Just 33, playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes already has had big success.
Most children fill their playtime with dolls, games and Legos. When she was a tot in Philadelphia, Quiara Alegria Hudes liked to fool around with books and words.
"From the second I began to speak and learned how to write, that's almost all I've wanted to do," said the playwright who, at 33, has twice been a Pulitzer Prize finalist ("Elliot, a Soldier's Fugue" and "In the Heights"). "I wrote poems, magazine articles, anything my little mind could imagine. That was how I played, with words, not toys."
If her word fascination pre-destined her, she did not know it at first.
"My family is Puerto Rican and Jewish, and they're big into music," she said by phone from New York, where she lives. "That was my proclivity. My aunt, Wendy Hudes, composed original scores for the Big Apple Circus for 17 years. Her husband is a trumpeter and bandleader. I expected to follow that line."
She has, in a way. She has been telling stories onstage, much of it with music. Hudes' "Barrio Grrrl!" is a new musical about a 9-year-old; the touring production plays through March 27 at the Children's Theatre.
Hudes' eureka moment came not long after she graduated from Yale, when her grandmother was sick. She was asked to interview her, and to collect her stories.
"My mom, who's a painter, said, 'Why did you abandon that hobby of writing?'" she recalled. "It was a call to arms, to capture the family stories -- my father grew up without electricity -- that were disappearing at a rapid rate."
One of those family stories was the catalyst for "Elliot," which put her on the map when it became a Pulitzer finalist in 2007 (full disclosure, this writer served on that jury).
That play was inspired by Hudes' cousin, who was wounded in Iraq.
"Barrio Grrrl!" also has a family genesis.
"When I was 13, my mom gave birth to my sister," said Hudes. "She's a fiery, spunky, fearless little girl with underdog traits."
The musical centers on Ana, whose mother is serving in the military abroad. Ana invents an imaginary friend named the Amazing Voice. In the show, Ana has a superhero identity (the title character) who pragmatically solves problems in her life and the life of the neighborhood.
"I gave a crack at this story in graduate school [at Brown University] but it turned out to be too dark," said Hudes, who collaborated with Tony winner Bill Sherman. "Right around the time I got pregnant with my daughter [now 4], the Kennedy Center called. This was the first piece I wrote after my daughter was born, and it is infused with her joy and crazy energy in all sorts of ways."
Since it premiered after Hudes' most successful work to date, some people have taken to calling "Barrio Grrrl!" the little sister of "In the Heights," for which she wrote the book. The playwright is tickled by the comparison, although she notes that "Barrio Grrrl!" has a score that sounds more like world music than hip-hop.
"Barrio Grrrl!" also was conceived and begun before the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical that won four Tonys in 2008. In fact, she got the "Heights" job after members of the creative team of that production saw a New York workshop of "Barrio Grrrl!"
"The earlier incarnation of the show led to a little bit of matchmaking," she said. "Lin and I met. The challenge was, could I write a conventional musical?"
A prolific playwright, Hudes is working on a musical adaptation of Laura Esquivel's 1989 novel "Like Water for Chocolate," which is to open this fall at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. She also is completing parts two and three of "Elliot," now a trilogy. The second part is to premiere at Connecticut's Hartford Stage next season and the other at Chicago's Goodman Theatre next year.
Hudes said she's glad that she found a way to marry words with meaning, and to capture family stories.
"The first piece I ever saw in professional theater was 'Sarafina' on Broadway," she said. "I had a total flip-out. I was so upset about the story. But it planted in me the feeling that fear can help you understand what it feels like to live a life you could never come in contact with. I didn't know anything about apartheid in South Africa, but the show took me there. That's what I want to do with my plays: take people to places they might not have ever been."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390