be a Latino writer and what does it mean to be Latino, and those are very kind of strange questions to answer in a three-minute response,” she says.
Hudes doesn’t live in–or write about–a dichotomous world of Brown and White or even Latino and non-Latino. Being half Jewish and half Puerto Rican has made her very aware of borders and boundaries; she speaks of being both inside and outside, always shuffling between communities. This perspective provides a palpable richness of vision in her work.
Hudes’s speech, like her writing, is musical and arresting. She seemed grateful for the opportunity to expand on the issue of identity, something she’s often asked about in shorter interviews, discussing both the personal and intellectual influences that have shaped her work. She answered questions right up until the moment she slipped on her cowboy boots and headed out the door for an appointment with her director to discuss plans for a New York production of Water by the Spoonful.
—Kathleen Potts for Guernica
Guernica: The Civil Rights activist Dick Gregory said, “Luck is opportunity meeting up with preparation. So you must prepare yourself to be lucky.” A lot of playwrights would consider winning the Pulitzer Prize the luckiest moment in their lives. How did you prepare to be lucky in this way?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: Well, the thing I’m clinging to from what you asked me is you started with an activist, which feels really right because my family roots are in activism and I think that informed a lot of the choices I make as a writer. How did I prepare myself for being lucky? One of the questions that has been asked during the last three weeks is: How does it change your life? Other than the fact that over the last two weeks I’ve gotten fifty emails a day as opposed to four emails a day, and the fact that I’m doing a few interviews, basically it doesn’t, you just keep doing your work. It does in the sense that more people will be interested in experiencing my work, but from my point of view as a practitioner, I was doing my work before and I’m doing my work now and it’s what I love. I think all of the decisions I make about my life and writing are the preparation–what I choose to write about and the immersive nature of the lifestyle I choose for playwriting.
I had a moment after In the Heights did well and got the Tonys [for Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Choreography, and Best Orchestrations] where I was kind of flavor-of-the-month and every producer was calling me and there were all sorts of offers from Hollywood and this, that, and the other and I thought, “Okay, let me try that for a year.” So I did some film and TV writing for a year. Not to say I won’t pursue that again–and certainly not to say I’m not a film and TV fan because I’m the world’s biggest couch potato and love TV–but it was an insightful year because I saw that given a choice, that’s not where my skill or my heart lies. After that I was able to say, “Well I did try that, and granted that would pay a lot more rent a lot more quickly but the truth of the matter is I just want to sit down in front of my desk tomorrow and write some more plays.” In the Heights has given me the luxury to do that and still get some income because plays don’t really do that. It came as a big surprise when the award was announced. I think it was because there hadn’t been a lot of fanfare around my work. In the Heights was an exception–but I was a co-author so it’s not necessarily my piece with a capital M. With the work I had been doing that was just mine–the plays–there wasn’t a lot of fanfare. It was just about the work, and that was a really nice preparation, in some ways.
Guernica: Do you have plans to work on another musical?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I’ve been working on a musical theater adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate for about three years. Each musical finds its own way and this one has been a slower process and it’s still in the push-the-boulder-up-the-cliff phase. If we can make it to the finish line, I think it’s going to be something very special. I’ve also been talking to a young songwriter named Erin McKeown. She and I are talking about doing an adaptation of 26 Miles into a musical, changing quite a bit. I’ve also been talking to Lin [-Manuel Miranda], who I wrote In the Heights with. He has the rights to adapt My Name is Asher Lev, a book by Chaim Potok. That’s on the horizon too. The musicals are a fantastic day job and if I can continue to do them as a way to pay—you know, that’s a great way to keep the lights on.
Guernica: On the subject of music, I’m finding that your use of it goes beyond the incidental and even beyond the thematic to become a core part of the structure and ideas, for instance, in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue. Were you musically trained?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I studied music growing up. I studied classical piano. My aunt, Linda Hudes, was a big mentor of mine. She composed an original score for the Big Apple Circus, every year, for eighteen years of my life. I lived in Philadelphia–she was up here in New York. So I would come and stay with her for chunks at a time and turn her pages as the band was rehearsing, that kind of thing. So, she taught me a lot about music. She took me to a lot of concerts. When I was nine years old I was seeing Etta James at… I don’t remember if it was S.O.B.’s or where it was… she took me to see Steel Pulse, a great reggae band. I think I was ten years old, and totally high off second-hand smoke at that point.
Being of mixed background–being half Jewish and half Puerto Rican–and also being much lighter than the rest of my family, I was always shuffling between communities. I was inside and outside those communities at the same time.
NRBQ was this great bar band. I saw some really great performances. She and her husband, Rick, who was the music director for the Big Apple Circus, they hosted me into this music world. I also studied with a Latin Jazz master named Elio Villafranca who taught me Afro-Caribbean piano. There was a man named Don Rapport, who taught me music composition. I just grew up with all these master teachers. It was wonderful and some of them volunteered their time because they were generous people. And my aunt sponsored my music education. Then I went to college for composing, so at Yale, my major was music.
Guernica: It wasn’t theater?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: No, the theater education came later for me. Music composition is what I did there, and while I was at Yale I composed. I wrote the lyrics, book, and music for two original musicals. I also composed a lot for dance companies and did incidental music for theater productions. I continued to do the same after I graduated, so my background is very rooted in music.
Guernica: Is there a way that you bring it into the plays? Or is it organic and comes out of the characters?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: It’s both. Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue was the first play where I consciously incorporated music. There was an organic discovery and then there was also an intellectual decision-making process, which was that the story was about three generations who are following in each other’s footsteps. As I was visualizing the play, before I even started writing it, I just imagined three characters and their lives happening, their stories happening, on top of each other. It just visually felt like a fugue to me.
If you read music, you can picture a Bach fugue. You have one line and the line can come back inverted and they’ll be playing on top of each other and I was like, that’s cool. That feels like something to me. I also was excited about combining this Latin world and this very western music classics world. I thought it was different and felt really at home for me. I was proud of that piece of writing. It was my favorite play that I had written and I felt like I had tapped into something. After Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, I worked on In the Heights and I worked on 26 Miles and after those two projects I felt like I was missing something. What I did with Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue–I don’t want that to be a one-time thing. I want to keep doing that and I think what “that” was, even more than continuing forward with this particular character’s story, was exploring music in drama. So that’s when I had the idea to turn that single play into a trilogy and I knew parts two and three at that point.
Guernica: Meaning you felt you knew what the story was going to be?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I had a sense that part two would be about recovery and part three would be about a kind of activism. And I had a sense of what the music would be. I had already done western classical, so I wanted to do jazz—something very American. Then for the third to do something that was global—folk music—and the tradition I chose was regional, a Puerto Rican tradition of folk music.
Guernica: You’re speaking particularly of The Happiest Song Plays Last, which will be premiering at the Goodman [Theatre].
Quiara Alegría Hudes: That’s right. When I made that realization all of a sudden I could see it, I could see the next few years of my life. I thought it felt really at home. It felt like a challenge to me. It was one of those things that I thought, I’m the one who can write this–no one else can write this specific thing. Then I just jumped into the deep end and wrestled with those two plays.
Guernica: Throughout your work, there’s always the idea of the body and our vulnerabilities. Has that always fascinated you?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: The history of the body is very much part of how I grew up. My mother is a kind of spiritualist. She was born in Arecibo, on the farming outskirts of what was a fairly major town in Puerto Rico. Her parents were farmers and they grew all the food that they ate–there was a barter system with the neighbors to exchange goods. It was mostly vegetarian because it was very humble. But there were animals too–there would be more, for holidays. My mother’s roots are Taíno, which is one of the native groups from Puerto Rico. There was a very strong and practical everyday connection to natural medicinal healing.
In 2012, spirituality is a major, unspoken question in this culture because there is not a default religion, an assumed spirituality. But, as an intellectual myself, a purely intellectual life is not fulfilling—it’s not complete.
My mother was very influential in my writing, my aesthetic, and my point of view. She essentially had this gift, which was that a few times when she was a child—and she was terrified by it—she would wake up and see some neighbor or acquaintance from the town saying, “I’m dying, please tell everyone to gather.” She would wake up screaming and tell her parents and lo and behold! Four or five times she foresaw local deaths, including her brother’s—her older brother’s. So from the time she was very young that was a really terrible part of her childhood. All of her hair fell out. But there was a strong enough community of local herbalists–they call them curanderos–that helped her and helped her parents deal with the stress of that particular gift, I guess, that she had. By the time she had me at about twenty-two, she had done a lot of studying in this field. And so, when I got sick as I grew up she had an herb garden and would give me healing massages. It was a very physical family. I just remember her hands on me a lot as a child. I was always sick as a child and so there was a lot of Shiatsu massage with herbs and stuff like that.
Guernica: You feel that love connection from the mother to the child in Elliot in that scene where he speaks of her in the garden massaging—
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I never put these things altogether until you asked this question… but of course, it’s all there. I think the body was always of primal importance. There was a lot of illness in my family and so we would be each others’ caretakers and it wasn’t a cold thing. We would clean off our elders’ bodies or feed them… these sorts of things. I’m also interested in the body because in our family–the nature of our roots is that we all look extremely different. My mother and my sister are much darker than me. They’re very heavyset women. There’s also this sense of, “the body is really amazing.” I always noticed our bodies.
Guernica: I see a lot of boundary crossing in your plays. In Yemaya’s Belly, Jesus makes the journey from a town in Cuba, to a bustling port city on the island, to a raft sailing to America. Beatriz and Olivia in 26 Miles cross the state line, technically illegally because Beatriz doesn’t have visiting rights with her daughter. All the characters in Elliot cross from home to war zones and back. The journey for Nina [from In the Heights] is from El Barrio to Stanford University. In Water by the Spoonful, all the characters cross boundaries, whether in cyberspace or literal space, such as when one transgresses the home space to reach a parking lot to score drugs. Can you comment on the concept of individuals crossing boundaries?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: In Latino culture the idea of the border is very contemporary. It’s very much of our world, its politics are important to us. It’s also a part of our emotional relationship to the rest of our family in Puerto Rico, or wherever, and our own relationship to roots—the land of our roots—and where we are now. My stepfather is very active in the Puerto Rican community in Philadelphia. But they raised me in West Philly, which is not Puerto Rican but a much more diverse international immigrant community. We were the only Latinos I knew in that particular neighborhood. It was more African, Vietnamese–[it had been] African-American for generations.
The biggest epiphanies in my life have always just been someone stating the most obvious, simple thing. It’s not like some deep, thick, concept comes together… it’s actually just someone putting a finger on something that’s right there already.
I had an aunt who worked in South Philly at the Italian market. I was always traveling throughout the city and you cross one street and all of a sudden the whole landscape of the city changes. I was very aware of these things and I think being of mixed background—being half Jewish and half Puerto Rican—and also being much lighter than the rest of my family, I was always shuffling between communities. I was inside and outside those communities at the same time. So I was really aware of and fascinated by the boundaries between things. I remember so well what it means to cross Girard Avenue going north and all of a sudden you go from kind of an artsy neighborhood to true North Philly. I love adventure stories. I loved reading the Odyssey. I loved Gulliver’s Travels. I think there is a love for storytelling that comes out of adventure.
Guernica: Spirituality is another thread–an example of crossing boundaries in your plays. Yemaya’s Belly is named for the deity who originated in Yorùbán mythology as a mother goddess and in the Cuban tradition of Santería becomes Yemayá. In your play, she is transformed into a corporeal being, the festival performer that Jesus encounters. And in Water by the Spoonful, Odessa becomes a Buddhist. In 26 Miles, Manuel is Catholic, Beatriz is Protestant, and characters ask openly about ideas of faith, religion, and belief in God. Do you worry about how audiences will respond to such frank discussions of religion and spirituality?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: No, I don’t worry about it at all. I just taught playwriting at Wesleyan, and the students were so brilliant and loads of fun. It was like being president of the book club–I got to assign my favorite plays and we discussed them. But the one play where the conversation never really kick-started was [August Wilson’s] Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. What I realized when I took their writing home and read it and came back to class to address it was that it’s because the play has a very deeply rooted spirituality. It might have just been the cross section of students I had in that class, but they didn’t really know how to have a conversation about that. They weren’t attuned to that in the way they were attuned to lots of other things we were talking about. James Baldwin said that identity is the American theme. In 2012, spirituality is a major, unspoken question in this culture because there is not a default religion, an assumed spirituality. But, as an intellectual myself, a purely intellectual life is not fulfilling–it’s not complete.
Guernica: I agree.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I grew up steeped in very powerful religious and spiritual traditions, like the Quakers. My mom worked at American Friends Service Committee doing activist work around the country for teenagers of color and I went to meetings for ten years. The connection of activism and spirituality was always very important to me.
My mom also is a Santera, which is like a priestess in Santería. So in our living room—there aren’t churches where this is practiced, this is a living room practice—I had access to rituals and celebrations in honor of the African lineage, the African ancestors of the Caribbean life. I witnessed some pretty profound and moving stuff.
My grandparents were more like Lutherans—[although] it depended on the church and the pastor—and my stepfather is Catholic. I had a very diverse group of friends, and if I stayed at their houses I would go to church with them. There’s this open question that in some ways you can ask more freely because there is no default religious assumption in this country, it’s like—what is soul? You know, what’s the meaning of life? Why are we here? What’s our accountability to ourselves and to each other? And I think those are ethical questions and they’re also spiritual questions.
[Art] is the hammer that shapes history. I don’t think history is told just by history books and newspapers, but the documents of the culture saying, “This is what was here. This is what was here.” That’s my hammer.
I read lots of drama that has nothing to do with spirituality, but as a writer I’m very character-based. For me, it starts with people and ends with people. Sometimes the plots almost become more of an exercise. How do I construct a plot where these characters can just live and where I can live with them? I don’t know how to touch on people so deeply without dealing with some soul questions.
Guernica: Brecht is often quoted as saying that “Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Do you think theater is a tool for social change?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I love that. And I do that in my own way. When I was around twenty-four—I don’t know why I keep talking about my past—I was still deep into music, but I had this point where I started getting bored. I had never felt that way a day in my life and I thought, “This is new. What’s going on?”
I brought this up with my mother, and she said to me—you know, I was always the good kid in the family and she never gave me a word of advice—she said, “You’re doing fine, just keep doing what you’re doing.” But I said to her, “Listen, what’s been going on? I’m bored. But I’m doing what I’ve always dreamt of doing, so how do I deal with that?” And she said, “I don’t know why you never took your writing seriously. You know, you were always a writer.”
The biggest epiphanies in my life have always just been someone stating the most obvious, simple thing. It’s not like some deep, thick, concept comes together–it’s actually just someone putting a finger on something that’s right there already. So as soon as she said that it just clicked, and I knew. From there on out I’ve been a writer.
[My mother] graduated high school. She didn’t go to college but she said the written word is so important in our society and “you should have a book, that’s how history gets changed.” She said something along those lines, and in terms of art shaping reality, I’ve always felt that art can actually shape history because it’s simply the record of our culture that we leave behind.
For me, it’s less about the now. I think about it in future terms and if any of my plays outlive me or get on library book shelves and somehow stay read, all of a sudden it’s a testament to “that’s part of our culture, that’s part of our history.” [Art] is the hammer that shapes history. I don’t think history is told just by history books and newspapers, but the documents of the culture saying, “This is what was here. This is what was here.” That’s my hammer.
Guernica: You studied with Paula Vogel at Brown. Is she a major influence on your work?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: A major influence. There’s something of her in my heart now, it’s become part of me and I’m so lucky. I’ve had all of these master teachers: Linda Hudes being one, my mom being one, and Paula Vogel definitely being one. My experience with most of them is that what had the strongest impact on me were not valuable technical lessons but the, “Yes, yes, do more of that, keep going on, more, more, more.” Paula really had this childlike enthusiasm for nudging me and pushing me on the path without telling me what that path should be. She made no attempt to tell me what my work should be. I also had some great music teachers who were men, but I think there’s something about having these master teachers who were women in my life. That’s very meaningful to me and you see it in my work. I write a lot about matriarchs and the pain of it, the beauty of it, the burden of it, the love of it. And she is that in my life. I adore her. She really changed my life.
Guernica: Would you call yourself a feminist writer?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: Oh, definitely. No question about it. My mom was a staunch feminist, so it was our bread and butter and the water we drink. She ran CHOICE hotline in Philadelphia for many years, which people called when they were in need of any sort of question about sexuality, about violence, about reproductive this, that, and the other, and she founded something called Casa Comadre, which was based in the Latin community and offered resources to women and mothers who didn’t have a lot of resources.
I was so entrenched as an adult in feminism. I remember she gave me Our Bodies, Ourselves when I turned thirteen–she was very frank about sexuality. [She] and my sister will kill me if this makes it into the interview, but once we were driving in the car and my mom had just given us something like Changing Bodies, Changing Lives. My sister—who wasn’t the biggest reader in the world—was poring over it like a microscope. And from the backseat she just said, “What is masturbation?” I was like, oh my God, this is so awkward. My mom was like, “It’s having sex with yourself.” That’s amazing—how can she just say that so straightforward? A little bit of that is in 26 Miles.
One of the things that [my mother] brought to feminism was a Latino point of view–a spiritual point of view which was very important to me. I remember getting to college and all of a sudden realizing that feminism was a dirty word to a lot of people and it was baffling to me. I would tell people that I was a feminist and they would look at me and go, “Why?” And that just made me feel more at home in those shoes.
People ask me: “Do I consider myself to be a Latino writer?” “What does it mean to be Latino?” Those are very strange questions to answer in a three-minute response, but feminism is easier because it’s just an ideology, a way I live my life. And absolutely in the most political sense I try to sit down and write very strong female roles.
Guernica: [Playwrights] Susan-Lori Parks, Wendy Wasserstein, Lynn Nottage, Marsha Norman, Beth Henley, your mentor Paula Vogel are all women who have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama since Second-Wave Feminism. Do you see yourself as part of this lineage? What dramas and authors do you connect with?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: To consider myself part of that lineage is just incredible. You know, I could never be a critic because I just love everything. It’s very unusual. I probably see fifty plays a year and I probably read fifty more. Maybe once or twice I’ll come home and tell my husband, “Eh, didn’t like it.” But I just find there is something to learn in everything. Anytime I’m sitting in a play I think, “This is so luxurious. What a luxurious experience.” To be in that list is really amazing, and yet, it feels right. These are women who—with the exception of Wendy [Wasserstein]—are still active and have a huge impact on my work. Their work is so virtuosic, so strong, it has such point of view, which I love. There are also other artists that I wrestle with in my work—August Wilson is always hovering… always hovering, that one.
Guernica: It was hard to lose him and Wendy in such a close span of time.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: It’s funny, I’ve found there is a bit of eye-rolling when I talk about him sometimes. He’s become a little bit of a cultural trope. Not for me. I love how long-winded he is, I love how repetitive he is. To me, he is a music writer. I love that the spirit world is so deeply planted in his plays. And I relate, because as much as I have been trying to write outside of North Philadelphia—I just went out to Cleveland Play House. They called me up and they said, “Do you have a new play that we can workshop here?” I said, “I don’t have a new play but I’ll write one for you.”
It’s always good to have a deadline. I said, “Okay, I’ve been writing this trilogy for ten years, this is going to be my first play outside of the trilogy, let me do something really different.” So I went to a whole new place: different setting, different group of characters, different everything–it was a very male play. I wrote it and I hated it. It was a fine piece of writing, but it wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I called them up a month before I came out. I said, “You know, I wrote this play but I don’t want to send it to you because it’s a lie and I don’t like it. And can you just take a leap of faith? I want to start from scratch.” Then I went back to North Philly and thought, “there’s still more to say–there are still more stories to tell.” This is what I feel I have to say that only I could be saying. In that sense I think about August a lot, because he had that strong sense of place in his work.
Guernica: You’ve talked a lot about dramatic literature–reading plays as well as seeing them. Has your relationship with dramatic literature been evolving alongside of your writing?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I love reading plays. I know that part of the discussion after the Pulitzer was announced was: “But no one even saw her play! How can a play just exist on a page? And how do you really even know until you see the production?” But one of the things I love about plays is that I think they have a dual existence. Of course they exist on the page. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be assigned Shakespeare and Arthur Miller in high school. They absolutely exist that way and they absolutely exist in performance. I love that in creating one thing I actually get to create two things. I just went to see Death of a Salesman. I hadn’t read the script since high school. But I wasn’t sophisticated enough when I was fifteen years old to have any sense of what mortality means in Death of a Salesman. I also think of The Crucible. When I read it in high school, it was just a bunch of weird anti-witch jibber-jabber. And then re-reading it again as an adult and encountering it as an adult–
Guernica: And being able to see the parallels with McCarthyism.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: Of course. It’s a very sophisticated play, it’s college reading. But even then, I don’t think I would have totally understood the themes. I read a lot of new work but I’m also circling back to the classics because I’m finding that only now as an adult can I really understand the kind of emotional depths that are being tapped into, so unlike a novel. Novels can fill in the spaces about what that emotional resonance is, but plays don’t have that on the page. That the actor brings. I read voraciously. I wish I had more time to teach dramatic literature, because writing is very hard to teach. I get scared I’m going to mess with someone’s voice, but just to sit around and read and talk about plays—that is teaching playwriting, actually.
Guernica: Blending the two–writing but also the reading–they get a sense of the whole dramatic tradition.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: There’s [also] a lot of international drama. One of my favorite plays has always been Death and the King’s Horseman by Wole Soyinka. Because of my mom’s background in Santería, Paula was always assigning me international drama. She would assign reading specifically to individuals, not to the whole class. When I got there she assigned me so much because my classmates had majored in theater and were ahead in terms of reading. She gave me a lot of German Expressionism because it’s part of the dramatic literature she thought I should know it, and there was something in there that I would tap into. That was big for me.
Guernica: In a video interview, the lyricist Tim Rice speaks of how London’s West End theater community is so spread out, and that on Broadway you can walk out of a theater you’re working in and bump into somebody else who’s working in a theater nearby and, you know, eat at Sardi’s.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: The theater world feels very small, and I love it. It’s a community that I absolutely adore. I’ve had the good fortune to be a resident writer at New Dramatists for seven years—I’m about to graduate so they’re going to give me the boot now. But it’s like a living room shared by playwrights. The playwriting community is very small and very important in my life. I think Paula instilled [that] in me, and my grandmother who always had an open door, always having neighbors through.
I love being a host–not because I want to throw a swanky party–I just have like cheap wine and rice and beans on my stove. I get so jealous when my husband comes home—he’s a public defender—and says, “Oh I had this conversation with Aaron and I had this conversation with Rumsey and we were talking about this judge, and he thinks I should have approached this judge in that way,” and I’m say, “You get to talk shop every day and hone your craft. I don’t get to do that. I’m alone.”
So I’ve started hosting in the last few years, very informally, different groups of playwrights here in my living room to read our work together, to break bread together, and to talk shop. It’s so beautiful to hear what others have to say “what do you do when you have a conflict with your director about this, that, and the other, or how do you deal with self-loathing?” That’s always a big topic. We could go on forever about that. Then there’s the Latino theater community, which is also a very small world. The other day I happened to be walking to my agent’s office and walked by Jose Rivera, who is a hero of mine. I had never met him. But he knew who I was and came up to me and gave me a hug and said congratulations. That just blew my mind.
We know the actors, we know the directors. We overlap a lot. I just took a handful of actors out to Cleveland [Play House] to workshop this new play: Liza Colón-Zayas, David Zayas, James Martinez, Socorro Santiago. Some of them have worked together and some of them haven’t, but they all knew each other’s work—it’s like instant family. I think my students at Wesleyan [University] actually thought I was being a weird name dropper when I would say, “I’ll ask Annie Baker.” When I taught The Aliens and they had a question and I said, “You know what, that’s a great question, I’m going to ask her.” They responded, “Oh, ask Annie, you’re going to ask Annie?!” It’s not that I know a celebrity, it’s just a small world and we love talking to each other about the craft, about the practice. If you get a group of writers in a room and ask, “when do you write?” Forget it—five hours of conversation right there.
Guernica: Do you have any idea of what moved the Pulitzer Board about Water by the Spoonful? Do you think it could be your representation of technology and how it both connects and disconnects us as human beings?
Quiara Alegría Hudes: It’s a big work. It has a wide lens, unlike Elliot, which is very micro, very finely crafted. Water by the Spoonful is big and sprawling. It doesn’t have neat edges, there’s a lot of overlap… maybe there’s something about that that they liked. I spoke to Junot Díaz who was on [the Pulitzer Prize Board] and he’s so brilliant, he said, “That play was awesome–it really blew me away,” which was crazy for me to hear because I respect his writing so much. I do think it is a challenging play and maybe they were looking for a challenge this year. It’s not an easy play to produce. It’s not an easy play to understand, on first read or on first viewing. In Connecticut, we got a lot of people saying that they came back twice because there’s so much in there they wanted to hear again and spend more time parsing through. I think that it’s great if the award can encourage more challenging writing, more literary writing from the theater.
Guernica: I heard an anecdote relating to where you were when you were told that you had won the Pulitzer Prize.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: I was teaching. You know, they don’t tell you anything ahead of time. They don’t tell you you’re a finalist or that you’ve been considered or that they’re having exciting conversations about you. They just give the New York Times the press release, so the world finds out with you. Except in my case, my phone was turned off.
Guernica: Even the Pulitzer jury doesn’t know. My understanding is they’ve made their recommendations, but even they don’t know who the Pulitzer Board has decided upon.
Quiara Alegría Hudes: Right, right. So my phone was off because I was teaching–it’s a three-hour class and by the time I turned my phone on I was the last to know. I was in front of my students and I said, “Oh My God, guys, this just happened!” They were very excited.
Guernica: Do you think they felt differently about you for a minute? “Oh my gosh, now we can actually say that we have studied with a Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist?”
Quiara Alegría Hudes: It’s special to be with someone at a moment like that. They felt that they were part of it. And they brought me a cake the next week that had the word “Pulitzer” in icing.