Quiara Alegría Hudes (2011 Pultizer Prize winner for the play Water By the Spoonful), is widely known for what The New Yorker has described as her “exceptional body of work, at once lyrical and colloquial, playful and spiritual.” She is best known for co-writing (with Lin Manuel-Miranda), the book for the Tony award-winning musical In the Heights. She also wrote the screenplay for the beloved film adaptation of In the Heights, heralded by audiences around the world.
Wanting to keep her family stories from Puerto Rico and Philadelphia alive, in 2021Hudes published her memoir My Broken Language to much acclaim. In it Hudes captured her childhood and teenage years, distilling with sumptuous language and feeling the personalities, ethos, joys and excitement of the amazing women who influenced her life and nurtured her.
Based on her titular memoir, Quiara Alegría Hudes brings My Broken Language to the Signature Theatre with a sterling, vivacious cast who humorously and vibrantly break open Hudes’ memories and bring them to life in their portrayals of Hudes’ strong women. Through the actors’ depictions and Hudes’ fine shepherding of their performances, we understand the love which shaped the artist, who, with poetic insight, invites us to examine their empathy, humanity and humor.
Hudes directs and writes this adaptation for the stage. She divides it into 7 lyrical movements, which elucidate seminal stages in her life. At the top of the presentation, pianist Ariacne Trujillo-Durand enters and strikes us with an upbeat, celebratory merengue as five actors (who play various iterations of the Author character and her relatives), dance then close with an annunciation of the setting and play’s title. It is 1988 in North Philly where Hudes grew up.
We learn why Hudes begins at this point and ends the arc of her play’s development in a memory which is from this vital time in her life. It is the day when she must acknowledge her womanhood, the day when she first menstruates and finds the scarlet “sin” staining her underwear with brown-red blood.
This momentous event happens after she goes to Six Flags Adventure with her god-like, “in the know,” fabulous older cousins. Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Marilyn Torres take up the cousin roles and activate their identities while Daphne Rubin-Vega narrates the Author character descriptions of events. As they carry on and crack jokes and communicate with truck drivers gesturing widely, Rubin-Vega’s Author character becomes sick with heat and nausea. The rollicking trip is fun for the cousins, but the Author stays alone in the car as the others run to the rides without her.
The Author is suffering from her period, she discovers later. However, the event is symbolic. Her life path is different from theirs. Thus, as they leave her to have fun at the park, she will leave them far behind with her educational exploits and journey to become an artist. However, their voices and ethos remain with her because they, her Abuela and mother are integral to her identity. To reconcile the past with the burgeoning evocation of herself, she writes and gives power to her relatives as she remembers and honors the beauty and glory of who these women are.
When Rubin-Vega’s Author returns home to find she is now a woman, Hudes uses the occasion for humor. Abuela gives her a huge pair of panties and she is comforted with a warm beverage and watches TV. She considers whether she will be as robust and striking as the women cousins who took her to Six Flags. Interestingly, the contrast between the Author’s life and theirs is manifest at the end of the segment. The Author from the present lists the ages and names of those cousins who die before their time. They are stricken with the ills of the barrio, ills which Hudes manages to avoid through her education and the loving guidance of Abuela, her mom and the watchful spirits hovering to protect her immediate family.
My Broken Language follows the arc of Hudes’ development and ends as Zabryna Guevara’s Author character finishes her first play in the advanced playwriting class at Brown University in 2004, when she is twenty-six. In this last movement Guevara’s Author is possessed with a spirit to perform trance-like writing. After she finishes the second act of her play, the Author notes she’s written a word she never intended to put in her play. It is then she recalls a “minor” incident from her past, that had great meaning for her, but which she didn’t realize at the time.
A few months after the fateful day of her womanhood, she recalls that a scurrilous man on the street pulled her over and whispered a demeaning, paternalistic slur in her ear. The epithet stained the beauty of her female identity and trashed it. The slur reflects how some men objectify and sexualize women to justify abusing them. However, because of the amazing women who guide the Author, as well as her education, and her search to reconcile her identity through her writing, she realizes that she is able to cast off the centuries old label. Influenced by the spirits, she casts off its meaning by using the epithet in her play. It is a unique and triumphant moment that Hudes’ direction and writing memorializes.
Like the first movement, all of the movements reveal significant and symbolic memories from Hudes’ past. The director/playwright focuses on her multi-generational Puerto Rican family, including her Abuela, mother, cousins and herself as Author, as she presents a mash up of monologue, literary text, vibrant music and movement in flashback.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s scenic design is functionally minimalistic in its representation of the Author’s house and environs where she grew up in North Philly. These facilely extend to other settings like Hudes’ room at Brown University where she writes her play. The set pieces, for example tile boxes that match the tile flooring, morph to various items, i.e. a car, a bathtub, etc., as the actors imaginatively recreate important events in Hudes’ life that reflect joyful and sad moments, the spirits, and the celebration of their lives in the dance.
Five actors don the role of the Author. They spin in and out of the various stages of her life in a multiplicity of voices and postures. They represent the Author’s inner voices as she realizes their import in shaping her future and expanding her artistic being.
Ostensibly, the Author character unfolds snatches of Hudes’ memoir in all of it beauty and glory as she strings together unique descriptors that make her experiences and her impressions of her beloved nurturing relatives palpable. Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Marilyn Torres inhabit the Author character during the various movements. In skirting the margins of many communities, we note that theirs is a language they’ve created as their own, some even without having learned to read. That fact astounds and motivates the Author all the more to devour all literature in a obsession she seeks to fulfill as she reads American and British classics.
When she discovers her relative cannot read, she motivates herself and reads at an advanced level. Her hunger to explore the dominant culture reveals how she intends to escape the barrio as she makes it a point to enumerate family who die young. Having the education and language to use as a vehicle of escape, she returns to her roots. In this adaptation she relays this vital act of memory using a multiplicity of voices and vibes. Ultimately, the beauty of the language Hudes selects brings her Abuela, her mom, her cousins and the spirits into powerful, loving focus.
The production is stylized into narrative that is acted out. The dynamic interactions are less interactive than perhaps one might expect. If Hudes expands each of the seven movements to create consistent, moment-to-moment character dialogue, the power of the inner and outer voices of the Author, represented by the actors/characters, will be strengthened.
Strongest are the music and the celebratory dance. Choreographed by Ebony Williams with music supervision by Alex Lacamoire, the joy and vibrance of Hudes’ past resonates. The actors that inhabit the Author and her various women relatives never drop focus or enthusiasm. They, the music and dance are the electric energy of Hudes’ work. Additionally, her language is soaring. One fully appreciates it by reading her memoir and picking up a copy of the script. It is intense and profound.
Kudos to the creative team including Arnulfo Maldonado (scenic design), Dede Ayite (costume design), Jen Schriever (lighting design), Leah Gelpe (sound design), Ann James (cultural specialist), J. Jared Janas (hair, wig and makeup design).
The World Premiere of My Broken Language, written and directed by Quiara Alegría Hudes, is currently running in residency at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre (at The Pershing Square Signature Center), until November 27th. It is 90 minutes with no intermission. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.signaturetheatre.org/shows-and-events.aspx