Design Matters: Quiara Alegría Hudes

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After dreaming of becoming a musician, Quiara Alegría Hudes found her true future on the page—and in such works as “My Broken Language” and “In the Heights.” Here, the Pulitzer winner meditates on the many muses that were instrumental in her becoming the creative she is today.

Transcript

Debbie Millman:

Quiara Alegría Hudes is a Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. She and Lin-Manuel Miranda co-created the Tony Award–winning musical In the Heights, and she also wrote the screenplay for the recently released movie version. She’s just published a memoir titled My Broken Language, which tells the story of how a girl with a Jewish father and a Puerto Rican mother came to understand her place in the world. Quiara Alegría Hudes, welcome to Design Matters.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Hi, thank you.

Debbie Millman:

Quiara, I read that you consider yourself a voraciously slow reader. Is that really true?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I characterized myself pretty well in that sentence, yeah. I underline. I take a lot of notes. I will spend a day reading and rereading a page. And then, when there’s a book … I know I’m not alone in this. When there’s a book I really love, I slow down, especially at the end, because I don’t want it to end.

Debbie Millman:

You were born in Pennsylvania and, as I mentioned in the introduction, your mom is Puerto Rican and your dad is Jewish. You’ve said that your mother first introduced you to the magic of words when your family lived on a horse farm outside of Philadelphia. How did she do that?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I was born in West Philly, and from the time I was really a toddler until we moved out to the countryside … there’s a lot going on in West Philly. There’s a lot of music. There’s a lot of kids to play with. There’s a lot of ice cream trucks to hear and fantasize about. All of a sudden, when I was 5, we moved to the countryside and there were almost no distractions. She would take me out to the hills in the backyard, which was part of a farm, and she would just start to read to me her poems in Spanish and English. Some were in Lakota. She would start to pray in various languages. So just by virtue of having more stillness, the words resonated in a whole new way out on the farm.

Debbie Millman:

Your parents split up when you were very young and you’ve written about how you remember crossing Gerard Avenue traveling North, and going from an artsy neighborhood to true North Philly. You’ve written about how it felt to be a 5-year-old kid in a grocery store or a mall and to be treated with far more respect than your mother was. People would think she was your nanny. How did you understand that and handle it?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

It’s still upsetting to think about. Philly is a city of invisible walls, but the fact that you can’t see them doesn’t mean you can’t feel them. I used to … I characterized it … every time we would drive to see my abuela or my tias crossing Gerard Avenue, it felt like the air pressure changed. And in some ways, I think that segregation that happened in el barrio, North Philly, created a space of profound freedom of expression. People were really free to be themselves and create a very vital and vibrant culture that surrounded merengue and hip hop and rice and beans and open front doors and storytelling. So I think it incubated a really marvelous wonderland of culture, but I also think it led to such diminished services that were necessary in that neighborhood, and I could sense all those things.

I had so many experiences being lighter skinned, because I’m mixed, than the rest of the women in my family, where I would just be treated more respectfully than my elders, which was quite shocking to me. It happened in an antique store. It happened in a grocery store. It happened in a healthcare clinic time and again. And my aunts … I remember one time my titi Jenny … this memory is not in the book, but … she actually like kind of used that to her advantage. She had a nurse who was a home-care nurse who was being really profoundly disrespectful to her. She was in the living room. She just needed to get her walker adjusted. I was in the kitchen helping abuela cook, and I could hear this woman really belittling her and speaking to her in an unacceptably condescending way.

So I went into the living room to try to do something about it. I was still a teenager but I had started at college. My aunt said to this nurse, “I want to introduce you to my niece who goes to Yale,” and the woman’s whole tune changed. All of a sudden it was, “How can I help you?” So even my titi Jenny could leverage that to her advantage. But after that nurse left, I looked titi Jenny in the eye and I said, “That’s so painful to hear you spoken to that way,” and she just smiled and shrugged it off and she said, “That woman was ignorant. That happens all the time.”

Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I experience that a lot now too as a recently married person to a person of color. I’ve witnessed far more discrimination than I ever imagined—not to me, but to my partner. As a white person, it’s quite astonishing to actually see it happening in real time, and so unjust. It makes me so angry and I have to call it out when it happens because I’m just so appalled by it.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

It’s kind of like … if someone steps on you, it’s like, OK, whatever. But if someone steps on someone you love, it’s really not cool. It’s really not cool. My problem was, as a child … and I go into this problem in the book … I didn’t have the confidence or even the vocabulary to speak up, and so I would oftentimes stay silent. Even at 10 years old, even at 13 years old, I could feel there was a major, major problem with that silence. And it was a problem I would have to solve in my lifetime.

Debbie Millman:

You talk about, in the book, how the women on your mom’s side … you describe them as messy, derelict squalor, and your English dad was manicured Americana. I’m wondering if you can elaborate a bit on what you mean by that.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yeah. To be clear, though, the language does say that. The implication of the language is that I’m really talking about the landscapes and the physical grounds that they’re on. I lived with my mom in Philadelphia, but because there was like a joint custody situation sometimes once a month, sometimes once every two months or something like that, I would take the train out to my dad’s house, which was an hour outside of Philly in the suburbs. It was this like real exposure to the American dream, quote unquote, and then this whiplash sense of going back home to a place that didn’t have wastebaskets on the corner and where there was just a lot of blight in North Philly. I think that going back and forth between those and seeing those profoundly stark divisions and, just the architecture, the city services, the infrastructure, it was really disturbing. I started getting really mad about that.

Debbie Millman:

Your mother is also … and I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing this exactly right … a Lukumi priestess. Is that right?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

She shared stories with you about her journey as a spirit medium as you were growing up. At the same time, you also felt that your father’s sadness always seemed a bit holy. As I was reading these descriptions of your parents, I couldn’t help but feel that’s an awful lot for a young girl to be holding at the same time, and to figure out how to process. What did you make of the sort of juxtaposition of these two really different parents as you were growing up?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

My mother, I refer to her in the book as a spiritual genius. She had a gift, from the time she was 5 years old, that she basically kind of walked with the spirit world in this material world. I didn’t have that gift, and so as she would tell me stories from her childhood and from her womanhood about her relationship to the spirit world—the things she witnessed, the deaths she foresaw, some of which I was privy to—it was like amazing to me, because I didn’t have that gift. So in some ways it was like scary and I didn’t understand, but in other ways I just wanted more stories. “Tell me more, tell me more,” because I wanted to know a world that she had access to. At times, her spiritual path she held very close to her chest and was very private about, but sometimes she’d crack the door and let me in and teach me things. So when I saw cleansing ceremonies or purification baths happening in my living room, it was wonderous and it was a huge part of my cultural education.

I also had family members that were Catholic. I had family members who were Pentecostal. But this was different. This was part of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora path that started in West Africa. So I had to learn about Puerto Rico’s, and the Caribbean’s, cultural history, too, as I learned about my mother’s spiritual gift. It was one of the most profound gifts of my life: to have that window into a world that I was welcome to but that wasn’t necessarily the place where I lived.

Debbie Millman:

Do you see it as sort of real-life magic?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Let me answer that with an anecdote. In the play I wrote called Water by the Spoonful, there’s a ghost in the play. I’ve had this conversation with so many directors as we’re talking about, “Well, how do you costume the ghost?” and, “What’s the lighting design for the ghost?” When I’ve spoken to the directors I’ve just tried to make it clear, “This isn’t like a haunting. This is not like some phantasmagorical thing. This ghost just lives alongside the regular characters and is oftentimes like a mundane and boring presence.” For me it was like the ghosts were there, the spirits were there. When mom would tap into them, I did witness her in spirit possession on a number of occasions. It was pretty extraordinary and it felt like my world was turning upside down, and sometimes it was scary because it was like watching my mother transform, but it was powerful and raw and so energized and kind of magnificent too. I learned to tap into that magnificence, I think, as a writer, and that was when I started understanding my mom on my own terms and through my own experiences.

Debbie Millman:

I definitely want to talk about that transformative state with some examples a little bit later in our conversation. Your aunt, Linda Hudes, was the composer and keyboardist for the Big Apple Circus for 20 years. She not only taught you how to read music and play the piano … when the Big Apple Circus was in town, she let you sit next to her in the bandstand. You’re in rehearsals and you turn the pages of the music score. At this point, would you say you are a circus connoisseur?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Probably a circus snob, because I started with the best of the best. She was writing these incredible original rock and roll, like neo-romantic scores for a beautiful … what would now be called artisanal … one ring circus, basically. It was amazing. She wrote a lot of original music but she would also cover like Juan Luis Guerra or James Brown. I would turn her pages on the bandstand and watch the clown act rehearse, or turn her pages on the bandstand and watch the strong men or the aerialists practice and refine their acts. I think even though I became a playwright, it’s that circus thing that gave me my theater aesthetic: that circus blended with my mother’s Lukumi living room rituals. That’s my aesthetic right there.

Debbie Millman:

What makes for a great circus?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

The thing to me … and this is really thrilling when it happens in a play, too … is actually the lack of make-believe is what makes a great circus. A clown is putting on telling a story through his or her movements and acts, but when push comes to shove the clown’s going to drop the juggling pin or keep juggling the juggling pin. That’s not make-believe, that’s real, and the clown’s going to pull it off or not. The trapeze artist is going to land the aerial toss or is going to fall into the net, and that’s real. It’s mostly stunning and beautiful and a teeny tiny bit dangerous, and I think that that danger … honestly, we’re mortal people. We relate to it. Life is dangerous, and what they do is they take that danger and they turn it into art and beauty.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve talked about how these experiences with your aunt were your early theatrical education, and by 10 years old you’d absorbed the music of Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Etta James and Steel Pulse, even Bach. I’m wondering if you can talk about how one specific act at the Big Apple Circus by Jeff Gordon influenced your thinking about performance. It’s really a beautiful part of Broken Language.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

So Jeff Gordon was … in the Big Apple Circus and he had an act where he basically had a dowel with a roll of toilet paper on the end. That was in one hand, and then in his other hand was a leaf blower. The simplest thing in the world: like the cheapest, slightly scatological … but nothing actually gross going on because it’s toilet paper. He would just go into the middle of the ring and he would use the leaf blower to blow. It would start to unfurl the roll of toilet paper until it was floating in the air. So he was kind of juggling, but actually with the leaf blower, trying to keep this roll of toilet paper in the air. It looked like a cloud. He would have to run to one side and then the other side would drop, so he’d have to run to the other side to kind of keep it afloat. The kids will be screaming and laughing because they’re like, “Look, it’s dropping on that side!”

So he’d be running around the ring keeping it afloat. Then he just looked out at the audience, smiled and pressed the power button off on his leaf blower, and the cloud fell on him and he danced out of the ring with the cloud of toilet paper all over his body. It’s the simplest, cheapest joy and play you can imagine. I’m like … to me, it makes me a child again, and that’s what theater can do best.

Debbie Millman:

You had another piano teacher named Dolly, and you’ve said she changed your life. In what way?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Circus … even though I witnessed a lot of the rehearsal and hard labor that went into it … I didn’t live with my aunt, so I was only with her here and there for rehearsals. With Dolly, the commitment to rigor … she is the person in my childhood who introduced me to that. That was another thing that I really began to relate to my mom with. My mom was so dedicated and rigorous about her spiritual practice, and I could tell the more time she dedicated to making her altars beautiful, the more my mom would glow, the more I could see that candle in her heart burning.

I found that with Dolly. She would tell me each of my fingers on each hand was a different instrument in the orchestra. My fourth finger was always the oboe, and the oboe was never playing loud enough. She’d be like, “Fourth finger, oboe!” I think we just kind of both grew up together a bit. I remember she had rent to pay, and most of her piano lessons were kids who were there for a year and then would drop it. I was the one who was trying to push and go farther and deeper always, so we had a loyalty to each other for that.

Debbie Millman:

You began writing as a young girl as well, but you did this, I read, as a way of dealing with the loneliness that you felt as you were growing up. You experimented with everything from self-made zines to movie scripts as well as constant journaling. How did the writing help you?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

The relationship between loneliness and solitude is somewhat porous. I don’t think there’s just a totally clear line between them. Somehow writing really helps bridge those two situations where loneliness can just become solitude, and solitude can oddly be productive. I would just be alone with my thoughts, remembering all the magnificent stories my elders had been telling about this place called Puerto Rico, which I didn’t know what that was. I had never been there—as a little girl, I hadn’t. I would get alone and I would write, and I was like, “There are so many places in the world I’ve never been. There’s so many stories that are different than mine.” That just tickled my imagination. That’s how I played. I didn’t play with Barbies. I was not a voracious reader as a child. I didn’t play sports. That was fun. That was play for me.

Debbie Millman:

You wrote your first play in eighth grade titled My Best Friend Died. Tell us about that play.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Subtle it was not. Yes, My Best Friend Died. That was the worst thing I could imagine happening. Look, that was my Shakespearian tragedy without any finesse. I wrote the book, music and lyrics for that one, and I’d like to think I’ve become a somewhat more skilled writer. But one thing that has not changed from My Best Friend Died to how I try to write today: I can see that I was always an ensemble writer. Basically, it was for our eighth grade show, and I was like, “I want to get as many talented featured moments in this as I can.” I think I had a cast of 10, and they all had a moment to let their talents shine. I knew who were the singers. I knew who was the ballet dancer. I knew who was the tap dancer. They all got their moment. I can see now … I’ve never made this connection until this conversation, but I can see like I’m still doing that. In the Heights is an ensemble piece. My Broken Language is my memoir and someone asked me, “Why is your memoir not about you? Why is it about everyone else?” And I’m like, “That’s the way I see the world.”

Debbie Millman:

That’s a really interesting perspective because it is about everybody else, but it is also very much about you. I feel, having read the memoir, that I have an understanding of how you’ve come to be in a way that I wouldn’t have, not knowing about how all these people helped bring you to life.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

In 10th grade, you took a creative writing class where you had an assignment to write a 10-minute play and submit it to the Philadelphia Young Playwrights Festival, and you won. That meant that they produced your play. What was that like, at that moment, to have that sort of confirmation that you actually had talent?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Wow. Oh my gosh. I never thought of that as a confirmation that I had talent. I thought of that as a confirmation, like, “It’s worth telling stories. This has value in the world.” Maybe I put that talent part of it off to the side too much, but I was like … to me, these two girls I wrote were real. Even though they were imaginary, their spirits felt real. Their stories felt real to me. It was two girls who met across an alleyway, so their bedroom windows faced each other in Philly. It was about all the girl things. It was about, like, “Am I good enough? Am I right? Am I wrong? Am I gross? Are we friends? Are we crushes? Are we lovers? Are we enemies?” It was all of that stuff. Gosh, I wish I had … they sent me a letter of feedback and I was so excited because it said, “You got accepted and we’re going to produce your play, and here’s some thoughts we have about the play.” I wish I had taken that as, “You’ve got talent, kid,” but more I took it of, like, “Hey, you exist.” Honestly, I felt like it was just like someone telling me I existed, which was more than enough fuel to last me for a while.

Debbie Millman:

In high school, you were not only writing plays, you also wrote for the school literary magazine, for the weekly newspaper. You started an acoustic band called Solstice. At this point in your life, what did you think you might want to do professionally?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Music. I was going to be a musician. I was born to be a musician. I was studying to be a musician. That’s it. That was the path. I was not going to be a writer. It’s funny looking back on it, because I spent as many hours writing in my life as I spent playing music, but by virtue of the fact that I had two family members who were professional musicians it honestly seemed like not only a really fun path, but quite a practical path. They had a steady income. They had really built a nice life for themselves. I knew no one who was a writer, and certainly no Latino writers. I had not read any. I couldn’t fathom a life in writing. I mean, my mom had to be like, “Hello, girl, be a writer.” She had to honestly say those words for it to even click in my head. Now I’m fast forwarding to my mid 20s, but I just hadn’t even had that thought. It’s quite a simple, basic one, but she had to spell it out for me.

Debbie Millman:

Before you left for college you disposed of all of your journals. When I read that I literally … like my heart stopped for a second. I understand you tried to burn the journals in your bathtub, but that didn’t quite work out, so you gathered six years of journals in large Hefty bags and threw them into a dumpster. Why would you do that?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yeah. It makes me want to cry to think about it. I was a sad kid and I didn’t want to remember that stuff and I didn’t want to be that person anymore, and so I thought, If you dispose of the memories, then you’re not that person anymore. I wanted to, I guess, wish away the parts of my life that I didn’t understand or didn’t have the wherewithal to process.

Debbie Millman:

Is there anything that you wish you still had?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

No. I don’t regret not having that material now. I’m OK with that. I’m not an archivist at heart. I guess I’m just sad for that 17-year-old girl who couldn’t really reconcile with her parents’ separation and couldn’t really reconcile with some of her cousins who … I’m saying “she,” because she feels really distant from me now, but it’s me … her older cousins, who she idolized, who passed away in their 20s, decades before their time should’ve come, who lived a life of really disturbing segregation between both sides of her family. I didn’t like that stuff. I want to just go back in time and put my arm around that girl.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. You mentioned that you attended Yale University. While you were there you studied music composition and took up theater as an extracurricular activity, and composed musicals based on the pantheon that your mother had taught you. How was that work received at Yale?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

That was the first time I really started investigating my mom’s spiritual path in terms of my own self-education. My mom had started to educate me on Lukumi in high school, but then I was all of a sudden on my own at Yale and I wanted to continue that path, and it was cool. I wrote this one musical called Sweat of the River, Sweat of the Ocean, and it was all Latino characters. One of the fringe benefits of this was I got to meet a more robust community of Latino students. A lot of them were first-generation college students like me. That musical was not a sophisticated piece of writing, I would say, but it was me working my way towards a worldview that I still believe in to this day.

It was really exciting to write about the orisha: to bring that energy on stage. It was thrilling. The thing that was cool is it was … the rules of theater is you go and you sit and you listen and you just honor that basic respect. So the audience had to listen to what the orisha are. It wasn’t some gossip thing where they’re talking about, “Oh, Santeria is hoodoo. Santeria’s witchcraft. It’s black magic. Blah blah blah.” It wasn’t like rumor-mongering or judgmental. It was like they got to listen to what it was on my terms. It was received well. That was very encouraging. It also felt like a really good bit of cultural mischief I had done at an Ivy League school.

Debbie Millman:

You stated that the first play that you encountered that really, truly spoke to you was a play at the Second Stage Theater called The Good Times Are Killing Me, which was an adaptation of Lynda Barry’s comic strips and graphic novels. I’ve had the distinct honor of interviewing her and she is a genius, officially.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yes.

Debbie Millman:

What was it about that particular play that resonated so deeply?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I saw it when I was a girl. It was two girls on stage. I don’t remember a ton about it, except that it was the kind of segregation that I knew very well from Philadelphia. It was a young Black girl and a young white girl and their friendship and the reasons their friendship was also challenged and doomed because of racism and because of segregation. I so related to that. I thought it was amazing. The actors weren’t like adult actors playing girls. They were girls. It was a total girl-driven vibe there, and that was so cool. I loved that: that girls could be a whole world. Girls could be the whole art, and that art could be seen by another girl, which was me. That was super exciting.

Debbie Millman:

After you graduated you continued to perform gigs in bands. I’m wondering if you can share the story about your experience with the Philadelphia legend Larry Gold, and how he shifted the direction of your life.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I think this nation is really good at conflating a dream with arrival—you arrive somewhere and your dream has come true. I’m not immune to this. I know a little better now, but I was not immune to this. There are these moments in my musical life where I thought, Here we go. It’s going to get real now. It’s going to get big. Shit’s going to happen and I’m going to get there. I’m going to make it. So I was in Philly, gigging, playing with wonderful … Philly had this neo-soul renaissance leading up to the year 2000 that I was lucky enough to tap into and play with some of these amazing musicians.

Larry Gold, who was a producer and a cellist and behind the scenes helped create the Philadelphia sound, he called me into his studio and he was like, “What you got, kid?” I showed him what I had. He was like, “Let’s give this a go.” There were a few months of my life where I was recording some tracks with Larry, and he was like, “If I like it, we’re going to do a thing together and it’s going to be big. We’re going to make an album together.” And that was really exciting. The tracks, I still have them. I listen to them every once in a while. They were good tracks.

In the end, they were not good enough. He didn’t dance around things. He just laid it out there. He was like, “It’s good, but it’s not good enough.” I don’t usually take feedback so well. Like, I get really defensive about feedback. But I tell you when he told me that, it’s not that my self-esteem got smaller or anything like that. I just thought, Oh shit, he’s right. I thought, I agree. I couldn’t believe that was my response, and then I had a problem. I think that was a major stepping stone on the path to me realizing that maybe music wasn’t my be-all, end-all. Maybe music was a pathway to something else, and this kind of slow emergence of exploring life as a writer.

Debbie Millman:

Quiara, what made you believe him when he told you that you weren’t good enough to be a musician?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I think what I realized in that moment was … the reason I played, learned to play, Bach in middle school, was because it was beautiful and I loved it. The reason I learned to play Selena Angel Tilio in college was because I was curious and that music made me feel alive. But the reason I wanted Larry Gold to make my record was because I wanted someone to like my stuff, and in the end that is really, really short of the bar. That is not something to build a life on, and it’s fake. I was like … I mean, boy, have I never related to Holden Caulfield in my life, but right now I was like, “Oh, that’s phony. To be liked, what is that? That doesn’t jive with me.” As I found my way slowly to writing, I realized I knew what my reason was and it wasn’t to be liked. It was something that felt full enough and disruptive enough, but also beautiful enough, to fill a path … a life path … and that was to tell stories that I believe mattered. So if someone didn’t like them, OK, fine. But I knew why I had written them.

Debbie Millman:

This is when you went to your mom, as you mentioned before, and she said, “Why aren’t you taking writing more seriously? Why don’t you pursue it?” What did you tell her when she asked you that?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I think I bumbled and blundered my way through a few insufficient sentences. I didn’t have to say much. My mom has this vibe where she can kind of like Jedi-focus me onto the thing and I don’t need to respond with affirmation or with contradiction. She just knows it’s happening inside me. A lot happens with me and my mom with few words. She just gave me that little tap on my back so that I had to keep going.

Debbie Millman:

You write this in your memoir after that experience: “Music, my first love, my self-indulgence, my life raft, it was, in one breath, no longer enough. Mom had pointed out the slow leak in my vessel. I had to jump ship.” She then asked you to break a silence you had lived with all of your life. What was that silence?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

That silence has to do with those invisible walls I was talking about earlier. There were a lot of silences: the silence about HIV and AIDs. That was huge in the community at the time, and it started to affect us before there was much medical information. That silence was really piled on to confusion. There was silence around addiction. There was silence, honestly, around her faith and her spiritual path, because that was really, really vilified in my childhood. All these silences, when I just wanted to know, “Why did my cousin die? What happened to Tico? What happened to Vivi?” Like gun violence … all of these disappearances, all of this silence.

But I also knew the flip side of the coin was that these painful stories also cohabitated with some of the most magnificent stories I’d ever heard in my life about resilience, about migration, about rebellion. The generations of women in my family in Puerto Rico and here had done amazing things and had advanced their community in really profound and also very humble ways. So I knew those silences were accompanied by magnificence, and I think that’s what made me want to tell them, because I trusted the magnificence to hold and surround and give a soft landing to some of the more painful stuff.

Even the poverty in the neighborhood is painful. Even the depression was painful. Depression was everywhere in el barrio. No one went to therapy. What are you talking about? No. This was before there was a Calm app. No, none of that. There was not self-care. That didn’t exist. Self-care was caring for your neighbor, actually. That’s the closest you got to caring for yourself. Yeah, the silences went up and down and sideways and diagonally.

Debbie Millman:

You decided to go back to school to get your MFA and chose Brown University primarily because of the playwright Paula Vogel. You write how one of the first things she taught you was to dispel your notion that you must be loyal to English. How did she do that? And what did that mean, exactly?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Having come off of the Philadelphia public school system, which had taught me the kind of Western literary canon, and then gone to an Ivy League school where I kept taking literature classes that were, again, really steeped in the Western literary canon … half of my family spoke Spanish, and that was not part of any canon that I encountered unless I sought it out. Again, Paula just kind of pointed out the obvious, just like my mom had pointed out the obvious when she was like, “Why are you not writing?” Paula was just like, “You need to notice something. Screw English. You know how to speak it. Do what you want with it. It’s yours. You don’t have to follow anyone’s rules. Screw English and use your language.” In particular, I had a lot of shame and confusion surrounding the fact that my Spanish was not as good as my mom’s, and so my Spanish felt insufficient.

I expressed that to her. I said, “English doesn’t have all the words. It doesn’t have all the vocabulary to express who I am, to express what God means, to express what music means. But my Spanish is messed up.” And she was like … she’s such a garden gnome. She’s such a happy, positive little spirit. She just looked me in the eye with her little sparkle and she was like, “Write your broken Spanish.” I was like, “No, Paula. That’s not how it goes. That’s the thing I’m supposed to be most ashamed of.” She was like, “Not anymore. Not here. Free yourself of that shame.”

All I needed was permission. I went to town, let me tell you. I was experimenting with ways to break English, break Spanish, mix it up, toss it, dice it, splice it, pack it in. It led to real experimentation and play and I fell in love with language all over again. I fell in love with the ways that I could confuse people, the ways I could surprise people, and the thing that’s fun is everyone has language, so they’re used to it. Then when you show them something that they didn’t know language could do, they’re like, “Oh boy! I was so used to this thing and now it sounds different.” Yeah. That permission—that permission to be broken. That’s all I needed.

Debbie Millman:

Can you talk about the list of your identities you did? It was an exercise you did in the class with Holly Hughes. What happened when you did it?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Yeah. She came in. I already revered her because she was one of the really rebellious downtown New York theater artists who got the senate all riled up, and then the NEA stopped funding individual artists. I was really interested in this in high school and I looked into it and I had done a history report on Holly Hughes, and I was like, “She’s this really cool lesbian performance artist.” Then all of a sudden she walks into the Brown University seminar room and she’s the guest artist for the semester. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I am meeting my idol and she looks really different in person than on microfiche. This is super cool.”

She told us to list our identities. That was the first writing assignment she gave us: just an in-class quick writing exercise. I basically like went into a trance and five minutes later when she was like, “OK, time’s up—let’s read it out loud,” I looked at what I had written and I was really shocked. I had written the identities not just that I had, like Boricua, white, Jewish, musician, writer. I had written that stuff but then it really veered very quickly into the identities of everyone I loved: fat, tall, skinny, dark skin, light-skinned. HIV positive. I’m not HIV positive. Why would I write that as my identity?

I looked at my list, which I hadn’t really been conscious … my experience was that I had like a blackout and it was a very like violent physical experience. Then I looked at this list and I was trying to calm my breathing and calm down and I was like, “My cousins are my orishas. My cousins are that of god within me. Literally they are the bones and mud and ribs that I’m made out of.” That’s all I could surmise from that.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. It’s sort of like your book in a lot of ways, in terms of the identities helping shape you through the book. That sort of blackout happened several times more. It happened one time after … I think it happened two times before this particular experience and then one time after. But you haven’t had one since. Do you think you ever might experience it again? You’ve said that four possessions might be your life’s allowance. I love that line.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I think that last one … all of those times I debated using the word possession because that does have a very specific and almost technical meaning in Lukumi practice. I debated the word trance. I looked into a lot of different words and I kind of came back to possession because I did feel that something else took over my body and spoke itself through me, which is what I had witnessed in other spirit possessions. All four of those times where like storytelling moments or writing moments in my life, and the last time … this is why the book ended with this last one. The last time I wrote the thing … I think I was so quiet all my life. I was the girl that wanted to be sad in my journal and then throw away the journal so that it didn’t exist, and that sadness didn’t exist and my grief didn’t exist.

The last writing possession was when I was writing this play. I literally just named the shame and I named the ugliness and I wasn’t ashamed of it. In the play, the line is, “I am a whore,” which out of context is kind of neither here nor there, but it was a reclamation. It was this young hero who was saying, “I am a whore!” I wasn’t ashamed of it and I let it be ugly and I let it be loved, and that was a breakthrough for me. The rest of my life happened after that. So I don’t know that there was another possession to be had, because then I think I became me.

Debbie Millman:

You began writing the first play in your Elliot trilogy while finishing your MFA at Brown. The play traced the legacy of war through three generations of a Puerto Rican family and was set to be [inaudible] structure of a Bach fugue. What was the reaction to that combination, that particular combination?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue felt like, in some ways, the play where I really not discovered my voice but discovered how to start crafting my voice, and it was my first play to be done in New York. I put together things that aren’t always put together, like Puerto Rican men in the United States Marines and Johann Sebastian Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Usually, those two things aren’t smushed together, but for me there was a real logic there and I was so excited about the counterpoint and the harmony in those two themes bouncing off each other. I think some people … I still saved my rejection letter from Playwrights Horizons that was like, “Yeah, this isn’t a play.” I was like, “What? Yes it is. Yes it is a play.”

But it did end up getting produced, and in a very small theater with 75 metal folding chairs, some of which were very rusty, and like a handful of people saw it and I think really did connect with it very deeply. At that time our troops were still coming back from Iraq, and enough of them had come back that we, as a nation … so this was like 2007 … really started to see what they were coming back with, and how this was going to affect our entire nation—the kinds of trauma they had experienced, the kind of grief and anger that were trapped in their cells. Actually, Bach aside, Puerto Rican Marines aside, the thing that happened at that moment with the audience was parents weeping for their children. I started to realize that one thing a play can be is a safe place for an audience to feel and discuss things that everyday civilian life doesn’t really give them the opportunity to.

Debbie Millman:

In between the first two plays of the Elliot trilogy, you wrote the book for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical In the Heights. How did you first meet Lin?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

That little “I am a whore” play? That was called The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl! Installment 12: Lulu’s Golden Shoes. That play had a reading in New York. It was like a bi-curious Latina’s sexual coming-of-age story and it was totally wild and trashy and crazy and all of those things. For all of those reasons it never ever gets produced. But I love that play, and it had a reading in New York, and someone heard it and was like, “I know a guy who’s writing about the Latino community in New York and he’s looking for a playwright.” It was like right place, right time, and someone passed my number to Lin, and then we were writing a musical together.

Debbie Millman:

What has it been like collaborating with him over the years?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

It’s been really fun. He’s a child at heart, a lot like Paula Vogel, but he also has such a wicked sense of craft. I mean, he can really make you feel like you’re hearing your first language for the first time all over again. Just a lot of playfulness, and then also like a lot of confusion. Writing a musical is so hard. There’s so many moving parts, and you change a scene and all of a sudden like the bridge of a song needs to be rewritten, but as he rewrites it a lyric comes into focus and then it changes the entire plotline. It’s a lot of back and forth. It’s like playful and very head-scratching at the same time.

Debbie Millman:

Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, the play that we were just talking about, was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. In 2008, you won the Tony Award for best musical for In the Heights. And in 2009, the play was also a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. I read that the recognition helped ease some of the insecurities, traumas and deep fears of writing personal work and sending it out into the public, but some remained after that. It’s like I was reading that and thinking, Oh my god, what hope is there for the rest of us if you win that kind of recognition and still feel those same insecurities and traumas?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I wish I could say that I had no ego or had a strong enough ego that criticism didn’t hurt, but for me I always feel most alive in the creative process, and I always feel the most dread when the work goes out into the world. But I can’t totally shield myself from that. I put the work into the world and so I have to meet the world where it’s at. The world needs the work. And I’m always terrified. I’m always terrified because I didn’t go down the path of writing pretty songs and hoping people would feel good as they listened to my pretty songs. I went down a path of writing the shit and writing the trash and writing the gold and writing the glory and trying to be real about all that. It does feel vulnerable every time, and sometimes I’m proven right and it opens old wounds, and sometimes I’m proven wrong and people say, “Thank you so much. This was healing.” If I had the perfect formula, I’d probably be done writing.

Debbie Millman:

You said that recognition can’t sustain you in the long-term and that the undying love of the daily craft is the real source of your joy. I was wondering, how long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I think it just becomes part of you. I remember this meal my husband and I had in California. Well, this was back in the day. He’s my high school sweetheart and he makes a few little surprise appearances in the book. I refer to him as The Boy because we were children when we met. Just this nice meal we had at Yosemite National Park in California. I feel like that meal is still in me somewhere. There’s a cell that remains. The parts of the creative process that I’m really proud of … I remember one day in rehearsal of Water by the Spoonful and Liza Colon-Zayas, who’s this extraordinary actress who originated the role of Haikumom/Odessa … it’s like her character was kind of a little nice and I finally just let her character … I gave her character some claws and I brought those new lines in, and the actors were all like, “Oh shit,” when they read it because it took her character to a different place and let that actor dig in and use different muscles. Honestly, it was like one grain of sand on a beach. It was not a big deal moment in my career. But I think of that all the time. I think of how gratifying that was just to like surprise the actors and make them excited to memorize those lines. That’s the stuff that fuels me and that lives within me.

I also think of the fact that after I interviewed my uncle, who had been a marine in Vietnam … I interviewed him for Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue. He never spoke about that stuff. I was very nervous to interview him. I thought, What right did I have? Then he just opened his heart and he spoke from his heart for hours on end. When I created the kind of formal safe space to talk about it, he met me there. He called me the next week after that interview and he said, “Kiki, I feel lighter than I have in 30 years.” I’ll never forget that. Honestly, I feel a little proud of that. I’m like, “That was helpful. That was a helpful thing to do.” It was also cool when he came to the premiere and met Stone Phillips and there was a whole big … there was press and stuff. Yeah, that was kind of cool, but like the best part wasn’t that. The best part was him saying, “I feel lighter than I have in 30 years.”

Debbie Millman:

After two previous Pulitzer nominations, you won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Water by the Spoonful, the second of the plays in the Elliot trilogy. Is it true you found out about the award while you were teaching in class?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

No, I didn’t find out about it. That’s why by the time the teaching was halfway through and we took a break, and I turned on my phone, I had missed out on the news. I was the last to know. There were a lot of voicemails and a lot of texts on my phone, and the last time that it had happened it was because of a death in the family. So I was really alarmed at first. But I was like, “OK, my agent wouldn’t be leaving me a message about a death in the family, so I think this is probably good news.” When the class came back from that 10-minute bathroom break, I was so shocked. I was jittery. I told them what had just happened. They kind of spontaneously broke out into applause. We were all excited. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar. It’s not what I expected to happen that day. I just thought we were going to have workshop.

Debbie Millman:

After all the accolades, you write about how you became a flavor of the month and how every producer was calling you with all sorts of offers from Hollywood. You decided to do some film and TV writing for a year. How did you like that?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

For me, it’s not so much about what medium I’m working in but what the story is. If my connection to the story is there, I’m there. Because Hollywood has more machinery and a lot more money attached to it, it comes with shinier things, and one must always be skeptical of shiny things, but I enjoyed it. It was fun. I came back to theater. One day, my dream is to … once my kids have gone through college, I want to be a poet and not make any money. I’m trying to be a realist and keep my lights on, which I feel very, very blessed to be able to do. I think there is a lot of merit, also, to having the widest audience possible. But I know from personal experience there’s also a lot of merit to telling your story to one person, and it just being a really good moment. So I’d like to think that I can go back and forth between really shiny, visible mediums, and very small, quiet, whisper-in-the-woods mediums.

Debbie Millman:

What was it like adapting In the Heights for the screen?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

It was really exciting to me because Lin had been writing In the Heights for a few years before I got on board as a playwright for the stage show, and I always felt like I was kind of playing catchup. He had these years on me and he had this time to hone in his vision before I came on board. So when it came time for me to write the screenplay, I said, “Lin can I have that time now? Can I just do my thing with it for a minute?” He was more than happy to oblige because he trusted me at that point, and also because he was working on Hamilton and was quite busy. I feel like I got my time and I got to sink my teeth into some things that felt really personal to me, especially with beefing up the women, the female characters. I made the screenplay to be about a male storyteller, which is Usnavi, but he’s telling the story of the women on his block. I wanted to really bring that more to the surface.

Debbie Millman:

One of my favorite plays that you’ve written is Miss You Like Hell, the play that you wrote with musician Erin McKeown. I saw it at the Public Theater and I just wept. I actually went with my dear friend Terry Teachout, who is the theater critic for The Wall Street Journal, and he’s a tough guy. We’re sitting next to each other, and at one point he just wept like a baby. He was just sobbing. It just made me realize the connective power of theater by sharing these emotions without having to say anything, by just listening and participating by the sheer virtue of being there. I loved that play, but I read that after the play, you called your theater agent and asked him to cancel your productions and commissions for the next two years. What made you decide to do that?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I wish I could say that I’ve got like some amazing armor that’s foolproof, but I don’t. Theater is hard and theater takes a toll. One of the things that I still haven’t figured out a solution to is that the theaters that pay me the most and that I can really support my life off of, they have a largely white audience, and I have mostly been writing for Brown characters, Latino characters. That chips away bit by bit. After 15 years of primarily white audiences watching my primarily Brown characters, I started to feel like confused and just hurt. Of course, sometimes the loudest and most ignorant voice in the room is the one that you hear, and I had heard 15 years’ worth of that stuff, and it was hard.

I think Miss You Like Hell became the hardest one for me because I think sometimes I start with … a first draft is kind of a little palatable, and it takes a bit of courage for me, draft by draft, to really let my characters be ugly and imperfect. As I was writing this character of Beatriz for Daphne Ruben-Vega, who is a truly extraordinary performer … and a really complicated and full human being who has access to so many different colors and tones in her body, in her musculature, in her cadences with language, I was like, “Let me really let this woman be flawed. She deserves to be flawed.” And the thing that … she’s an undocumented character, and there’s this notion that undocumented people have to be perfect to earn the chance to have a place in American society. I really hate that notion, and I really advocate for our rights as women, as migrants, as immigrants—our right to be average and to be fucked up, too. I think that’s really important.

So I was like, “Let me make this character. Let me make her real, man.” The farther I went down that path, the more incredible our process felt and the richer the play got, in my opinion. Simultaneously, the more nervous I got because I was anticipating already the audience’s reactions, and they didn’t want to see a flawed Brown woman who was unapologetic about her flaws, who still owned her right to be messy. I knew that wouldn’t sit well with a lot of audiences, and I started to anticipate that, and I got really in my head about it. That’s when I knew … I couldn’t even eat. I was having panic attacks. That’s when I knew I needed a break and I needed to explore some other avenues where it wouldn’t be a lot of wealthy white people just gazing at a complicated Brown character and actor.

That was the impulse to write a book, because I was like, “With a book, people can have their own private interaction and relationship back and forth with my characters.” My characters are not like put on display in the same way, and there is no, quote unquote, “performing of ethnicity” or “performing of race.” I was ready for a break but I wasn’t quitting theater altogether. I just needed a little break.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve written how, in many ways, your interests as a writer don’t match the U.S. theatrical landscape, and that many characters in plays could not afford to see your plays, and if they were given a comp ticket they’d feel out of place in that lobby. Now that theater has sort of paused and the world has shifted ever so slightly, do you have hopes that possibly post-COVID, theater could change these dynamics, or force these dynamics to change a bit?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I have a lot of hope that the artists will keep pushing and push really hard. I’ve seen this happen in the world of sports a bit, where athletes have really started to push harder, and so hard against rules, that it creates some upset in the field. I’m thinking about Naomi Osaka and that sort of stuff that’s happened recently where she’s really saying like, “Look, I understand there’s a whole commercial machinery happening here and I love the sport that I participate in, but I’m really central to it and I have to be well, and that’s the bottom line too, and we have to come up with a solution.” And you know, she’s not alone. She’s not the only athlete going through that.

I see something similar happening in theater, where the artists are pushing back. Artists have very little power in theater. Because Holly Hughes wrote about being lesbian and the NEA defunded individual artists, the result of that is that arts institutions, which now exclusively get the funding federally, got this outsized power in an artistic field. It’s an artistic field run by institutions. That’s a real imbalance. The institutions right now remain more powerful than the artists, but I can start to feel a pushback and the artists being like, “No, then I won’t work there. Screw it,” and finding other ways to draw audiences. I think once we get the institutions on their toes a bit, to the point where they feel like actually threatened of their stability, that’s when I think good stuff can happen. I’m hoping for a renaissance of like healthy, good competition between individual artists and these institutions that have maybe gotten a bit big for their britches.

Debbie Millman:

I hope so, Quiara. I really do.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

I do too.

Debbie Millman:

The last thing I want to talk to you about is a piece you wrote for New York Magazine last year about Corey Menafee, a dining hall worker at Yale who became an unwitting activist by smashing a stained glass window that romanticized slavery. Can you talk a bit more about that story and how you first heard about it?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

My husband sent me a link. My husband’s a public defender, and he sent me a link and it said, “This is your next play. You better go to New Haven tomorrow.” So I read this reporting piece about how a dining hall employee at Yale had smashed the stained glass window showing content and pastoral scenes of slave women with bales of cotton on their head, baskets full of cotton on their head. Well, he had smashed it, and his first court appearance was the next day. I just went up to New Haven.

I remember being at Yale and feeling so divided as a student between gratitude for the incredible cultural riches of that place—they really nourished me, they really broadened my horizons—and the sense that Yale would not think kindly upon a lot of my cousins if they just walked into those spaces. That was a divide I could never quite come to terms with, and reading Cory Menafee’s story, somehow that resonated with me. I didn’t know why he had smashed it. That wasn’t clear. But I was like, “OK, come on now. Let me go check this out.”

So I went up and I saw his court appearance. Then I reached out to him and I was like, “I’d love to hear your story about why.” The thing that’s interesting about Corey is he claims that he is not a radical person and doesn’t have the heart of an activist. He has vision problems, so he hadn’t ever even noticed these stained glass before because they’re quite small. During reunion weekend, a Black alum came with his daughter and said, “Can I just show my daughter …” The dining hall was already closed. Corey was mopping up along with the other employees. They were closing up for reunion weekend and the guy was knocking the door saying, “Please just let me in. I don’t want to eat anything. I just want to show my daughter the stained glass I had to sit beneath and eat my salads at.” Then that alum started pointing it out to all the dining hall employees, and Corey had never noticed it before. I think there was a before and after for him. Once he noticed it, he didn’t like that image. It just felt wrong to him.

A week later he smashed it out with the broom handle. I was like, “Come on, Corey. Here we go.” That was shocking. They had been trying to rename Calvin College since Henry Louis Gates before him had been students there. All of a sudden, six months later, Calvin College is renamed. Corey Menifee was never ever mentioned officially as part of that important change at Yale, but let’s be real, that act is what tipped the scales.

Debbie Millman:

Are you expanding the article into a play as your husband recommended?

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Well, that’s why I ended up writing it as an essay, because I took that time off from playwriting, and I really felt like I didn’t want Corey’s story to just languish, because I needed a break from theater. So I wrote it as this essay for New York Magazine. I hope … I’m still finding my way back to the stage, and I really hope I can write it. He’s a tremendous, tremendous individual, and with a fascinating story and a really cool personality and a new grandfather, and his life has some really interesting chapters. So, to be determined.

Debbie Millman:

Well, I really look forward to the possibility that you might be able to bring that story to life for the stage, and really can’t wait to see what you do next.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

Quiara Alegría Hudes, thank you so much for creating such beautiful and important stories, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Quiara Alegría Hudes:

It’s my pleasure, Debbie. Take care.

Debbie Millman:

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ memoir is titled My Broken Language. You can find out more about all of her extraordinary work at quiara.com.

This is the 17th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.