Talking with … ‘In the Heights’ playwright Quíara Alegría Hudes ’99 B.A.
Pulitzer Prize winner Quíara Alegría Hudes ’99 B.A., who wrote the play for the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights,” spoke in the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall on Jan. 27 as part of the Women of Yale Lecture series hosted by President Peter Salovey.
In a post-event interview, Hudes spoke with YaleNews about language, music, and fond memories of her days as a Yale undergraduate.
Can you talk about the importance of collecting your family’s stories?
If I was dropped into 100 different places and lived 100 different lives, I think my sponge qualities would have been true. I think listening is my archetype.
Growing up, I was a baffled sponge half the time. I was observing my family, which turned into writing about my family. Even though their stories are the ones I’m closest too, it’s the things that confuse me that I’m most drawn to. That’s part of the curiosity, that’s part of the love and attraction I had by sticking to my family’s stories. They baffled me.
What is the importance of language in your family and how did it affect the way you grasped the stories they shared?
Spanglish is forgiving, and it was this really flexible language tool that connected us all. Spanglish was about embracing whomever was in the room at the time. But it's not just listening, because we weren't the kind of family that sat around the table together and had conversations.
Language wasn't necessarily our primary mode of communication. I think about dance a lot — and touch.
Yale was the first time I read “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf” [by Ntozake Shange]. At the end, Lady in Red speaks of missing something, and in this scene there was a laying-on of hands. When I read this, it was so familiar. Me being a sponge is not just using my ears but using my eyes and even my skin and hands to come to know the world.
What are some of the difference between “In the Heights,” the play, and “In the Heights” for the big screen?
I was excited about this new film adaptation because it was an opportunity to dig back in. When I wrote the play, no one knew who I was. I did not have a name for myself. In the intervening years, I developed credentials.
Now, the people in the room with strong points of view, you know, the executives, they take me seriously. I knew I could be stronger this time around with the communities I wanted to talk about.
I can't just say “my community,” because my community growing up was mostly Puerto Rican. Now North Philly is different; it's very Pan-Latino, a lot of Dominicans and Central Americans.
Washington Heights is the same. The 11 lead characters in “In the Heights” come from New York, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico — so these are the communities I'm talking about.
And these communities are migratory because they have to be. Home means something different now than it did to generations before.
For example, people came from Puerto Rico, and let's say, in my case, to Philadelphia. From the farm, to the city, to the port, to Philly. Along with a lot of that displacement came forward motion which becomes resilience and survival. We build a connection to home that is more urgent because home is transient. I touch on these themes more in the screenplay.
What was your favorite Yale memory?
My work-study job was one of the highlights of my life during that time. I worked in the School of Music recording studio. They would let you work something crazy like 30 hours a week. You could seriously get a lot of money, so I was really happy and I loved the job. We recorded all the school concerts, and it was four years of joy.
Wynton Marsalis came through my junior or senior year. He had written this oratorio called “Blood on the Fields,” and he was going to premiere it in New York. But he came here to rehearse it with his band for two weeks. My aunt happened to know a trombonist in the band.
So I got that guy’s number and asked if I could come watch rehearsal. I cut class for two weeks just to sit in on rehearsals every day, and by the end of those two weeks, Wynton Marsalis had me copying parts for Cassandra Wilson. I was doing little odd jobs here and there, and he said to me, “You’re a composer?”
I was like, “Yeah.”
And he was like, “Okay, bring in a trumpet piece.”
I brought in a trumpet piece, and he played it for me.
Music is at the core of your plays. What’s its importance in your daily life?
Music has healing qualities.
What I have learned from the elder women in my family, that they learned from their elders, was about the gardening tool we call a hoe.
You literally break the earth in order to create troughs where seeds can grow. The relationship between breaking and healing isn’t dichotomous; it’s symbiotic and circular.
The same can be said about music. It can be disruptive, and it can be healing — music has healed me my entire life.
What is your position as both a writer and a conduit for the people whose lives you write about?
I want to be a bridge between many communities. I actually don’t know anyone who doesn’t come from many communities. And I think the work of being a bridge between my communities is one of the fundamental tasks of life.