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How her ancestors reignited her return to theater


Bill Heck, left, and Liza Colon-Zayas in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “Water by the Spoonful,” at the Second Stage Theater in New York, Dec. 10, 2012.

By José Solís


In 2018, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes announced that she would be taking a pause from the theater. The art form she loved so much had become a source of heartbreak: She was tired of the industry’s lack of cultural diversity, the disinterest those in power had in changing the status quo and the anxiety she felt leading up to opening night (the unexpected hiccups, the uncertainty of how a work would be received by critics and audience members).


When it came to producing works by playwrights of color, she began to feel as if her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Water by the Spoonful,” about a Puerto Rican war veteran recently returned from Iraq, and “In the Heights,” her Tony-winning musical with Lin-Manuel Miranda, were exceptions more often than the rule. During the 2018-2019 season, for example, only three writers of color had their work produced on Broadway.


In order to heal, Hudes went on an inner retreat. Turning to her memories, she sought out the people who taught her how to tend to her body and spirit. This soulful journey resulted in “My Broken Language,” an impressionistic coming-of-age memoir published in 2021 that detailed the shame she felt over being fluent in her Jewish father’s native English, but not her Puerto Rican mother’s Spanish. It was that same sense of incompleteness that led her to take a break from the theater.


While recording the audiobook, Hudes noted her prose sometimes had the rhythm of a monologue. “It was the one-woman play,” she said. That realization, combined with her wanting to step up as a community leader, ignited her desire to return to theater — despite the heartbreak. “Let me get some real bodies and spirits on this,” she recalled thinking during our video chat. Now, Hudes’ stage adaptation of her book, also called “My Broken Language,” is running off-Broadway at Signature Theater through Nov. 27.


Onstage, she is embodied by five people, including one of her frequent collaborators, Daphne Rubin-Vega, all of whom play different shades of the author. Hudes, now 45, had moments of not recognizing the person on the page. She made peace with it by realizing, “it was all the identities of mine, but it was also all the identities of all the women who raised me and who I love.”


“My Broken Language,” in all its forms, is also partly a celebration of her ancestors, and how often unintentionally they inspired her to become a writer. “Our archive is in us and of us,” she wrote in the script for the play. On a practical level, in tune with changing what once made her turn away from the theater, Hudes wanted to ensure the production contributes to moving the industry forward in terms of representation in casting. In the script, she insists, “these are Philly Rican roles” for Latina actors.


Born and raised in Philadelphia, Hudes comes from a long line of Puerto Rican women who excelled at building community and developing strong spiritual values. Her mother, Virginia Sanchez, who features prominently in the book and the play, is a renowned santera, who instilled love and respect for their Taína-Lukumí-Boricua legacy, as well as a fascination with words. One of Sanchez’s favorite possessions is a 19th-century Spanish dictionary that she uses to search for words people may have forgotten.


“The book smells like our elders, it has its own soul,” Sanchez said over a video call, “it contains one of our identities.”


Despite her daughter’s “broken language,” Sanchez said she believes “Quiara always had a gift for words, she knows how to transform her experiences into a form of teaching.”


Indeed, the playwright extracts wisdom from experiences she had growing up, such as seeing her mother possessed by a spirit. “To do that literally onstage would be vulgar,” Hudes explained. So she transformed her memories into words and then into physical movements that would make sense onstage with the help of the choreographer Ebony Williams. The goal is to create actions that evoke the feeling of being in between universes.


The play also marks Hudes’ directorial debut. She describes the work of a director as one of “community care,” and compares it to a gardener choosing the seeds, planting them, and then nurturing them toward excellence. “Directing is the process,” she said.


“Her rehearsal room feels like home,” said Samora la Perdida, who plays one of Hudes’ alter egos, describing “walls decorated with altars to our ancestors, tables with guava and cheese empanadas from her favorite spot in Washington Heights, a stereo blasting Frankie Ruiz.”


Of Hudes, Rubin-Vega added, “She leads with openhearted professionalism.”


Rethinking the meaning of community and how to affect it is what led Hudes to resume her theater work. After publishing her memoir, she discovered a new community in a world of readers who reacted emotionally to her stories and reminded her of her purpose.


“Quiara is giving our community the opportunity to talk about the raw pain we’ve inherited, not only as women or immigrants but as people,” Sanchez said. “My daughter is a keeper of our lineage, a witness of our experience.”


Although they work in different fields, Hudes said she believes she and her mother have overlapping journeys. “We break through the vines with our machetes, finding our own way, sharing strategies and celebrating triumphs,” Hudes added.


“Quiara accepted her tongue for what it was in order to create a language of her own,” la Perdida said, “a language that shamelessly dances with both her Latina roots and Western canon influences. A language with the rhythms of Chopin and Juan Luis Guerra, inspired by the poetic prose of both Shakespeare and José Rivera.”


After five years away, Hudes said she is enjoying the various pleasures that come with working in the theater again, like being in a room full of Latino artists, her community. She finds it to be utterly therapeutic. “I often crunch up in my seat, kind of like a ball, and then pop up, it’s so much fun to live all these old habits again,” she said.

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