When Quiara Alegria Hudes received the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year, she joined a small group of playwrights whose work had claimed the prize before New York critics had a chance to pass judgment. Once upon a time, such a thing was unheard of. A New York production was required for a play to be considered “real.” But “Water by the Spoonful,” the second work in an ambitious trilogy by Hudes, joins a small group of other dramas that didn’t need a Big Apple stamp of approval to win the country’s most prestigious literary award. Among them are Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” (2012), Nilo Cruz’s “Anna of the Tropics” (2003) and Robert Schenkkan’s epic-length “The Kentucky Cycle.” (1992). Hudes, a native of Philadelphia and the daughter of a Jewish father and Puerto Rican mother, became the second Hispanic playwright to win the prize (Cruz, a Cuban-American, was the first). “Spoonful,” which premiered at Hartford Stage before opening in New York, depicts a Puerto Rican-American veteran named Elliot Ortiz who is home from Iraq and coming to terms with the impending death of the aunt who raised him. Elliot also is reconnecting with his young cousin and his birth mother. This world Hudes integrates into another: An online chat room for recovering crack addicts, where an ethnically diverse group of reformed drug abusers — a Caucasian, an African-American, a Japanese-American — seek mutual support.
A production at the Unicorn Theatre, directed by Mark Robbins, opened Saturday night. The first play in the trilogy, “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue,” was a 2007 Pulitzer finalist. The third piece, “The Happiest Song Plays Last,” just opened at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
The Unicorn production is unusual, although it shouldn’t be. A work by a Latina playwright with roles for Hispanic actors might not be unusual in New York or Los Angeles. Out here in the Grain Belt, it is. “It has that magical quality,” said Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn’s producing artistic director. “The writing is incredible. It’s not particularly realistic in the way it tells its story. And it’s about a culture and subculture that’s not really well known to most of us in white, middle-class America. It was a fascinating play about addiction, and addiction to anything makes a pretty good story.”
Levin said she’s sometimes told that there’s no way she could find a cast for a play like “Spoonful,” which requires a range of ethnic performers. She has never been swayed by the argument. “It was like, ‘Screw it, I can cast it,’ ” she said. “You can find people. Just because they don’t show up on the radar doesn’t mean our community isn’t full of diverse actors.”
Keenan Ramos, who often performs at the Unicorn, plays Elliot. He said he was excited and humbled when he took a call from Levin in Salina, Kan., where he lives and teaches school. “It’s a testament to Cynthia Levin,” Ramos said. “She tries to show audiences the true American experience. Not enough people are doing plays with African-American voices or Asian-American voices or Hispanic voices. But I try not to think of it as a play with a Hispanic voice. This is a great American play. Elliot isn’t a Hispanic soldier, he’s an American soldier.”
Ramos said he identifies as African-American, although his surname comes from Portuguese grandparents. Playing a Puerto Rican-American is a first, and he said he’d never played a role remotely similar to Elliot. “Never, never, never,” he said. “I’ve never had a character so well-written. Thank God we have an actor directing us to point us in the right direction and understand all the subtext. I’ve never worked on anything like this conceptually or characterwise.”
Alisha Espinosa, a second-year graduate student in UMKC’s actor training program, plays Yazmin, Elliot’s young cousin. She said the role is special to her for a very basic reason: Espinosa, who is Puerto Rican, has never before played a Puerto Rican. She said the play echoes the magic realism tradition in Latin American literature, in which the “realistic” world is often viewed through a dreamlike lens. “I fell in love with this play because it’s so poetic,” said Espinosa, a native of Pennsylvania. “Reality is bigger, it’s magical, it’s more ethnic. It’s not just a simple, living room drama. It takes on a life of it’s own.”
Making her Unicorn debut is Dawnnie Mercado, who described herself as a third-generation Mexican-American who grew up in Los Angeles. She plays Odessa, who runs the recovery chat room. “I would say that if you take the things I’ve done on TV and the things I’ve done in theater, in 50 percent of (the work) I was Hispanic or Latina with or without an accent,” Mercado said. “But only four of those can I say was based on a real Hispanic story. So this is only the fifth work of art in 20-plus years that I was playing a Latina character written by a male or female Hispanic writer.”
Mercado agreed with Espinosa that the play contains elements of magic realism. But, she said, magic realism isn’t merely a literary convention. It reflects how some Latin Americans actually see the world. “I think it’s totally appropriate because in this play there’s always a double life going on,” Mercado said. “There’s an online reality versus day-to-day reality.”
The cast includes Walter Coppage, a well-known Kansas City actor; Darren Kennedy, who is familiar to Unicorn audiences; Erika Crane Ricketts, recently seen in “M. Butterfly” at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre; and Bryan Moses, associate artistic director of the Living Room.
Robbins, a veteran actor and accomplished director, said he can’t concern himself too much with the play’s ethnic diversity. His job is to focus on the specific characters and the technical challenges of a play that shifts locations frequently. “I bring absolutely no ethnic background to the table,” Robbins said. “I cannot really concern myself with that. I just try to let the tensions and problems be as clear as possible and let the people work it out. The idea of feeling ‘other’ in a society is pretty universal and that can be the result of number of things, heritage being only one of the reasons. I just try to find the truths, the human truths.”
Several years ago at the Unicorn, Robbins directed “Top Dog/Underdog” by Suzan Lori-Parks about two African-American brothers written in a style that was often surrealistic. Again, he said his challenge in that case was to focus on the specifics of the play.
Robbins said he’d found himself thinking about “Top Dog/Underdog” while working on “Water by the Spoonful.” But he said Hudes’ play brings to mind a distinctly non-Hispanic dramatic tradition. “It reminds me of Irish plays, oddly enough, in that the voice of the playwright is really strong and in this play particularly,” he said. “Everybody tends to be equal in terms of intelligence and eloquence and the ability to speak in poetic terms. It’s kind of cool. I think this play has every bit as much poetry and lyricism as the best Irish dramas.”
“Water by the Spoonful” runs through May 18 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. For more information, call 816-531-7529 or go to UnicornTheatre.org.