MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Theater of Dichotomies

Very glad I decided to catch The Happiest Song Plays Last before the run ended — thank you, Theatre22, for staging this.

I sadly missed the company’s production of Water by the Spoonful a few years ago and have never been able to catch the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning Quiara Alegría Hudes in New York. But now I get what the fuss is about.

The Happiest Song Plays Last is a beautifully constructed play, with rich, in-depth characterizations that the Theatre22 cast dug into and projected compassionately. Quiara Alegría Hudes’s dialogue cuts to the bone. It emanates a kind of honesty I found genuinely moving and dramatically effective.

She also carries off an intriguing structural challenge in this final play of her Elliot trilogy (named for the young Puerto Rican soldier Elliot Ruiz, who comes from North Philadelphia and serves in Iraq — a protagonist inspired by the playwright’s real-life cousin).

Cinematic in scope but resolutely avoiding the formulaic clichés of commercial film and theater, Happiest Song unfolds in two very different, very distant worlds. One is in the Middle East, on a film set, with veteran Ruiz now playing the lead role in an indie docudrama about the Iraq War.

It’s being filmed in Jordan, and during off hours, Elliot develops intense connections both to his co-star, Shar, an Arab-American actress, and Ali, an exiled Iraqi hired as a consultant-gofer for the film. The Egyptian chapter of the Arab Spring starts to play out at the same time, which they learn about via the media.

The other world is the North Philly neighborhood where Elliot grew up with his cousin Yaz, cared for an adoptive mother who has since died. Yaz has decided to take her place, moving into her home to continue her activist and care-taking work supporting this impoverished community. She develops an unexpected attachment to neighbor Agustín, an older, married man passionate about his music.

Hudes cleverly splices these distinct settings, revealing the weight of guilt on Elliot — scarred by his experiences in Iraq — and also on Yaz as she confronts the pressure of living up to her saintly model. World crisis and local community protests intersect in Hudes’ warm, humane web to form this compelling story.

“Being an artist is about honoring the dichotomies that are always around us,” says Hudes. “We’re alive, and we’re going to die — that’s the basic one — but every little dichotomy that reveals itself to me is a treasure for writing and for life. You always need a yin and yang… As an artist, that daring to go beyond, that taking the next step beyond the moment you’re in is the thrill of the chase and the love of the craft.”

Filed under: playwrights

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