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Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes on veterans, John Coltrane and Puerto Rican identity

Quiara Alegría Hudes won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2012 for “Water By the Spoonful.” It’s the centerpiece of a trilogy of plays originally inspired by a cousin of the playwright’s — a former Marine who served in Iraq.

For the first time ever, the three plays are being produced simultaneously. Three venues here in Los Angeles are mounting the productions: The Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City; and the Mark Taper Forum and the Los Angeles Theater Center, both in downtown L.A.

The plays are an exploration of family ties that bind — and that sometimes sadly unravel.

When Hudes visited The Frame studio, she discussed writing about war, staging productions for veterans, and using Bach and John Coltrane as musical metaphors.

Interview Highlights:

How she based the plays on of her cousin Elliot's military service:

When he returned from his first deployment with a leg injury, he was on base in San Diego. We met up because I was working on a theater project, coincidentally, nearby. So we went out for dinner and I hadn't seen him since he had left for boot camp. He clearly had some traumatic experiences in the line of duty. So we ate a big dinner and laughed, as cousins do. But I called him a few weeks later and said, "I can't stop thinking about some of the things you told me about what you saw in war and I would like to tell a story about that. And how would you feel about that?" He said, "Cool. I'm game."

What interested her about Elliot's story:

It's not that he was part of some extremely horrible or extremely glorious war act — though there were some special moments for him and his platoon. But, really, his story seemed like the story of many people who are in military service. And I liked the everyday quality of that. The thing with war as a topic is, it is evergreen. It's nothing new at all.

Showing the play to an audience of veterans:

The first time one of these plays was premiered in New York — "Elliot: A Soldier's Fugue" runs about 70 minutes, it's a short play — we used that as an opportunity to invite a different veteran to lead a [discussion] after every single show. It was still fairly early in the Iraq war. People were dealing with trauma — people's relatives, their children, their husbands and wives were overseas. So people wanted to stay and talk about their experiences and hear what the veterans had to say.

On how music informs her writing: 

I do love music and it informs my plays. For instance, the first play explores Bach and I love the mischief in connecting Puerto Rican men who have served in the United States military [with] Bach preludes and fugues. They don't seem like they go well together but, in fact, they go really well together. The second play [looks] at John Coltrane and jazz as a kind of musical metaphor for reentry into civilian life and the dissonance that happens there.

On being the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants and the lack of literature detailing Puerto Rican family life:

Hearing [my elders'] oral history of the island was the only entry point I had to that history. This was not stuff that I was taught in school, nor was it stuff I could even find in the Philadelphia library. So I thought, There's space here. This is the American story. One of the reasons I think that the story of the Puerto Rican family is really the story of the American family is because it's a wildly diverse culture in terms of spiritual practice, in terms of class, in educational backgrounds. So to me, my Thanksgiving table is a microcosm of this nation more broadly. So I think it has relevance to our community and it has relevance to the national community.

"Water By the Spoonful" is at the Mark Taper Forum through March 11; "The Happiest Song Plays Last" is at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through March 19.