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‘My Broken Language’ review: Piecing together a life of many dialects

Foreground, from left, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Marilyn Torres and Zabryna Guevara with Samora la Perdida, standing left, and Yani Marin in “My Broken Language” at the Signature Theater in New York, Oct. 16, 2022. In Quiara Alegría Hudes’s new play, five performers try to summon generations of willful women.

By Alexis Soloski

English was playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ first language. But her mother’s house, in North Philadelphia, sheltered other tongues: Spanish, Spanglish, the brash gold-hoops-and-spandex sass of her older cousins.

From piano teachers, she learned the language of classical music; from her paternal aunt, punk rock; from backyards and stoops, bachata. Her magnet school gave her Flannery O’Connor and Arthur Miller. The free library gave her James Baldwin and Sandra Cisneros. There was Judaism from her father, Lukumí from her mother and the Quaker faith that she discovered later. Food was a language. Grief was a language. Some dialects she spoke easily. Others came harder. Her early life seems to have been a search for a vernacular that was all her own.

“My life required explication,” Hudes writes in “My Broken Language,” her autobiographical new play at the Signature Theatre. “And I didn’t have the language to make it make sense.”

Considered narrowly, the play, also directed by Hudes, is a story of how one young woman found her voice. But that suggests something more linear and less atmospheric than what “My Broken Language” provides: an attempt — poignant, if not entirely successful — to summon generations of willful women to the stage. The show, which honors the many women in Hudes’ maternal line, is a tender collision of scene and image, an impressionistic collage rather than a straightforward biography.

The play is lifted, almost verbatim, from her 2021 memoir of the same name. That book, which reaffirms her gifts for exhaustive empathy and feisty prose, is more capacious. The theatrical version shrinks timelines, characters and stories.

The sections on Hudes’ father don’t appear here, and her discussions of music and religion are greatly reduced. Her college years (during which I sometimes saw her on the Yale campus) have vanished entirely. The main character, referred to in the script as the Author, appears in one scene as an almost 18-year-old, dyeing her cousin’s hair. In the next she is 26, a graduate student at Brown. The show also leaves out a conversation with Paula Vogel, who ran the playwriting program at Brown, that gives the book and the play their shared name.

“Your Spanish is broken?” Vogel tells a younger Hudes. “Then write your broken Spanish.”

What remains is the Author’s physical and intellectual development. In the opening section, the Author gets her first period. In the closing one, she writes her first play. What happens in between is evocative, yet the script feels thinner than Hudes’ earlier plays — “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue,” “Water by the Spoonful” and “The Happiest Song Plays Last” — which have traversed some of this same familial terrain.

Under Hudes’ direction, the Author is played by five performers referred to collectively on the pages of the script as Grrrls, a lippy Greek chorus. Each also takes a solo turn with the narration. The voice throughout is not the voice of Hudes at 13 or 16 or 26 but of the mature artist using the brainy, gutsy idiolect that she eventually developed to recall the girl she was.

Daphne Rubin-Vega, with her vital, scalpel-like way of carving out a character, and Zabryna Guevara, animated and incisive, play the Author most often, with Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida and Marilyn Torres filling out the ensemble. Arnulfo Maldonado’s green-blue tiled set suggests a patio and a bathroom and places more abstract, places of ritual. The profusion of house plants and Jennifer Schriever’s warm, nearly tropical lighting suggest devotion and homegrown magic.

Even considering the pianist onstage, and Ebony Williams’ choreography, frisky or sinuous or jerky, as the moment requires, “My Broken Language” isn’t really a play. Which it knows. Because the prose is only rarely reframed as dialogue, scenes are reported as often as they are enacted. But there’s a sincere attempt to find a theatrical language that captures the love and joy and pain of learning, that celebrates the grandmother, mother, aunts and cousins from whom Hudes learned.

This is at its core a memory play, and to remember means not only to recall but also to piece back together. That’s at work here, too — an effort to gather up the fragments of a woman’s life and argot and make of it something whole.

‘My Broken Language’

Through Nov. 27 at the Pershing Square Signature Center, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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