Quiara Alegría Hudes’ engrossing and entertaining stage adaptation of her memoir of the same name, My Broken Language, is a bit of a misnomer as, unlike her published book, the play is not about her life between English and Spanish with some Spanglish thrown in. In fact the play has whittled the material in the book down to just the women in her life who influenced her: her mother, grandmother, aunts and cousin. A more appropriate title might be The Women in My Life, The Women Who Influenced Me or The Women Who Made Me Who I Am.
Unlike the book it leaves out the men, her father and step-father, as well as male teachers who influenced in her early years. Using a cast of five actresses (Zabyrna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Marilyn Torres) who alternate as the Author and the “Grrrls,” the other female members of her family, the play neatly depicts her growing up from her teen years to age 26 when she became a playwright. It is a skillful stage adaptation which sculpts the material into an entirely new entity as memorable scenes from a life.
Organized into “seven movements” (Hudes has a degree in music from Yale), the play begins with Hudes at age 10 on the way to Six Flags with her older cousins Cuca, Tico, Flor and Nuchi when she gets her first period and spends the day sleeping in the car. We see her at age 13 surreptitiously watching her mother initiated into Santeria. At 15, she is confronted with the funeral of her beloved cousin Mary Lou and remembers participating in her wedding. The following year she is fascinated by surrealist Marcel Duchamp at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and tries to recreate the feeling by playing a Chopin Nocturne. She then reenacts her grandmother (Abuela)’s rice recipe much like a dance.
At 18, while dying her cousin Nuchi’s hair, she is shocked to discover that Nuchi can’t read due to being passed along at school as she never caused any trouble. This makes her catalog the authors that she has read from the Free Library of Philadelphia that Nuchi (played by Yani Marin) will never experience: James Baldwin, Pablo Neruda, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Chaucer. Each of these authors had influenced her in a unique way. The final movement is set in 2004 at the Brown University Grad School for Playwriting where at 26 she writes her first play and has the unsettling experience of watching her family see their stories dramatized on stage.
Hudes has directed her own play in a delightful vaudeville/musical comedy style with dancing between the scenes to choreography by Ebony Williams to live music played by pianist Ariacne Trujillo-Durand, supervised by Alex Lacamoire. Of the five actresses who perform each in their own inimitable style, three of them have appeared in Hudes’ plays before: Daphne Rubin-Vega and Zabryna Guevara (who play the Author twice each) have appeared in two New York productions and Marilyn Torres has appeared regionally in the Pultizer Prize-winning, Water by the Spoonful at The Old Globe, San Diego. By the end of the evening we feel we have met all of the Perez women as well as know what makes the Author tick.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s setting is both an indoor/outdoor depiction of the houses in West and North Philadelphia where Hudes grew up. The blue and white tiled stage suggesting both a conservatory and a back garden also includes bathtubs which are used for exotic Caribbean plants, as pieces of scenery like a car, and as a shower where Nuchi’s hair is dyed. The costumes by Dede Ayite are colorful and give each actress a different look, a turban for one, a baseball cap for another. The hair, wig and makeup designs for these Philadelphia women originally from Puerto Rico are by J. Jared Janas. Jen Schriever’s soft lighting plays over the large stage with seats for the audience on three sides.
Quiara Alegría Hudes’ My Broken Language is unlike any of her other plays yet seen in New York. More like an example of storytelling, the use of different narrators approximates the many lives and pursuits Hudes has experienced. Always entertaining, the five actresses make us feel we have met many more of her relatives than we actually have. In My Broken Language we learn more about playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes and her influences than we usually do about living authors. Each of the five actresses gets her own star turn in the course of the evening.
My Broken Language (through November 27, 2022)
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission