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From 'Zoot Suit' to 'Water By The Spoonful'

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez in Conversation

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(L-R) Matias Ponce and Demian Bichir in “Zoot Suit” at the Mark Taper Forum.

Photo by Craig Schwartz.
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Quiara Alegría Hudes.

At age 30, Quiara Alegría Hudes had written the book for a Broadway hit, In the Heights. At 35, she had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for Water by the Spoonful. Now, at 40, she is one of America’s most widely produced playwrights, and Center Theatre Group is proud to be bringing two of the works in her acclaimed Elliot Trilogy to our stages simultaneously. Water by the Spoonful is onstage at the Mark Taper Forum January 31 – March 11, 2018, while Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer, is onstage at the Kirk Douglas Theatre January 27 – February 25, 2018.

Hudes, who lives in New York City, saw our historic revival of Zoot Suit at the Taper during a February visit to Los Angeles. A few months after, we asked if she’d be game to talk with Associate Artistic Director Diane Rodriguez—a fellow Latina playwright whose newest work, The Sweetheart Deal, had just premiered at The Los Angeles Theatre Center as well as a former member of El Teatro Campesino—about Zoot Suit, writing about immigration and immigrant communities in America today, and the differences between New York and L.A. audiences.

Rodriguez: We’re both at different stages in the process of developing new work right now. My new play, which I wrote and directed, just premiered here in Los Angeles after five years of development. And you’re at work on a show that recently premiered, too.
Hudes: Miss You Like Hell, a musical, opened at the La Jolla Playhouse last fall. We’re in the process of bringing that to New York for next season. It’s really an expansion of the communities I’ve been writing within. It deals with a Mexican-American mother and daughter. The daughter’s a teenager, and she’s a citizen, and the mother is not a citizen. They spend seven days together before the mother’s final immigration hearing. We were in the middle of the World premiere run when the election happened.
That’s so contemporary and urgent.
I started writing it years ago, and it only got more so as time progressed.
It’s been an issue for 40 years, actually. That fear of losing, of deportation, it’s always looming, but it looms larger and darker at our doorstep now. It’s a more intense situation. We saw that with Zoot Suit, too, to a certain degree.
Before Zoot Suit even began, there was this sense among the audience that this was an event, that this was exciting, that this mattered, that this was relevant. To have a very energized audience coming in—that in and of itself is remarkable, that is not an average audience experience. It was incredible. Luis Valdez wrote about a combustible moment in our culture 40 years ago, and then to unearth that again…that moment still feels extremely combustible in how it is reverberating against the contemporary moment. And the audience knew what they were in for. The air was charged back then, the air is charged now, and these are the things that affect our lives directly. It could be fun and beautiful and artful and also significant and meaningful in that way, which was very exciting.
Zoot Suit has been a very West Coast phenomenon. The original show went to Broadway and opened and closed fairly quickly; there were various reasons why it didn’t work. Do you feel this kind of story is only for the audience in Southern California and the Southwest, or do you think a story like this could go farther and bigger?
I have no idea. The honest truth is, audiences are different from place to place. And one of the joys of having this career is that I go to different places and sit in the audience, and it’s the first time I’ve been in this place and sat with these people. One of the challenging things about New York is you feel a little bit too cool for school—we all take for granted that great work is just going to be delivered to our laps. It’s really nice to see different audience experiences. But I have no doubt Zoot Suit is very meaningful beyond Los Angeles; there’s no question about that.
You’ve had a lot of success early in your career. Has that changed the way you write, and the expectations you feel?
It was certainly a blessing. After the Pulitzer, Water by the Spoonful got more well-known, was put on more syllabi across the country. I’m very fortunate to have that happen with the piece. You can kind of celebrate for a minute, but you have to get back to the work, to the writing. I just finished editing the galleys of the second edition of Water by the Spoonful. The first edition was published after the first production. After that, I made some edits, especially around the intermission area. In returning to the text, I do recognize that this play is a little different, that something special happened when I was writing it. It was a kind of confluence of what was in the air culturally and some resources I discovered that felt very charged and energized in my writing life.
When there’s something in the air you become a conduit for, that elevates the work. You become the voice of that moment in your genre. You’re always wanting to be open for that. I think you’re really going to enjoy having Water by the Spoonful at the Taper, where the audience wraps itself around the play, and it becomes a very intimate experience.
And I’m thrilled to have Lileana Blain-Cruz, who’s a really muscular director. It’s a challenging piece; there’s this heightened language that’s Shakespearean and this vernacular. In the right hands, really interesting visual ideas happen.
I love the visual element that your play ends on. It’s so beautiful. I think she’s going to be a great match. And at the same time that Water by the Spoonful is at the Taper, we’re going to have Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue at the Douglas. Is this the first time they’ve been onstage together?
The trilogy has been done at two theatres, but not concurrently—the plays have been done over the course of one or two seasons, so you wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to go in the course of one weekend and experience them back-to-back. I’m going to be very involved in the productions, and it’ll be interesting to see if there will be any writing shifts to be made that reflect on the proximity.
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