…That’s the new genre that Pulitzer-winning playwright Qiara Alegría Hudes has perfected in “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” the final installment of her trilogy about her Iraq vet cousin Elliot and his ongoing internet-enabled ties with his Puerto Rican family back in the mean streets of North Philadelphia.
The plays are soap operas in that, with short, heart-tugging scenes, they get us emotionally invested in a set of core personalities. Hudes then evolves her characters through a series of melodramatic changes of circumstance. In this trilogy, the protagonists are Elliot (played in the 2015 Oregon Shakespeare Festival [OSF] production by Daniel Duque-Estrada) and his cousin Yaz (Nancy Rodriguez). He’s ghetto cannon fodder who enlists as a Marine. After Iraq, he works through his PTSD to become a minor movie star. As for Yaz, she’s a college musicology professor who tosses her academic career and returns to North Philly to take up her late aunt’s role as neighborhood den-mother.
Improbable as these trajectories may seem, they’re actually based (loosely) on the biographic facts of Hudes’ own family — the “reality” aspect of her soapy new genre, which gives her trilogy a gravitas unknown to daytime TV. There really is a Cousin Elliot who, after his traumatic Iraq deployment, actually did land a role in a celebrated 2008 docu-drama about the war’s “collateral damage.” And Yaz may be seen as a composite of the author herself along with another young cousin. Hudes trained academically as a musicologist, but opted instead for a career of community advocacy drama. And her other cousin, at considerable personal cost, stepped into a deceased relative’s roles as a local North Philadelphia matriarch.
Neighborhood matriarchy, it seems, entails a lot of cooking, as represented by a floor-to-ceiling wall of crockery in the kitchen corner of designer Sybil Wickersheimer’s ingeniously flexible theater-in-the-round stage set. Yaz caters block party fiestas. She keeps an open kitchen door to feed all comers, including homeless drifter Lucky (Bruce Young), a child-like giant. She also harangues protest rallies, preaches eloquent sermons, eulogies the deceased, condoles the aggrieved, navigates bureaucracy and generally does the needful for her protégés.
Which is how she winds up bailing Agustín (Armando Durán), the barrio‘s poet/musician/community activist, out of the local precinct drunk tank. But his needs don’t end there. Ailing and aging and childless, he longs to leave a genetic heir before he dies; would Yaz be so kind as to bear him one? Outlandish as it seems — he’s a twice her age and married — Yaz buys into the proposition with almost girlish zeal. She admits her dalliance only to her astonished cousin, via Skype chats between Philadelphia and Jordan, where Elliot is filming on location.
Elliot has grown a lot since we first met him as a fresh-out-of-high-school recruit who, in his rookie panic, shot an Iraqi civilian point-blank at a routine passport check. He’s been carrying the dead man’s passport ever since and is haunted — literally — by the memory. Barzin Akhavan played Elliot’s personal ghost in last year’s OSF production of Part Two of the trilogy. Akhavan reappears this year as Ali, the Arabic interpreter for Elliot’s Jordanian film shoot. Physical resemblance aside, the voluble, affable interpreter couldn’t be more unlike the chilling, silent specter of those PTSD flashbacks. Ali’s proffered friendship presents Elliot a chance to reset his tortured relationship with Arab peoples and cultures.
So does Elliot’s flourishing liaison with his Arab-American movie co-star, Shar (Tala Ashe), a privileged, conservatory-trained actress. Their romance is sealed on a side-trip to Cairo at the height of the 2012 Tahrir Square uprisings; by the time Elliot brings her home to North Philly to meet Yaz, Shar is already a cousin-in-law and well into her second trimester of pregnancy.
No pregnancy for Yaz, sadly, though not for lack of trying. And, by the latter half of the play, it’s already too late: Agustín has since died, unattended, in the ER waiting room of a ghetto hospital. In grief and anger, Yaz shuts down her community kitchen and closes her wide-open door. But, through dreams and music and reminiscence, the spirit of Agustín coaxes her to reconcile with the neighborhood and its characters, starting with Lucky.
Elliot, for his part, tries to reconcile with own his past by restoring the confiscated passport to the dead man’s family in Iraq. After a stinging rebuff, the damning document comes back to him, along with curses from the alienated Ali. So Elliot’s left on his own to prayerfully bury the passport in Yaz’s garden in hopes of averting the ongoing cycle of trauma from his unborn child and future generations.
And you walk out of the black-box theater half-believing, against all reason, in the power of such prayer. Not that it jibes much with the logic of recent history, but because by now we have become so sentimentally engaged with all of these characters. Much of this owes to director Shishir Kurup’s brilliant casting — all six performances are impeccably humane and they interact with a wholly convincing chemistry. Then, too, there’s the fast-paced intercutting of the two disparate story lines, as enabled by Wickersheimer’s open-plan stage layout and lighting designer Geoff Korf’s ingenious use of onstage cameras and overhead feedback screens for the Skype sequences.
Music is another emollient. Agustín is a balladeer in Puerto Rico’s characteristic jibaro style and a virtuoso on the cuatro, a lute-like Caribbean instrument. Hudes — ever the musicologist — and her composer/sound designer, John Nobori, lay down an almost continuous onstage jibaro background to carry the production from one mood to the next. Durán, as Agustín, does much of his own singing (very creditably, too). But he’s also shadowed by an onstage musical alter ego, Joe Cruz, whose cuatro artistry brings out the full evocative potential of the Puerto Rican ballads.
As with any truly classy soap opera, it hurts to let go of these characters after the final episode. But OSF habitués can console themselves that the Festival has commissioned a new, original Hudes script as part of its “American Revolutions” series, to premiere in an upcoming Ashland season.