A fugue is a musical composition in which themes are repeated or mirrored by a series of successive voices, developing into a continuous weaving of sound. There is also a medical definition: In a fugue state of consciousness, an affected person can seem fully aware but later cannot recall what happened while in that state. It is a word ripe with metaphors, seemingly ready-made for artists who gravitate toward the mashing-up and commingling of opposites — love and hate, presence and loss, living and dead.
Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes takes on the word’s myriad dramatic possibilities in Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, the first in her trilogy of plays about the Puerto Rican-American experience. Fugue opens on Thursday, Sept. 26, at Teatro Paraguas, and is directed by Alix Hudson.
All of the action takes place on a black-box set, with successive generations of a Puerto Rican family from Philadelphia talking about war. Time overlaps in a non-linear fashion, from the 1950s to the aughts, just after Elliot, a Marine, has returned injured from Iraq. The dialogue is poetic and moves like music — specifically, like fugues by Bach, which Elliot’s grandfather played on his flute to soothe fellow soldiers when he was in Korea. Elliot’s father served in the Army during Vietnam, as did his mother, Ginny, as a member of the Army Nurse Corps.
Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue made Hudes a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize. She went on to write a number of successful plays and won a 2008 Tony Award for her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on the musical In the Heights. She returned to Elliot for Water by the Spoonful, in which we learn about his childhood and meet his extended family. She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for this second installment of the Elliot trilogy, which she completed in 2013 with The Happiest Song Plays Last. In that play, Elliot is acting in a Hollywood war movie while his cousin, Yazmin, has become the matriarch of the North Philly barrio, taking care of the hungry and the wounded.
In Elliot’s world, the ravages of battle include physical injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, and drug addiction. But his family doesn’t seek professional help for the problems, says Valli Marie Rivera, who directs Water by the Spoonful for Ironweed Productions. That’s not how it’s done in Puerto Rican families, she says. “You don’t go outside for help. You sit on the couch with your family until you get a sense of how you can heal.” Rivera grew up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moved to New Mexico in 1997. She moved back to San Juan in May to be closer to her daughter and granddaughter, and to help her community rebuild after Hurricane Maria.
Robyn Rikoon directs The Happiest Song Plays Last at the Santa Fe Playhouse. “In all three plays,” she says, “there is a theme about what we bring along with our ancestry — what’s in our DNA. What we come into this life with, what we’re given, and how we deal with it.”
Hudes based Elliot on a cousin who was injured in Iraq. Other characters in the trilogy were also inspired by family members. Their stories are not directly biographical, however; instead, they convey emotional truths. Hudes’ mother’s family moved to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico when her mother was a teenager, and storytelling was a form of cultural preservation, Hudes told the Los Angeles Times in 2018, when three L.A. theaters collaborated to mount the trilogy. “We told stories, watched the Eagles, had dance parties and ate,” she says. “Everyone was always telling stories about ‘the island.’ They would say, ‘Sit and listen to this’ ... When there’s not a widely recognized, written literature of your culture’s history, the oral histories are so urgent and important.”
Three Santa Fe theater companies are collaborating to produce the Elliot trilogy, with different casts, in September and October. (It’s not necessary to see the plays in order, and for those who can’t get to every production, the directors say that each stands on its own.) Hudes’ three-part tale fits into and expands on the missions of the theaters. In recent years, the Santa Fe Playhouse has moved to present contemporary theater that’s relevant to local audiences. A play about a Latino family struggling with intergenerational trauma satisfies that goal while connecting the historic community theater closely to the mission of Teatro Paraguas, which specifically focuses on work by Latino and Latin-American playwrights. Ironweed Productions presents theater of the American experience, which has typically meant plays by such luminaries as Sam Shepard and Arthur Miller. But the American experience encompasses more than white male writers writing about white families, say Hudson and Rikoon, who wanted Ironweed to join the collaboration in order to broaden the scope of stories it tells. Artistic director Scott Harrison agreed to the experiment.
“A lot of the themes the plays grapple with are universal and American,” Harrison says. “Water by the Spoonful looks at the power of physical connection versus online connection. It looks at drug addiction, which is a huge problem in the country right now. It looks at home.”
Each play in the trilogy is tied to a musical form that becomes highly symbolic to the story. In Fugue, Bach’s compositions set the tone for a play that might otherwise feel ungrounded. “There are overlapping lines and different melodic lines that crash, and there is resolution, but it’s cyclical also,” says Hudson, the director. She says the play is not difficult to follow, despite its somewhat fragmented, experimental feel. Time jumps and other narrative components will be handled through shifts in lighting and music.
Free jazz by John Coltrane is the centering force in Water by the Spoonful, which tells the dual story of Elliot and his cousin Yazmin as they deal with the death of a close family member. “Coltrane was looking for dissonance versus consonance, harsh versus harmony, conflict versus embrace,” says Rivera. “Coltrane says all notes are equal. In this play, all characters are equal and they can impact each other.”
The Happiest Song Plays Last is rooted in Jibaro music, which comes from the Puerto Rican countryside and is associated with political protest. In this play, Elliot is starring in a movie about Iraq that is being filmed in Jordan just as the Arab Spring is blossoming in Egypt. In Philadelphia, Yazmin has become a social justice activist around issues of healthcare. Rikoon says she aims to tell the trilogy’s final story through the lens of post-traumatic stress disorder. “In some ways, all the characters have a form of PTSD,” she says. She has been reading about the brain’s fear response and learning about how soldiers can try to heal. One way to do this, she says, is to cultivate a sense of hopefulness and use the foundations of the traumatic experience to grow, rather than to turn away from bad memories.
All three directors say that a sense of optimism drives the growth of the characters. Though the themes can be oppressive at times and each play in the Elliot trilogy has a powerfully moving dramatic climax, the trilogy features a great deal of humor and warmth. The stories are full of gritty realism, yet also contain the spirit of magical realism, where the dead appear to the living and dreams are never completely out of reach, no matter how low one’s circumstances may be. ◀
The Elliot Trilogy
▼ Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue
Teatro Paraguas, 3205-B Calle Marie, 505-424-1601, teatroparaguas.org
Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26, continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 13
▼ Water by the Spoonful
Ironweed Productions at Teatro Paraguas Second Space, 3205-A Calle Marie, 505-927-5406, ironweedsantafe.com
Opens 7:30 p.m. Oct. 3, continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Oct. 20
▼ The Happiest Song Plays Last
Opens 7:30 p.m Oct. 10, continues 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 10 through Oct. 27
Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. De Vargas St., 505-988-4262, santafeplayhouse.org
▼ Tickets start at $15, discounts available; call theaters or visit websites to purchase