An Interview with Quiara Alegría Hudes, playwright, 26 Miles

Source: Interview with Kathryn Walat for American Theatre Magazine, 2009

What was this play’s seed?
I’m half Puerto Rican, half Jewish, and I was interested in having a character with a mixed cultural background who was dealing with questions of identity. I have very light skin, and the rest of my family has dark skin. I remember distinctly a few times when I was a kid when one of my elder family members would be treated less respectfully than I would be. That left a stamp on my brain. That’s where 26 Miles really started out – I thought it was going to be an issue play, but it became about a mother-and-daughter relationship.

Why did you decide to set the play in 1986? And is there something distinctive about Olivia being 15?
I was really interested in them escaping–truly leaving behind their lives–and I think that is much more difficult now with cell phones. In 1986, I think it was possible. And Olivia’s age means that everything is not yet set in stone for her. Fifteen is a time in a young woman’s life when “Who do you want to become as a woman?” is a question you’re staring right in the pimpled face.

I love coming-of-age stories. A big influence on this play is the movie Y tu mama tambien, which is a roadtrip with two young men. I could so quickly list five road-trip stories about adolescent boys that totally pull my heartstrings. It’s much less common with young women, and much less common with a mother-daughter pair.

What does being on the road allow them to experience in a new way?
When I was about 10 years old I went on a trip with my mom to South Dakota, and we stayed on a Lakota reservation while she led programs for adolescents of color. When you’re young, seeing things outside of your context is eye-opening.

Beatriz and Olivia are completely out of their contexts. Almost like editors, they’re able to step back and try on new hats–maybe live an idealized version of themselves, away from the men they leave behind. This story couldn’t be told in their two living rooms because it’s about: Who am I, if I’m not defined by where I am–or what I’m supposed to be?

I have a background in musical composition, and one of the fun things about writing this play was that the rhythm of every scene had to match the speed that they were driving; I had to create different momentums through language. Also, Olivia’s journal entries are like songs–each one has to have a slightly different tempo for the piece to work as a whole.

Are there other connections to your musical In the Heights, or to Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, which is also a musically structured play?
This is a very intimate play, as opposed to In the Heights, which was an enormous project with 11 protagonists. I wrote the two plays at the same time, so they balanced each other out very nicely.
Before this, I hadn’t written a play that I would consider psychological realism. There’s a lot of fantasy in this play, but there are conversations that real people might have, in a language that real people might use. Coming off Elliot–which was much more experimental in terms of language and structure–I wanted to give that a try.

What does Olivia learn about herself on this trip?
She knows she’s missing a piece of herself and a female role model, but I think she doesn’t realize that she’s also missing everything that comes along with that mother figure–a sense of self, of cultural identity. She has to claim it. In the production at the Alliance Theatre, she returned home to her father, and that was that. I thought that ending was beautiful, but it didn’t feel like her journey was complete. In this new draft, the ending is the start of something new.

What else did you observe about the play in performance?
This play is odd, because there are so many laugh moments, and yet there’s an
underlying sadness and longing. These people are dealing with a lot of pain, but you
don’t have to play that. Actually, themore audiences are laughing, the more they’re getting the undercurrent of it.

What are they laughing at?
It’s an odd couple. Beatriz and Olivia couldn’t be more different. Beatriz calls it like she sees it, and sometimes how she sees it is really funny. Olivia’s super-analytical. When her mom’s like, “Let’s have a conversation about God,” Olivia’s like, “What’s the technical definition of prayer?”

I love the pickpocket story that begins the play.
That was something I stole. When I was younger, I was babysitting this kid who always had a conspiracy theory. One time, he asked me: “What if everyone in the world is a pickpocket? How long do you think it would take to get your own wallet back?” Olivia has this limitless imagination, but she’s trapped in the four walls of her bedroom. She’s imagining this world of circulating ideas, but really, she needs to get out into that world.

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