In "26 Miles," a new play by Quiara Alegria Hudes, a 15-year-old Philadelphia girl and her estranged mother take a road trip across the West - encountering mountains, herds of elk and a wandering tamale salesman.
Hudes, whose partly autobiographical coming-of age-story opens tonight on the Alliance Theatre's Hertz Stage, says she has never taken such a trip. But since abandoning her career in piano performance to study with dramatist Paula Vogel at Brown University's graduate playwriting program, her career has been on a frantic and serendipitous journey of it own, down a road she almost didn't travel.
Her eloquent "Elliot, a Solider's Fugue" - based on her family's experiences in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and the first play she wrote after grad school - was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for drama. While still at Brown, Hudes turned down an offer to write the book for "In the Heights," composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda's homage to the ethnic diversity of New York's Washington Heights neighborhood. But after moving to New York in 2004, she found herself in a temp job and decided to revisit the idea. Luckily, the producers were still seeking an author.
In 2008, "In the Heights" took the Tony Award for best new musical, and Hudes received a Tony nomination for her libretto.
'A real whirlwind'
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Today, she is widely acknowledged as one of her generation's most important playwrights.
"It's been a real whirlwind," says the slim and intense 31-year-old, enjoying a pre-hearsal breakfast one recent morning at Flying Biscuit in Midtown. "In some ways, it's a lot to live up to."
Hudes, whose Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father divorced when she was young, grew up with her mom and Puerto Rican stepfather. Her love of Latin-American culture permeates her work, which is infused with poetry, music and the aromas of soulful home cooking.
As a kid, Hudes published a little home-made literary magazine (like her character Olivia in "26 Miles") and listened to the stories of her immigrant neighbors from Vietnam and Ethiopia. Her Puerto Rican grandmother spoke no English, but her abuela always had a pot of beans and rice on the stove, and welcomed everyone. "It was a very rich landscape to grow up in," says Hudes, who lives in New Yorkwith her attorney husband and 2-year-old daughter.
Hudes had a play produced when she was 13. But at the time, she says had no "inkling" she was born to write professionally. Her paternal aunt, Linda Hudes, was a composer for New York's Big Apple Circus and a strong influence who took her niece to see Etta James and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
"In terms of my identity, I identified as a musician," Hudes says. "I practiced piano three hours a day." She earned a degree in musical composition from Yale in 1999.
'That was my experience.'
After college, Hudes found work performing in clubs around Philadelphia, but something wasn't clicking. "My mom sat me down and said, 'What about all those plays you wrote? I always thought you were a writer.' She said, 'I love your music ...but when you wrote, you really had something to say, because you were telling stories that other people weren't telling.' And as soon as she said that to me, it was the most obvious thing in the world."
During director Kent Gash's 2006 Alliance production of "Elliot," Hudes was captivated by the lively response.
"It wasn't a large Latino audience at all. It was mostly a white and African-American audience, and yet people afterward were saying, 'That was about my family. That was my experience. That's about my son.' There's something about trying to tap into a larger story that I wanted to continue with '26 Miles.' " She submitted the play to the Alliance, and Gash agreed to direct its world premiere.
Gash calls Hudes "the real thing" and says her voyage is just beginning. "It's going to be a long and fruitful and wonderful, wonderful career."
In "26 Miles," Olivia tries to negotiate the world of her Jewish father and stepmother, with whom she lives, and her Cuban mother, who takes her on the cross-county adventure.
Though "26 Miles" is essentially comic, "there is a sadness about it," Hudes says. "It's about loneliness and it's about love and how we navigate those two things. ...
"But Kent has activated it so much. It feels like Thelma and Louise just shot someone and got to get in the car and got to get on the road or the cops will get them. ... By the end, you don't know what hit you. You feel like a truck hit you."