The American family drama, says Quiara Alegría Hudes, is undergoing a sea change: The genre is finally beginning to reflect the diversity of actual American families.
“It’s a fun time to be writing my version of the living-room play,” says the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. “I feel very passionately that the American family is much more diverse than our storytelling often lets on.”
This is particularly true for extended families, for “the people who are not blood relatives,” Hudes adds. “I know for me, when I’m at my Thanksgiving table, I have cousins below the poverty line and an aunt who is a city councilwoman, and we’re all breaking bread together.” America has long since abandoned the white picket fence ideals of the 1950s; family these days transcends class, race, or anything as limiting as blood relations.
“Daphne’s Dive,” Hudes’ new play receiving its New York City premiere at Signature Theatre in a stirring production directed by Thomas Kail, reflects that diversity. The inhabitants of its titular watering hole squabble, poke fun, keep secrets, and celebrate their shared history as they age and evolve throughout the years. In other words, they behave like any family.
Hudes was inspired by her stepfather’s bar in Philadelphia growing up. “I would do homework there,” she remembers. “They could rig the pool table and they had a bowling alley.” The playwright also plumbed her past to create the eclectic regulars welcomed by Daphne (Vanessa Aspillaga), particularly the “activist artists who were part of the community and my life growing up that fascinated me.”
In addition to changing the living-room drama to a barroom drama, Hudes set out to create a memory play of sorts. “It’s a world created out of very specific details,” she says. The bar, given a believable shabbiness at the Signature by scenic designer Donyale Werle, is full of the kinds of items that only have meaning for Daphne, her adopted daughter Ruby (Samira Wiley), and the other members of their family’s “home.” For the audience, an aloe plant and a sneaker nailed to the bar only hint at a distinct life, fully inhabited; for the characters, the objects are routine, almost taken for granted.
“Part of this experiment that I’m doing with time and memory is, when you’re surrounded by all this information like we are in our lives, it’s so easy to forget the life that lives in each little object, the significance of the things we get used to every day,” Hudes explains. “Our lives can become so much about this process of becoming automatic. You leave the house and you forget: ‘Did I remember to lock the door?’ ” Both structurally and from a design perspective, she says, “Daphne’s Dive” is about the process of “remembering, of stopping the automatic, of being surprised by the things that are right there in front of you.”
Said aloe plant and sneaker, for example, turn out to hold an extraordinary amount of life; in the final scene both the audience and the characters are made aware of their symbolic power. As in any good living-room play, Hudes uses such details to invite us to compare our families to the one onstage.
When asked about her advice for writers just starting out, Hudes says, “there’s no magic door to walk through, no magic button.” Most playwrights work on their plays every day without fail. “They are constantly working on their muscles,” she says, “and it is a muscle and it does get stronger. You could have the best doors in the world open to you, but if you don’t have a new script to hand them, there’s no point. You have to do the work, keep writing, keep writing. And of course, find your fellow travelers—the people of your age and experience who you will learn and grow with so that you can make the work together.”
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