At the age of 35, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes has much to be proud of. A Yale graduate from West Philadelphia, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama last year for her play Water by the Spoonful and wrote the book for the Tony Award-winning musicalIn the Heights.
And it turns out that she also identifies as an unapologetic feminist with deep activist roots. I heard her bring this up last week at a public discussion at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which was kicking off its world-premiere production of her comedic drama “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” running through May 12. This play, to be published in October, is the third installment in her “Elliott Trilogy,” all based on her own family stories (and even using family members’ real first names for characters). Specifically, they all address her cousin Elliott’s adjustment to civilian life after serving in the Iraq war. After the program, I was able to ask Hudes—whose mother is Puerto Rican and whose father is Jewish—more detail about her new play’s special focus on defining community and activism for the next generation.
Ms. Blog: When discussing your activist influences at the Goodman last week, you mentioned your mother made you identify as a feminist, so much so that you got to college and were surprised that everyone didn’t feel that way. What work specifically did she do that opened your eyes about activism, and specifically any gender issues?
Quiara Alegria Hudes: The day after returning home to New York from Chicago [last week], I attended my Aunt Rosa Sauriz’s funeral. It really brought home to me that I come from a remarkable legacy of female community and national activists. My Aunt Rosa was the one who brought the entire family from the island, and she worked tirelessly and passionately to advocate for housing and services in the Puerto Rican community, beginning in the ’70s. Back then, police brutality was rampant in the Latino section of Philadelphia—police would notoriously round up every brown man within a certain radius if a crime had been committed. My Aunt Rosa let her voice be heard loud and clear on many such occasions.
My Aunt Ginny [namesake of the aunt character in the trilogy] was active in many community demonstrations for issues ranging from housing to peace, and she proudly had her arrest record up on her office wall. My mom was hired by American Friends Service Committee (the Philly Quakers) to run programs for disenfranchised youth of color around the country. She also worked for CHOICE Hotline, dealing with (often poor) women’s reproductive issues and also worked as a leader at Casa Comadre in North Philly, gathering resources for young women and mothers.
Through all of these activities I gained an education in the gross inequities in our “enlightened” society. I learned to be confident, outspoken and unapologetic in my feminist views, and I learned about the hidden underbelly of class and poverty that mainstream America would like to ignore and sweep under the rug. But it’s important to understand that the activism I learned about had its roots in love. … My grandmother [mother of the three sisters mentioned above] held her neighbors in unconditional love, caring for them when they were in need, and taught us all to stand up for what is right.
You mentioned at the discussion that this last installment of the trilogy is very much about what activism means to a new generation—that it asks, “What does protest mean now?” Can you elaborate on that? I know that in the Elliott trilogy, you’ve addressed the online world’s potential for making connections.
QAH: Given the above as my childhood, I was surprised to find that feminism was a dirty word when I arrived at college. Though I grew up attending marches and rallies, they seemed to fade in frequency and fervor in my adult years. I wonder if protest means the same thing to new generations. Is protest nothing but a bygone tool?
There was beauty and excitement in Occupy. I argued with people about it; I heard the question, “But it’s not going to do anything.” But I don’t think that’s true. Occupy helped change the cultural conversation to scrutinize those with the purse strings more. That conversational shift matters.
Now we have to discover a new balance—between technology and organic action. The Internet empowers us in many ways, but there is a cost; we lose our appreciation of bricks and mortar and flesh and blood, of the incredible power of people gathered inside a room or outside city hall.
Photo of Quiara Alegría Hudes speaking at Latina magazine’s “Next Generation Latina” awards.