Adventures of a Barrio Girl

Rising star Quiara Alegria Hudes puts Washington Heights center stage in a new musical

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes has a lot on her plate. "Oh, my God," she moans, "I'm never going to be able to eat all this. This is like the largest side order of rice and beans I've ever seen!" Though she's eight months pregnant, and correspondingly hungry, she seems daunted by the platters arrayed before her at Malencon, a Dominican restaurant on 175th Street: codfish stew, beans and rice, buttered rolls, a side order of pasteles. She gestures at the pasteleswith her fork. "These are so hard to find. They're holiday food—like for the New Year or Christmas or Three Kings Day. One person in the family will work for days [to make them]."

These days, Hudes, 29, hasn't time to bake her own pasteles. Pregnancy aside, she recently closed one show, Elliott, A Soldier's Fugue, which won a rave in The New York Times. And she's in the midst of another, In the Heights, opening at 37 Arts on February 8. Hudes supplies the book to Lin-Manuel Miranda's music and lyrics, which concern the changes a Washington Heights block undergoes over a Fourth of July weekend. Commissions for South Coast Rep (26 Miles) and the Signature Theatre (a musical called Honeys on the Half-court) are also in the works. Though the ink's barely dry on her Brown University MFA, Hudes is already writer to reckon with.

In New York, Latina playwrights have met with plenty of approbation, but little commercial success, (Maria Irene Fornes, is perhaps the only exception). The likes of Marga Gomez, Cherrie Moraga, and Carmelita Tropicana float on the theatrical edge, while Hudes seems primed for major acclaim. If Hudes realizes the challenges of succeeding as a Latina playwright, they don't particularly faze her. She describes herself as a "punky little kid who always thought I could do whatever I wanted."

The product of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother, she grew up in West Philadelphia, playing piano by ear and entertaining herself writing songs, stories, and plays. "I was always writing," she says. "I have poems that are in the shape of a Converse high-top, my ode to sneakers from when I was seven years old." The first in her family to attend college, she studied music composition at Yale, where she remembers, as a freshman, talking her way into an upper-level music seminar. "I got there and I was at the table with these really well-educated juniors. There were 20 men in a room—and me." At the end of her own junior year, Hudes received a Mellon fellowship that allowed her to spend the summer writing. During her senior year, she staged two original musicals, which drew on Puerto Rican, West African, and African-American musical traditions.

The producers of In the Heights contacted Hudes while she was still in graduate school. (After a few years paying the bills as a composer and musician—even releasing an album—Hudes followed her mother's advice and returned to playwriting.) When Manhattan Theatre Club sponsored a reading of one of her plays, The Adventures of Barrio Grrrl!, the producers came calling. But Hudes had a year of school remaining and couldn't commit. "I knew the timing wouldn't work," she says. But the producers made it work, waiting 15 months until Hudes had collected her degree and moved to New York. Producer Jill Furman says, "There's an elegance to her writing. Her language in particular—it's poetic yet always rooted in reality."

The book for In the Heightspresented particular challenges. Not the least of which: A book already existed. Twenty-seven-year-old Washington Heights native Lin-Manuel Miranda had originally conceived the project years ago while at Wesleyan University and had written several drafts of the book himself, as well as the music and lyrics. He describes his first meeting with Hudes as a mixture of "trepidation and relief." Though he knew he needed a book writer, "I'd never collaborated in that way before. You hear all sorts of stories about disastrous collaborations—it can be a shotgun wedding in the worst sense." Both Hudes and Miranda mention their astonishingly similar backgrounds. "We're both Puerto Rican, our families are both business owners, community leaders," says Hudes. "We realized very quickly that we'd had the same childhood, albeit in different cities," says Miranda. "Also, she's an extraordinarily accomplished musician. She gets music. Elliot? It's a freaking fugue!"

Over the next several months, Hudes, Miranda, and director Thomas Kail spent several nights a week at Miranda's Inwood apartment. "She'd write on the couch while I banged away on my keyboard (or played Tony Hawk Underground, when the notes didn't obey)," comments Miranda. "I live next to the elevated 1 line, and they were doing construction across the street, my roof was sometimes leaking, and here we were, trying to create a musical." Together they worked to shift the piece from a love story with the community as a backdrop to a musical about the community itself and the costs of gentrification. A New York Times article noted that the median household income in Washington Heights nearly doubled between 1999 and 2002, suggesting rapid change and rising rents. She drew on her memories of childhood (she describes Washington Heights as North Philly "on an incredibly large scale") and her parents' struggles as small business owners, running and leasing bodegas, pizzerias, and Puerto Rican restaurants.

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