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Tale of two playwrights

Rising stars Quiara Alegria Hudes and Tarell Alvin McCraney debut world-premiere plays

  • Quiara Alegra Hudes (left) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (right)
Quiara Alegra Hudes (left) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (right)
April 10, 2013|By Julia Borcherts, For RedEye

Two rising young playwrights from very different backgrounds find their paths crossing in Chicago this week through the prestigious Joyce Awards, which provide $50,000 grants to support new works by artists of color.

Philadelphia native Quiara Alegria Hudes, a 2009 Joyce Award-winner who wrote the script for Tony Award-winning musical, "In the Heights," and went on to win the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for "Water by the Spoonful," debuts "The Happiest Song Plays Last" at the Goodman Theatre.

The drama—which features Jibaro (traditional rural Puerto Rican) music played onstage by Grammy Award-nominee Nelson Gonzalez—explores the intertwined experiences of a Puerto Rican activist in a crumbling Philadelphia community and her cousin Elliot, an Iraq veteran making an action film in Jordan as the 2011 Egyptian Revolution breaks out. "Happiest Song" is the final stand-alone play in a trilogy about Elliot which includes "Water by the Spoonful" and "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue."

Across town, Steppenwolf ensemble member and 2010 Joyce Award recipient Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose 2010 trilogy, "The Brother/Sister Plays" moved Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones to call him, "without question, the hottest young playwright in America," returns with "Head of Passes," a drama which recasts the biblical Book of Job in Louisiana with Job as a woman whose birthday party is derailed when a hurricane strikes and family secrets come to light.

McCraney, who was raised in a Miami housing project by a drug-addicted mother who died of AIDS when he was 23, went on to graduate from DePaul University and the Yale School of Drama, was a writer in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company and is the winner of the inaugural New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the Whiting Award and many others.

With both world premieres opening this week, we dropped in on rehearsals arranged by the Joyce Foundation and then met the playwrights to chat about their lives and work.

Quiara Alegria Hudes
"The Happiest Song Plays Last"
Go: 8 p.m. Saturday (through May 12) at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
Tickets: $14-$45. 312-443-3800; goodmantheatre.org

On her inspiration for the "Elliot" trilogy: "It's inspired by my cousin who did go over in 2003-2004. He was a Marine; he had a leg injury. so his tour wasn't all that long. I flew out the following year to visit him on the base in California. And after visiting him, I wrote 'Elliot—A Soldier's Fugue.' I had no concept that it was going to be anything beyond that play. I just wanted to deal with the fact that here we were, sending a new generation off to war and the ripple effect of that. And the ripple effect that sending previous generations had had on this one."

How her cousin's later experiences inspired the new play: [He] got cast to go film a docu-drama in Jordan based on a real story about a group of rogue Marines in a town named Haditha who just went crazy after an IED [improvised explosive device] exploded and killed one of their buddies and so there was a massacre in this town, a killing spree. My cousin got cast as an extra but really what they hired him to do was to go be the consultant on Marine life--give the actors a boot camp, show them how to hold a gun. And oddly, the lead actor got fired fairly soon after they started filming and the director decided that [my cousin] would be the better lead actor. [Laughs.] So the director was yelling things like, 'How dark did you feel?' And he was dealing with all these emotions, so when he told me that, I was like, 'I don't know how I can not write a play about that. That's so crazy.'"

On enjoying rehearsal process: "I'm rarely laughing at the jokes I've written—I'm usually cringing at them. [Laughs.] But what I laugh at—it's really like being a sports fan. You see your favorite athlete make a great play and it's just so much in the moment that you can't help but jump to your feet. And with actors that are particularly good, it's the surprising choices they make that's so entertaining to sit in on in rehearsal."

Her favorite way to get audience feedback: "I get a little nervous about going to the bathroom at intermission, so I will oftentimes send my husband or a friend to eavesdrop. [Laughs.] I want to know where people are confused, but I don't want to hear it firsthand."

On the concept of identity: "I'm half Puerto Rican and half Jewish by blood, but I was raised by two Puerto Rican parents. And I look very different from everyone in my family. Identity in terms of its technical definition has always been very fluid for me and I have a sneaking suspicion that it's like that for everyone, no matter how well they do or do not fit into any checkbox. I think being defined is one of the things individuals struggle with."

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