A modern play with a traditional feel: The Happiest Song Plays Last


 “The Happiest Song Plays Last” debuts in Chicago and Wendy Moncada reviews it for Reflejos.com

Perhaps only in the musings of an award-winning playwright like Quiara Alegria Hudes, is it possible to conjure up a tale that intertwines the tradition of Puerto Rican folkloric Jibaro music with an Iraq veteran filming a docudrama in Jordan, all the while the Egyptian revolution culminates in the background. Commissioned by the Joyce Award Foundation as a 2009 proposal winner, her latest play does just that – with the help of revered Chicago director, Edward Torres (Fish Men, Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Sins of Sor Juana, Oedipus El Rey).

“The Happiest Song Plays Last,” which premiered at the Goodman Theatre on April 20th, seamlessly weaves these eclectic story threads into a stage production with the potential of rousing modern audiences and mustering up a nostalgia for old-world culture, values and music. Then again, nothing less than the evocative can be expected from Hudes, also the woman behind the Tony Award-wining musical, “In The Heights,” and “Water by the Spoonful,” her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama and part of the Elliot trilogy of stand-alone plays that she concludes with “Happiest Song.”

The following is an excerpt from an interview with Hudes before the premiere.

The Elliot trilogy

“I wanted to deal with the issue that here we were sending a new generation of young people off to experience war and the ripple effects that might have. My cousin – his name is actually Elliot – I honor him by using his first name and change his last name. He got cast to go film a movie in Jordan – a docudrama – about a group of rogue marines in Iraq based on a real story in which a bunch of marines went crazy after an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded and killed one of their buddies, so there was a massacre in this town and a killing spree. My cousin got cast as an extra in that role. Really what they hired him to do was be a consultant on marine life. The lead actor got fired pretty soon after they started filming and the director decided that Elliot would be the better lead actor. He’s not trained as an actor, so he was kind of in a raw life experience. He was reliving his marine experience in a fictional setting. He told me that, and I said – I don’t know how I cannot write a play about that. That’s so crazy!”

The jibaro music

“Since about 1997, I had been trying to write about this particular folk music tradition in Puerto Rico called musica jibara. That’s what the Joyce proposal was about. I started writing that play and thought maybe Elliot was part of that – and started writing two parallel stories… I called a few quarto players in New York. And Nelson [Gonzalez] and I had lunch in a diner, and he just started telling stories. So he inspired me and got my brain running about some ideas in the play. When I did the first reading of the very early draft of the script I invited him and said, do you want to come and start to figure out how music might work in it? It’s not original material, it’s traditional so it can’t be part of my script – it will change from production to production. But it’s really special to have someone that steeped in the actual tradition involved in the premiere.”

The Philadelphia setting

“As I started writing and researching, there was a man named Joaquin Rivera in Philadelphia who played a lot of the folkloric music in the community. My family knew him well. He was also a guidance counselor. In North Philly – there is a Puerto Rican neighborhood there – he ended up having a very tragic and preventable death in an emergency room. It was a very big deal in Philly, and it was a gruesome and horrible story and I was of course very upset because he was a family friend. And then this play I was trying to write since 1997 – it was his story. And I didn’t really know it until it kind of happened. So the character of Agustin is inspired by Joaquin.”

The Puerto Rican and the Arab

“This is my first time writing character with a cultural background. So I had to do my homework and make sure that it didn’t feel like the Puerto Rican side of things was very rich and specific and the Arab side of things felt more generic. My own personal background is – I’m half Puerto Rican and half Jewish by blood. But I was raised by two Puerto Rican parents. Identity in terms of its technical definition has always been very fluid for me. I think feeling defined is one of the things that individuals struggle with. I don’t want my play to alienate but if there are moments that it feels like something is a warm embrace and feels a little more direct, that makes me really happy. I’m really looking forward to the time when my parents can see the play because some of the songs being used are really, really old and very unknown. They are old-school songs, and like you can’t get a recording of them anywhere. When some people come that know these songs from their lives, I think it’s gonna, I hope, it’s gonna just really touch an emotional core of them to hear those songs again.”

Show details

Play: “The Happiest Song Plays Last”

Theatre: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Street, Chicago

Dates: Runs through May 12, 2013

Tickets: $14-$45, call (312) 443-3800 or order online at goodmantheatre.org

Running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes

For the original report go to http://www.reflejos.com/en/stories/life/article/13-04-28/a_modern_play_with_a_traditional_feel-813060968.aspx

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