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Quiara Alegría Hudes’ ‘My Broken Language’ in a World Premiere at the Signature Theatre

(L to R): Samora la Perdida, Zabryna Guevara, Marilyn Torres in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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.

(L to R): Marilyn Torres, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Yani Marin in My Broken Language (Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Daphne Rubin Vega, Samora la Perdida (face obscured), Yani Marin, My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Yani Marin (center) the company of My Broken Language (Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Yani Marin (foreground) Marilyn Torres (background) in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Daphne Rubin-Vega (seated), Samora la Perdida (standing), Marilyn Torres (seated), Yani Marin (standing) in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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.

Yani Marin in My Broken Language (courtesy of Julieta Cervantes)

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

‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, Rehabbing With Vibrant Song Circles

Ensemble, Octet, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe, Pershing Square Signature Center

The cast of ‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, presented by the Signature Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Addicted to your phone, via Instagram? Text? Candy Crush? Reddit? 4Chan? World of Warcraft? In Octet by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, eight individuals who drop in to no-show Saul’s rehab in a homely church basement, find another hosting the weekly session. Thankfully, group leader Paula (the singer, songwriter Starr Busby), is nurturing and responsive to their cavernous, disabling confessions. There, in a harmonious, ever fluid, richly sonorous, song circle, they discuss their digital urges and expurgate them via the occult, each governed by a Tarot card designed for them and them alone. And sometimes the chorus joins in inspired by a soul hymn, encouraging the beauty of sharing in a non-judgmental like-mindedness.

What are they sharing? That which is maligned, misunderstood and apotheosized, the intimate, digital, hand-held which opens up their personal world like a hallucinogen and entraps them with their own emotional frailties. By the end of their epiphany-yielding, tonal and atonal harmonies (sung a cappella and sometimes performed with pitch pipes, batons and other make-shift percussion items), they are lifted spiritually out of this world and “out of themselves.” They’ve achieved a healing peace in the community of others and the audience responds with a standing ovation for they, too, have been enlivened and awakened, having stayed off their phones for almost two hours.

Octet, Kucho Verma, Starr Busby, Octet, Annie Tippe, Dave Malloy

(L to R): Kuchoo Verma, Starr Busby in ‘Octet,’ directed by Annie Tippe, by Dave Malloy (Joan Marcus)

Dave Malloy, the progenitor of this innovative, exceptional and robust musical has created a masterwork with little theatrical spectacle, certainly nowhere near the breadth of Natasha Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, his signature work. In Octet, for which Malloy has deftly created the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements, he takes a complex and intricate subject of great currency and couches it within a simplistic, minimalistic structure so that the powerful message of community and our need for live interaction resonates. With the seating in the “round,” and featuring a one-walled back set which reveals community bulletins, community ads, a coffee pot, announcements, etc., we get the sense we are in a basement which by the end, infuses the sanctity of each of us which must not be underestimated. Above all Octet is like a soul injection to promote our awareness of each other’s value and worth more than an $1000 phone.

Into the choir circle of healing comes various debilitated, physically whole, but spiritually wounded internet adherents. When all are gathered, they begin the refreshment and comfort of unity so that they eventually will be released to express their hearts in solo song. The “Hymn: The Forest” reflects The Moon Tarot card which represents “Intuition.” Indeed, each of the individuals are misaligned spiritually and need to be “made upright” especially with firing up and being guided by their own wisdom and not the addictive distractions of the world.

Ensemble, Octet, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe, Pershing Square Signature Center, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe

The cast of ‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, presented by the Signature Theatre (Joan Marcus)

In the first solo, we learn that Jessica in “Refresh” has put herself out there on “YouTube” and has gotten a huge response for it by those who comment. Though controversy gets clicks and likes and dislikes, it is also obsessive and must be followed by more “rants,” which Margo Seibert’s Jessica is addicted to creating for the comments. Henry (Alex Gibson) sings about his addiction to video games, and Paula (Starr Busby) sings about her distraction from her marriage and her losing her interest or attentiveness to making it work.

Distraction, dislocation from the most important relationships in one’s life is one theme of this production. Of course, viewing a screen is easy. Relationships take time, effort, pain and suffering along with the joy and good times. To stay dynamically involved with friends and spouses, one often must work through the underlying reasons and foundations for why one chooses the particular individuals one does to populate one’s life. It’s much easier to click on one’s phone and be taken away from problems by video games and escape introspection with “rants” which Jessica, Henry and Paula seek to do.

In the representative songs of what being “plugged in” digitally means to these individuals, we understand that in the “Hymn: Monster” which everyone sings, they project their inner “devil” outward and ascribe that the internet is their addiction. “Being connected online” has become the monster that has destroyed and eaten up their lives. Of course the irony is that the monster was always there within, waiting to manifest. But the way to get rid of it which will have to be a continual process, first is the realization that they have a “devil” within, and second that it is a devourer.

Ensemble, Octet, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe, Pershing Square Signature Center, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe

The cast of ‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, presented by the Signature Theatre (Joan Marcus)

Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (the deep-voiced Adam Bashian) sing “Solo” about love and hunger for love. Ed is an Incel, a nonconformist. He riffs about Stacys and Chads (which is funny/drop dead serious Incelspeak) and they both sing about internet porn and online sexual addiction and the narcissism of having a ton of males (Karly) on her apps. In “Actually,” sung by Toby (Justin Gregory Lopez) whose Tarot card is The Magician, we note how far one must go to achieve one’s destiny, arriving at their potential. Toby has been waylaid in any pursuit of fulfillment.

In Marvin’s “Little God,” there is an intersection of spirituality and science which I found engaging in the tensions posited. J.D. Mollison is humorous in his visualizing that God is an 11-year-old dressed or looking like a Mermaid. In this song Malloy throws in ideas from Alan Watts’ The Book, and moves with gyrations into Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, and Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and concepts from wherever. This he does throughout this intriguing, rich musical referencing games, podcasts, film, theater and books which he lists in the show’s Playbill insert.

Kuchoo Verma, Octet, Dave Malloy, Annie Tippe, Pershing Square Signature Center

Kuchoo Verma, ‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, presented by the Signature Theatre (Joan Marcus)

However, as a cleanse from the confusion of the myriad voices that try to persuade, convince and entrap us online, Paula conducts a wonderful ceremonial tea (“Tower Tea Ceremony”). It is then all sit, savor, become present, become located within themselves and prosper in their souls with the help of a drug that takes them deep within, but only for a few minutes. The ceremony yields humorous and beautiful moments. As a justification that there is something good about the online delusion that has swept their souls from beyond their easy grasp of themselves, it takes a song circle and tea ceremony to bring them back to a healing.

It is after the tea ceremony that Velma  (Kucho Verma) courageously sings of her angst. It is she who brings an interesting justification of the global reach of the internet. In all the world, online,she has found someone to love who loves her back and makes her feel accepted and not such an ugly freak. The song “Beautiful,” governed by the Tarot card of The Fool, magnetizes all the concepts that have gone before and represents “new beginnings” and faith. This, Velma encourages and with moderation, as with everything, we understand that the “monster” can be conquered.

Ensemble, Octet, Dave Malloy

The cast of ‘Octet,’ by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, presented by the Signature Theatre (Joan Marcus)

The evening comes to a close with “Hymn: The Field,” which the ensemble sings. Aligned through restoration and staying off their phones for almost two hours, the “chamber choir” has melded into an illustrious community. They have displayed their sterling singing gifts with measured ease, enthusiasm and a lovely grace which the audience finds absolutely delicious.

Octet’s superb director is Annie Tippe. Or Matias brings the majesty of Dave Malloy’s music to life through his adroit music supervision and music direction. Octet has been extended a number of times and is scheduled to close on 30 June. However, it may extend again. It runs 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission at The Pershing Square Signature Center (42nd St. between 9th and 10th). For tickets and times go to their website by CLICKING HERE.

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