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My Broken Language

Theatre Review by James Wilson - November 6, 2022

Marilyn Torres, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Zabryna Guevara,
Yani Marin, and Samora la Perdida

Photo by Julieta Cervantes
In My Broken Language, Quiara Alegría Hudes's autobiographical play produced by the Signature Theatre in New York, the author expresses a desire for a museum that would house the memories, experiences and passions of her mother, sister, cousins, and grandmother–the Perez girls, as they are collectively known. She aspires to create, "An archive made of us, that held our concepts and reality so that future Perez girls would have no question of our existence or validity." The resulting work, which is based on the playwright's memoir, is more than just a play: it's a personal and theatrical archive.

Comprising seven short vignettes, or "movements," My Broken Language is structured like a classical piece of music. Five performers, each bringing their own unique timbre, phrasing and rhythms, alternate as the writer, here called Qui Qui, and various family members. Accompanied by a pianist (Ariacne Trujillo-Durand, who is terrific), they present key moments in Hudes' life from age ten to twenty-six. We meet Qui Qui as a ten-year-old as she gets her period on a trip from North Philly, where she grew up, to Six Flags amusement park in New Jersey. Other experiences include the author as a thirteen-year-old watching her mother in a spiritual trance, and as a fifteen-year-old apprehending the power of books to reveal the worlds beyond Philadelphia. There is also a ballet set to the music of Chopin that depicts her grandmother's ritualized preparation of rice.

The final two movements reflect the author's complex relationships with her cousins (most of whom died at very young ages) and her sister. While dyeing her cousin's hair, for instance, she recognizes her privilege gained from attending a magnet school compared with the education of a young Latina who would graduate from a public high school not being able to read. The final scene reflects the moment when the author, a graduate student in Brown University's playwriting program, crafts a play about her sister and in the process became an honest-to-God writer.

My Broken Language is reminiscent of Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls ... in its co-mingling of monologues, poetic reveries, movement, and music. (Alex Lacamoire provided musical supervision.) Hudes directed and Ebony Williams choreographed, playfully mixing Latin, hip hop, and modern dance styles. (The show's credits include Ann James, who is referred to as a "cultural specialist" and surely contributed to the sociological specificity.)

The production benefits from a design approach that can best be described as a dreamscape. The setting by Arnulfo Maldonado appears to be a drained swimming pool lined with striking blue tiles. Bathtubs, potted plants, and piles of books are interspersed around the space, and the back wall is composed of moveable stained-glass panes that show off Jen Schriever's hallucinatory lighting. (Dede Ayite's costumes and Leah Gelpe's sound accentuate the conceptual effect.)

The five actrxs, as they are identified in the script, make for a very strong ensemble. Daphne Rubin-Vega is delightful as the wide-eyed and innocent Qui Qui at ten years old. Zabryna Guevara is very funny as she chronicles the distinctive bodily features of the Perez women, and Marilyn Torres is a warm and forceful presence as Qui Qui's Abeula. Yani Marin and Samora la Perdida are excellent dancers and bring expert comic timing to their roles.

While there are performances to treasure and superb moments for sure, the fragmentation and shifting personas ultimately detract from the overall effectiveness of the play. We don't have the chance to truly get to know the central figure because she is presented as a composite of several different women. Rather than developing and evolving as a character, the main subject transforms and morphs. Similarly, we get snapshots of the women surrounding Hudes when we crave (and they deserve) fully realized portraits. Consequently, the separate vignettes lack the cohesiveness and accumulating power of the choreopoems of Shange's masterwork. In the end, I was intrigued by the world Hudes and company presented on stage, but I was not emotionally invested in it.

Hudes's commitment to a performance archive is notable, but in adapting her memoir to the stage, she might have done herself a disservice. The impression is akin to looking through a photo album and recognizing the faces but not being able to place the names.

My Broken Language
Through November 27, 2022
Signature Theatre
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
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