Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2021 memoir is an artist’s coming-of-age story, the journey of finding a voice, of navigating between multiple worlds to find a cultural, spiritual, artistic home. It’s the story of how a child from a fractured family, a child with a lot of loss in her life, builds the space in which she can not only speak her own stories and joys and sorrows in all their complexity, but memorialize the women who surround her but don’t bear their own witness: she’s creating “an archive made of us.” A love story to the written word as much as to the women in the maternal line of Hudes’s family, the piece takes the adult, mature writer’s sensibility as a lens on her childhood and that of her baby sister. Adapted from the memoir and directed by the playwright, the play My Broken Language is heartfelt and the playwright’s triumph in having this story to tell is hard-won, but the book doesn’t feel like it’s been meaningfully translated to the stage. Hudes’s homecoming to the theater, after an intentional absence of several years, feels like an act of nurturance for its creators (Hudes, of course, but also the ensemble of “Philly Rican roles for Latinx actrexs”), but to the audience comes off as an unusually creative literary reading more than a fully realized piece of theater.
The memoir took a broad view of Hudes’s life, including two important relationships, with her white father and with music, that are excised here. The theater piece pulls snapshots and scenes that zero in on the Perez women: Hudes’s mother, her abuela, her younger sister, and a slew of cousins living and dead. (The live pianist, I think, is a nod to Hudes’s original goals for a career in music, but I’m not sure you’d get that if you didn’t read the book. Full disclosure: I work for the book’s publisher, and know the memoir quite well.) Most of the language comes word for word from the book, and hearing it spoken aloud and excerpted into snapshots rather than a single narrative arc does let you luxuriate in the writing, sentence by sentence. But where the overall shape of the book led you on the journey of how a girl from the Philadelphia barrio, the play, just by virtue of being presented at a major Off-Broadway venue, plays the end at the beginning: Hudes has obviously found that way. It’s the author speaking as a Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright, through the voices of a company she’s also directing.
The ensemble of five (Yadira Correa, Zabryna Guevara, Yani Marin, Samora la Perdida, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Marilyn Torres) hands the role of Author back and forth, beginning with Rubin-Vega as a strikingly convincing 10-year-old Qui Qui (her family nickname). A nameplate necklace marks the current holder of the Author role, while the rest of the ensemble fills in as Qui Qui’s cousins, teachers, sister, mother. The necklace is an elegant piece of shorthand, but because Hudes has both written and directed the piece to be as much storytelling as acting, it almost doesn’t matter who’s Qui Qui at any given moment. Some of the performers fare better with this style than others, but as a whole, the ensemble feels a little uncertain.
The necklace is one of the few visual elements that seems to mesh organically. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is stunning, a lush tile conservatory filled with plants and bathtubs that evokes the tropics, but I’m not sure why. (One key scene does occur in a shower, but the literal use of running water in that scene doesn’t seem to add anything crucial.) Filling the stage with piles of books in every nook and cranny makes more sense, though the literal building of a path of stepping-stones out of books as Quiara grows up may be a little too on the nose–but those books sit oddly among the bathtubs.
I also found Qui Qui’s mother, Virginia, to be a striking absence throughout most of the piece. Choreographer Eboni Williams created the play’s movement vocabulary, which provides a theatrical link between Virginia and her daughter–between Virginia’s embodiment as the Orisha of lightning in her religious practice and Quiara’s “possession” as a writer. (The thread of Virginia’s religious beliefs and their importance to her and to the family is another thread that I’m not sure you would entirely understand here without knowing the fuller story from the memoir.) But we don’t feel Virginia as much of a presence in her daughter’s life outside of shared grief, which, in a play about matrilineal ancestry, is an odd choice. I’m not sure My Broken Language needed to be a play, and I wonder if a director who was not also the writer/adaptor/central character would have helped to translate it into a staging and performances that brought in a fuller theatrical realization. But I still felt the love and the strength and the loss among the Perez family, and found the intimate ambition of the piece both touching and essential. “Future Perez girls would step into the library of us and take its magnificence for granted. It would seem inevitable, a given, to be surrounded by one’s history.” When Hudes watches her fourteen-year-old sister watch the play she’s written, she is terrified that her sister, recognizing herself in it, will hate her. Gabi’s response: “It hurt, but I feel seen.” Every aspiring writer should have that moment, and this play may give that to others–or give them the tools to figure out how to build their own. In that mission, it earns its keep.