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A playwright’s Brief But Spectacular take on unearthing family stories

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Quiara Alegria Hudes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who's also known for her collaboration with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the Tony Award-winning musical "In the Heights," just released in a film version.

Now Hudes has written a deeply personal memoir called "My Broken Language" about navigating life as the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and Jewish father in West Philadelphia.

For us, she has this Brief But Spectacular take on unearthing family stories.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Quiara Alegria Hudes, Author, "My Broken Language": I have said that the story of my family is the American story.

There are so many Americas, and, in the United States, there are so many Americas. And I got to read about some of them growing up. Some of those books were assigned to me in high school. But my job as I became a young woman and a young artist was to learn about more of this nation, including my own history, which I had never read, was never assigned to me.

When I decided to really start writing, I wanted to interview my elders and my relatives. One of the first plays I wrote, I remember, it was about Puerto Rican men serving in the United States military.

And so I went to interview my Tio George in Philly. He had served in Vietnam. He was a Marine. And I was so nervous to interview him because he never -- we don't speak about that. We just hope that the Eagles have a great game. There are some things we don't talk about.

And I asked him one question. The tears started flowing. And what I found is that people are just looking for a safe place to tell their stories and that people's stories are incredible. They just want to know someone's listening.

A week later, I called him to say thank you. And he said, "Qui Qui, I haven't felt this light in 30 years."

The stuff that interests me is the stuff that deals with the struggle and the joy, and where those two things meet. To say to my cousin, to say to my mother, my sister, my aunt, I want to write about that thing that hurts, and that thing that hurts might be illiteracy in our family.

You know, it blew my mind when I had already gotten my Yale acceptance letter, to discover that loved ones in my family, elders, were illiterate.

I didn't know.

"In the Heights" was the first musical I wrote after getting to New York. I wrote it with Lin-Manuel Miranda. And I wrote the book of the musical, which is a strange way of saying the script of the musical. And he wrote the music and lyrics, which are in the songs.

"In the Heights" was like writing my life story in a fictional way. Lin-Manuel was mining his experience, the treasures that he grew up surrounded by and the stories that he was eavesdropping on. And we would be -- it was like playing cards. Like, OK, you play that story, I am going to play this story.

And that is how it kind of naturally became a story, not with one clear protagonist or one clear love story, which is more typical in a musical, but actually about a whole community.

When I was sitting, still in my 20s in a Broadway theater, in the audience, watching the audience watch my musical "In the Heights," it was a bit of an out-of-body experience. I would get anxious. And what grounded my would be hearing, that's me, that is my abuela, that is my story, and those anchors back to reality, where people would feel lifted. They would see their loved ones. They would see their path and feel lifted.

My name is Quiara Alegria Hudes, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on unearthing family stories.

Judy Woodruff: And such an inspiration to all of us.

And you can watch all of our Brief But Spectacular episodes at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.



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