Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes grew up in Philadelphia and used her hometown and her family and friends as inspiration for her award-winning trilogy, of which Water by the Spoonful is the second. The first play in the trilogy, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue played in Philadelphia a few seasons ago. The final installment, The Happiest Song Plays Last, inspired by North Philadelphia legend, Joaquin Rivera, will premiere off-Broadway in February. Hudes is also the book-writer of the Tony-award winning musical In the Heights.
Sally Ollove, the Arden’s Literary Manager, was able to ask Hudes about the inspiration for her work and her Philly roots.
Quiara Alegría Hudes
Sally Ollove: Water by the Spoonful is the second in a trilogy that follows a Philadelphia family. How did you come to the idea of a trilogy? Was that always the plan, or were you just not done with the story of Elliot and his family?
Quiara Hudes: I am very inspired by August Wilson’s Century Cycle. The scope and breadth of American life he covers is unparalleled. I believe in seeing or reading all ten plays one learns so much about the fabric of our country–our spirit, our fears, our soul, our music, our fury. I would love to investigate a community that deeply and fully. In some ways, this trilogy is me embracing the challenge he left us all. I was also feeling confined, when I dreamed up the trilogy, by what felt like a shrinking of the American stage. Solo plays, two-person plays, ninety minute plays becoming the norm. I was soaking up plays that take a wide canvas, like Angels inAmerica. EvenJerusalem, by Jez Butterworth, was three hours of roisterous British mythology, and I watched it and thought, “Wow, the balls.”
SO: You conducted a number of interviews in preparing to write this piece. Were there any moments from those interviews that stand out to you as a touchstone for Water?
QH: I interviewed Alan Leshner, who runs the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Under Clinton, he challenged the cultural assumption of “addictive personalities” and began to gain traction for this notion that addiction is a disease, not a moral or personality failing. I interviewed my own cousin who struggled mightily with addiction and triumphed in recovery. I interviewed a counselor atHartford’sInstituteofLivingwho had been called into the professional rehab arena after her own recovery from addiction. What I remember the most is bringing my cousin toHartfordto see the word premiere. It struck a lot of chords–it was painful and yet cathartic for her to watch. We had breakfast the next day before I drove her back to Philly. She admitted at breakfast that after twenty years sober she still sometimes could not get out of bed for an overwhelming desire to use. “Just one joint, just one beer.” She said she had spent an entire week on her floor recently, trembling and sobbing for wanting to use. But she didn’t. Talk about commitment to sobriety.
SO: How does your background in music influence your work?
QH: I took lessons at Settlement Music School in South Philly. I learned how to live a solo life, and find fulfillment in a solo practice. I learned how to spend eight hours of unstructured time to get better at something, to improve something. I learned how to listen and be patient in the process. I think music lessons are sometimes to teach future musicians how to play music. But I think they also teach anyone an everyone how to become a leader of their own life.
Sally Ollove: What—if anything—would you say growing up in Philadelphia contributed to the person you are today?
QH: Some favorite Philly snapshots.
1. Adimu, a local musician in West Philly who sculpted original musical instruments out of trash. Then he would give virtuosic concerts for the local children and also teach us to play the instruments.
2. My aunt Alice serving up caffe granita at Fante’s in the Italian Market, where she manned the coffee counter for many years. (She’s now behind the scenes, but in her days at the counter she actually won Best in Philly from the City Paper for “Coffee Advice.”)
3. My Abuela’s arroz con gandules on American Street after school. But on special, unpredictable days when she cooked bistec with onions… oh dear lord. I swear, her cooking and my writing shared some common unspoken compulsion. Kind of like love on a plate.
4. One time I was riding the 34 trolley to school and our trolley rear-ended another 34 trolley right in front of us. All of the people in my trolley flew out of their seats–even though it wasn’t a hard collision, we were only going about five miles an hour but trolleys are big strong heavy pieces of metal. Anyway, as we hit the ground, someone shouted: “I’m calling Allen Rothenberg!” Everyone applauded. No one was injured though.
5. Visiting the home of Earl Wilkie on Windsor Ave in West Philly. He was a sculptor and his twin Victorian house was three stories of sinuous abstract wood sculptures. Sawdust and drafting pages were everywhere. It was like being inside of someone’s imagination.
6. The Heart.
7. Piano lessons at Settlemen tMusic School in South Philly.
8. The irises in May in West Philly.
9. The 1995 Septa strike. I had to carpool with a friend on Warrington Aveto get to Central High School. Ray Beauchamp was also in that carpool. 18 years later, he’s still the man of my dreams.
10. The shocking poverty of some blocks in North Philly. The decay. And experiencing the neighborly spirit there too.
11. After Quaker meetings on Sunday morning, I would frequently walk down the Parkway and enjoy free admission to the Art Museum. I knew every square inch of their contemporary collection including the bizarrely magnetic Duchamp installation. Then I’d climb the stairs and spend time gazing at “Prometheus Bound.”
I have hundreds more. The city is so rich with possibility, and so rife with problems. And my heart is full of its wild contradictions, history, and landscape.
SO: As a local girl, when people tell you they’re going to Philly, what’s the one thing you tell them they can’t miss?
QH: One thing? Yeah right. But here’s my short list.
Steamed pork dumplings, clams in black bean sauce, and chinese broccoli in oyster sauce at David’s Mai Lai Wah in Chinatown. That ginger dipping sauce is more breathtaking than Helen of Troy.
Turkey maple bacon at Hollywood Meat Market on the Italian Market, where my uncle Larry worked for many years. Damned good bacon, for the salty-sweet double-punch.
Homemade ketchup at the Morning Glory Diner in South Philly. An outstanding condiment, to be smeared liberally upon home fries. Also try: their coffee, grits, and biscuits.
There are many good Puerto Rican restaurants, but I like Morning Star on North 5th for the classics: rice and beans, great pernil. If I have a tub of Tums on me I’ll get some deep fried treats from Porky’s Point, but that’s not for the faint of heart. Literally.
Fish Hoagies. I know, it’s weird. But to me it’s a perfect combination of cheese steak and hoagie: warm, you get that Amoroso’s bread, you get the oil and vinegar. I used to get them at a place called Purple Fox on 49th and Baltimore, but that’s decades ago. If anyone knows of a good fish hoagie elsewhere, please fill me in!