For Quiara Alegria Hudes, writing expressive, inspired screenplays describing the colorful nuances that embody the American Latino experience comes quite naturally. And so it seems appropriate that, as the very first Latina to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for the critically acclaimed play “Water for the Spoonful,” Hudes credits her community as the inspiration for her incredible achievement.
“I really love the act of giving voice to people and that’s at the very core of theater and playwriting,” says the 34-year-old, who was born and raised in West Philadelphia. “At the end of the day, I am pleased to have been recognized for my work, but the accolades are just an affirmation of my purpose in life.”
As the screenwriter for the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” Hudes has taken literary expression to new heights – literally – as a rising star in the male-dominated world of theater production. As a child however, she imagined that she would pursue a career as a professional composer, having spent countless hours practicing the piano. With an innate gift for composition and a myriad of diverse musical influences – her Puerto Rican mother and her Jewish step-father, she says, played everything from worship, jazz and afro-Caribbean music at home – she entered Yale University as a music composition major.
“I was going to be a professional composer,” Hudes recalls. ‘There was no question about it, and yet it wasn’t fulfilling. But when I allowed myself to think about the idea of becoming a writer, it felt much more personal that music could ever be.”
Acting in earnest in her goal to pursue writing, Hudes studied playwriting while in graduate school at Brown University and immediately threw herself into writing about the world she knew, full of various colors, languages, classes and backgrounds, all unified by the singular bond of the Latino experience.
“Writing was about giving voice to the elements of my life, family and culture that I felt were invisible and that felt so deeply personal and real,” says Hudes, who is happily married to her hometown sweetheart. “I knew then, and know now, that I could never be bored while on this mission.”
Hudes – who spends no fewer than 40 hours a week writing – first became involved in the Philadelphia theater community while in her 20s. She was wrapping up production on the play when she approached by a producer for “In the Heights.” She was brought on board to bring composer-lyricist Lin Manuel’s artful vision of New York City’s Hispanic barrio of the Washington Heights to life – an experience she calls “enticing.” She earned a Tony nomination for her work on the show in 2008 and since then, has penned — plays. Her latest play, the third installment in the trilogy whose second installment earned her the Pulitzer, continues the story of an Iraq veteran who finds his life intertwined with a group of substance addicts who gather online in solidarity.
“Some may think that this type of story is dark, especially after the success of ‘In the Heights,’” says Hudes. “But the themes of this trilogy are entirely representative of the American family: recovery, combat, the crack epidemic that struck this country in the ‘80s and ‘90s – all things that as a writer, I approach from a place of hope.”
As for future projects, Hudes is working on a play about the nostalgia and soulful narrative surrounding Puerto Rican traditional jibaro music. Hudes says it’s her favorite play thus far and took 15 years to research and write.
“My hope that is people will see themselves reflected in literature and on the stage through my work,” says Hudes. “I get shy saying that, but as a writer, I have faith in people and create from a place of hope.”