Book Review: My Broken Language. Quiara Alegría Hudes memoir of a born (West Philly) playwright

Before she wrote the libretto and then the screenplay for “In The Heights,” before she became the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of “Water By The Spoonful,” Quiara Alegría Hudes created a salsa musical while a sophomore music major at Yale; it was produced on campus to an audience that was packed with her Boricua cousins who had traveled by the carload from North Philly, where family and friends knew her as Qui Qui.

We’re told about this production only in the last quarter of “My Broken Language: A Memoir” (One World/ Random House, 336 pages.), and it is the first extended passage explicitly about theater in the book. It will still take several  more chapters and many years before Hudes drops her lifelong goal of becoming a musician. The aim of her collegiate theatermaking was not a career move, but only “to outgrow my inner escape artist.”  Her father was a white,Jewish atheist hippie; her mother a Puerto Rican Santera, a religious leader in the Santería faith. When Hudes was a child, “shame’s hot furnace lapped at my throat as I wished mom would worship a little bit whiter.” The musical she put on at Yale was about a Santera and her daughter — a choice of subject that feels half-embrace, half-penance.

Theater lovers have to wait even longer for anything resembling specifics about playwrights and playwriting, most notably in the memorable chapters about her mentoring by playwright Paula Vogel in a graduate program at Brown. But by the very end of this gorgeously written, stirring and secretly crafty book, it becomes easy to argue that we have been reading a theater memoir all along. The author’s late-arriving epiphany becomes our own: She realizes she was in effect a playwright the entire time she was growing up, taking in the lived-in bodies, heartwarming peculiarities, ceaseless traumas and tragedies and endless resilience of the Perez women, as she calls them, the aunts and cousins on her mother’s side, as well as her mother and her sister. It’s their stories that inspired her to start writing plays, and she weaves their stories into her own story here.  In many ways, they are her story. “Out of their rough mortal flesh,” she writes, “was fashioned my tempo and taste.”

Hudes is vivid in her portraits, especially of her mother, Virginia Sanchez. who grew up on a farm in Puerto Rico, leaving for the mainland at age 11 with her three sisters  and their mother (Hudes’ Abuela), while their father remained back on the island. It is an example of the beauty of this book that Hudes then recounts three distinct and differing tales, from three relatives, explaining why they left Hudes’ grandfather behind. 

Eventually settled in a Puerto Rican enclave in Philadelphia, Sanchez became a grassroots organizer, and fell for Hudes’ grass-smoking father. Their relationship ended when Hudes was a little girl, but her mixed heritage had a lasting effect.  Her white skin giving her entrée into a world that would otherwise reject her, she recounts a series of encounters with white people that left her feeling a mix of discomfort, anger and envy – passersby who assumed her darker-skinned mother was her nanny, the casual condescension of her father’s second wife,  a trio of conservative high school classmates who talked glibly of welfare queens.

At the same time, always a straight-A student, an avid reader, an accomplished pianist, a lover of art, she felt apart from her “Philly Rican” relatives. If she didn’t know precisely what her future  would be, she understood she would wind up “somewhere other than the Marines, nursing school, the corner – paths my younger cousins had already begun walking.”

She was also embarrassed by her mother’s religious practice; there are a series of humorous scenes where she recounts discovering a turtle in the bathtub, a chicken in the house, and a goat in the basement (“A chewed-up strip of Inquirer dangled from its beard. He seemed pleased by my company, as if he’d been expecting me. ‘A spot of tea?’ his keyhole eyes seemed to ask. I backed up the stairs…”) Each of the animals were part of sacrificial rituals, performed discreetly by her mother in their home, as part of a religion she largely kept from her daughter.

Much of the memoir can be read as her journey towards an appreciation of, and absorption into, her family’s culture  — which she elegantly frames, in both literal and metaphorical ways, as a search for her languages. “Bodies were the mother tongue at Abuela’s, with Spanish second and English third. Dancing and ass-slapping, palmfuls of rice, ponytail-pulling and wound-dressing, banging a pot to the clave beat. Hands didn’t get lost in translation. Hips bridged gaps where words failed.”

Her language came to include her mother’s religious rituals. She recounts a road trip with some Yale friends who, to pass the time, asked each other whether they believed in God; only Hudes said yes – something she would not have said as a child. “I worried my bumbling explanation would reduce mom’s spiritual genius to sideshow. But how I yearned to share the numinous world I had come to study, metabolize and respect.” Although she didn’t have her mother’s spiritual gift, Hudes does detail four moments she herself experienced that she describes as possessions — once at a Quaker meeting, and three times while writing, first an essay test about the use of fire in the work of Flanney O’Connor in her AP English class, the last a play inspired by her younger sister.

It’s in conversation with Paula Vogel that we realize her many languages converge into the art form that has become her life’s work.

“Bodies in the dark, breathing in communion – was that not mom’s living room? Was that not also theater?

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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