On Monday, the playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes switched on her phone, which she’d silenced for several hours while leading a writing seminar at Wesleyan University. She found she’d received 200 e-mails, 70 voice mails, and more texts “than I’ve had cumulatively in my previous life history.”
All communiqués had the same basic message: Congratulations. While in class, the Pulitzer Prize board had announced Hudes as the 2012 drama winner for Water by the Spoonful. “If a piano had fallen from the sky,” she said, speaking by phone on Tuesday, “I would have been equally surprised.”
Water by the Spoonful is a sophisticated and ambitious play that dovetails two narrative strains, that of Elliot, a former soldier dosing himself with pain pills and menial jobs, and that of his mother Odessa, a janitor who helms a chatroom for recovering crack addicts. But the playwright didn’t suspect an award—the piece has yet to receive a New York production, and its Hartford Stage debut, according to Hudes, went mostly unnoticed by the larger theater world. “There wasn’t a lot of buzz,” she said.
The prize may have also seemed unlikely since she had made the shortlist once before in 2007, where Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue joined Eisa Davis’s Bulrusher and Rinde Eckert’s Orpheus X. But the Pulitzer board that year decided against awarding any drama prize. Some writers might have taken that as an affront. Hudes did not. “To see my name on the same name as Pulitzer, in whatever configuration—I was thrilled,” she says. “It’s how I feel today. But, you know, a little better.”
Actually, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful have more in common than a committee’s imprimatur. They compose the first two parts of a planned trilogy, largely based on Hudes’s North Philly relatives. (One character, Yazmin, bears a distinct resemblance to Hudes herself, though Hudes also cites a cousin as inspiration.)
But while Elliot is a tightly structured quartet, arranged as the literary equivalent of a Bach fugue, Water is a larger, louder, and untidier piece with 11 roles. Its musical analogues, according to Hudes’s script notes, are John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and “Ascension.” Yazmin, an adjunct lecturer in music, describes the latter song: “It was called Free Jazz but freedom is a hard thing to express musically without spinning into noise.”
Hudes’s plays contain their share of ugliness: addiction, confusion, betrayal, deaths slow and quick. But they run little risk of spinning into noise. Whether writing these dramas, or the book for the musical comedy In the Heights, she keeps her characters firmly tethered—to narrative, to place, to each other. They may act cruelly, but she renders them capable of extraordinary expressiveness and generosity, too.
As Lin-Manuel Miranda commented during their shared work on In the Heights, “What impressed me was not only the lyricism and wit of her writing, but the inherent humor and humanity that stems from her characters.” Paula Vogel, Hudes’s mentor during her MFA stint at Brown University, notes that her work “has a musicality about it—an emotional honesty without sentimentality, and then effortless bursts of heightened lyricism.”
At many points in the phone conversation Hudes alluded to her shock, suggesting that she won’t know what the win and the $10,000 award really means until she recovers from it. Until then, she’ll be busy fielding interview and production requests. For now she says, “It’s just a little bit of wind in my sails so I can keep doing what I really want to do, which is to write plays. There’s nothing I want more in the world.”