'Barrio Grrrl!' playwright relishes chance to write for children


Playwright Quiara Alegria-Hudes (In the Heights) brings her latest work, Barrio Grrrl! to the Children's Theatre Company for a month-long run starting this week. (The production is part of a tour from the Kennedy Center, which produced the original show in 2009). Alegria-Hudes is thrilled to have more audiences see her musical (crafted with Bill Sherman) about 9-year-old Ana, her invisible sidekick Amazing Voice, and her super hero alter ego, Barrio Grrrl.

City Pages: Has the show changed much from its original inception?

Quiara Alegria-Hudes: The character of Barrio Grrrl has been developing in my mind since perhaps as far back as 1998. So flash forward to 2006, when I still felt my little-hero-that-could still hadn't found the perfect outlet. I decided to try writing her into a children's musical, hoping for a wider audience, and I found it. I enlisted Bill Sherman, who is the music director for Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and who I knew through working on In the Heights together. Working on Barrio Grrrl! was like stepping into a 3-D comic book and trying to make it as vivid as possible.

What were you able to take away from your experience working on In the Heights for this piece?

The work ethic of writing a musical, of working tirelessly to make every joke as vivid as possible, and to button every scene. So, In the Heights gave me a lot of lessons in craft. I think because In the Heights had gone so well, Bill and I felt a freedom to try new things. We just knew the more fun we had writing it, the more fun it would be onstage.

Was there a specific point of inspiration, or did this develop from several sources?

My sister Gabriela was the original inspiration. She's the "barrio" part of the character. She was such an urban kid growing up, whereas I was a total book worm. Her sneakers matched her ponytail holder and she had quite the "miss thang" attitude. She was a real underdog in many ways, though, and it was amazing watching her become tough, and watching her decide not to be a victim though people tried to put her in that seat. I'm the "grrrl" part of Barrio Grrrl. I was a gritty, hands-on activist type growing up. I loved to be involved in local causes and my community. I made the Central High AIDS Quilt. I started a self-published magazine for teenagers. I learned about advocacy from my mother, who worked for American Friends Service Community doing outreach to teens of color around the country.

And I love superheroes as a construct. So I made my own.

Music plays an important role here and also with In the Heights. What are the challenges of bringing music in the mix of the drama?

My first piano lesson was at age 5. My aunt Linda Hudes sat me down at her piano, put on a Champion Jack Dupree vinyl LP, and said, "Play along." I can still remember plunking at each key and desperately searching for the ones that "went" with the music. I'd remember them, and then I'd just play those keys and it sounded good. I went on to study classical piano, Latin jazz piano, and music composition at Yale. I didn't become a playwright until I was an adult. So music is a language I speak with joy and fluency.

Along those same lines, what are the challenges and rewards in writing for a youth or family audience?

I'll tell you the biggest reward: I get to bring my 4-year-old daughter Cecilia to performances with me and she thinks Barrio Grrrl! is the coolest thing in the world. Writing for youth is like saying, "Strip away all pretentiousness. Write from the heart, from the gut, and with energy. Use bold strokes. Paint with big colors." Honestly, I should try to remember that when I write "adult" pieces.

Barrio Grrrl runs Wednesday through March 27

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