In her gorgeously written memoir, which was published last year with the same title as the play that is opening tonight at the Signature Theater, Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote that it was the “Perez women,” her female relatives, who inspired her to become a playwright (eventually the librettist and screenwriter of “In The Heights,” and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “Water By The Spoonful.”)
And so it seems natural that her stage adaptation of “My Broken Language,” which she both wrote and directed, focuses on those women — her many cousins on her mother’s side, most of them “Philly Ricans,” Puerto Ricans living in Philadelphia, which is where she grew up. The play stars five actresses who take turns portraying the “author” and her female cousins, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively.
In her memoir, Hudes also wrote of her grandmother’s household: “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.”
And so, again, it’s no surprise that the stage version of “My Broken Language” is as much dance theater as divvied-up memoir, a physical as well as a verbal way to celebrate women’s bodies, with pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran accompanying the performers movement with Chopin, Joni Mitchell and “Drum Negrita” by Cuban band leader and composer Ernesto Grenet, as well as a couple of original pieces composed by Alex Lacamoire, including one entitled “La Fiesta Perez.”
The way Hudes has fashioned a 90-minute theater piece out of her 336-page memoir reflects both her personal interests, and her theatrical smarts. The resulting show offers some lively moments, and some lovely ones. Those of us who read her memoir, though, may have mixed feelings about some of the changes from page to stage.
On a set design by Arnulfo Maldonado that looks like a tropical spa or a women’s lounge (bright blue tiles, tropical plants, a working bathtub), “My Broken Language” the play chronicles incidents in the life of Qui Qui (as her cousins called her) in six scenes, or movements, from age 10 to 26.
When she is ten, her older cousins take her on a trip to Six Flags amusement park. She is thrilled, but by the time they arrive, she feels sick (she assumes carsickness) so she sleeps in the car while everybody else rides the rollercoaster.
When she gets home she realizes to her shock that she is having her first period
“Oh my gah!” her cousin Cuca says. “Qui Qui’s a woman now!”
At age 15, she is in English class, smartly analyzing “Death of a Salesman” with a different enough perspective that her teacher says “Write that down, everyone.” She is suddenly called to the principal’s office, where she is handed the phone: Her cousin Mary Lou has died, at age 27.
“It was our fourth death in as many years.”
The cast members line up, identifying themselves to illustrate.
“Big Vic: age at death, twenty-four.”
“Tico: age at death, early twenties.”
When she is almost 18, Qui Qui helps dye her cousin Nuchi’s hair blonde.
She discovers that Nuchi cannot read the instructions on the package, because she never learned to read, even though she graduated from high school. “They just pass you. I just stood in the back.”
This leads the author (this time portrayed by all the actresses) on a reverie and litany of her favorite books, which includes “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem seems a clear influence on how Hudes chose to stage her memoir – the combination poetry and movement, the taking turns telling stories, individually and then cllectively.
This works wonderfully well sometimes, such as the rice ballet set to Chopin (played by pianist Ariacne Trujillo Duran), with no words uttered, just gigantic recipe cards detailing Abuela’s recipe for cooking rice.
Yet when all the actresses in “My Broken Language” the play are interchangeably both the “author” and the cousins, it somewhat muddles one of the main thrusts of “My Broken Language” the memoir, which chronicles Hudes’ journey toward feeling a part of her mother’s side of the family For a long time, she felt apart from them, not least because of the white skin (and ability to pass) bequeathed by her white Jewish father (her birth father is not mentioned in the play.) Her straight-A elite education led her to understand that she would wind up “somewhere other than the Marines, nursing school, the corner – paths my younger cousins had already begun walking.” (as she writes in the memoir but is only implicit in the play.)
Although we see her in the play, at age 26, writing a play about her sister, and by extension about her Puerto Rican heritage, we don’t get to see on stage what we read on the page — how much she had traveled to the realization that their stories were her story: “Out of their rough mortal flesh was fashioned my tempo and taste.”
Much of the final scene is an exquisite aria to the nude bodies of her female relatives, fat and hairy and unashamed, with C Section scars and “facial moles like cacti in the sierra…my matriarchs’ bodies were natural wonders.” The actresses who portray Qui Qui and her female relatives do not seem to share such lived-in bodies, but they are in other ways natural wonders. Their talent and energy and especially their camaraderie are palpable. However long it took her to get to celebrate her Puerto Rican heritage, that celebration is what Quiara Alegría Hudes wants to share with us now on stage.
My Broken Language
at Signature Theater through November 27
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Written and directed by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Choreography by EbonyWilliams, music supervisor Alex Lacamoire, musician Ariacne Trujillo Duran, scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Dede Ayite, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Leah Gelpe, cultural specialist Ann James, production stage manager Kaitlin Leigh Marsh
Cast: Ariacne Trujillo Duran (pianist), Zabryna Guevara,Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Marilyn Torres
Left to right: Daphne Rubin-Vega (seated), Samora la Perdida (standing), Marilyn Torres (seated), Yani Marin (standing)