You stare at the camera, with your head cocked to the side, your hand launched toward the viewer. The posters for “Women of Yale Lectures” series from past years include headshots of speakers staring at the camera, exuding the kind of LinkedIn neutral, bland positive energy that’s deemed a requirement for “academic professionalism.” You break that pattern. You’re undeniably yourself on the poster for your own lecture, fittingly titled “Art and Disruption.” Hair gathered in a bun to the side, small boxing gloves with the Puerto Rican flag hanging from the sides of your face as if in earrings, the word “LOVE” written onto your knuckles. I both admire you and am intimidated by your expression as I walk into the O.C. Marsh Lecture Hall at Yale to see you speak.
Quiara Alegría Hudes, the type of love that I know from your playwriting is fiercely confident, resilient in its storytelling. It touches the lives of so many so deeply. In other words, it’s the type of love I myself want to elicit in my own writing, but struggle to create. Just like in your photograph, your love is a punch to the heart. I walk into your lecture almost like an apology; who am I to be in your presence?
Quiara, you’ve been someone who I’ve admired for years now. I’ve been hooked on your writing ever since I saw a Spanish language production of your musical “In the Heights” at D.C.’s GALA Hispanic Theatre, and was moved by your writing even in a language that I didn’t speak. I’ve been sharing your playwriting ever since, convincing my family to see your musical “Miss You Like Hell” with me in New York, discussing your play “Water by the Spoonful” in classes, texting your speech “High Tide of Heartbreak” to as many of my friends as I can.
But after making the solo journey from Middletown to New Haven to see you speak, I’m feeling more and more anxious to simply be around you. Maybe this is why they say, don’t meet your heroes. For me, it’s less about ruining the idea of a perfect person, and more about reckoning with the unbridgeable chasm between myself and someone I feel so close to. It’s as if you possess everything that I desperately wish I had: a spiritual toughness; a resilience against the toxic forces that surround you in the theater community; a commitment to be yourself within this bougie academic world; an ability to take up space without constant paranoia. When I do see you, you’re able to walk around the room like you own the place, greeting people and posing for photographs in kickass orange shoes. The president of Yale introduces you to the crowd, citing all of your accolades, upcoming projects, and accomplishments. I want to erase myself from the room, and yet you’re so full in it, staking a belonging I sometimes feel like I’ll never have.
But something happened at the beginning of your speech that makes me realize I shouldn’t be intimidated by you at all. You asked us all to come closer to you.
“If you want to come up so I can really connect with you, the closer the better,” you say. “Just to give the room our energy as a collective, to be energetic in the room together.” And then, you ask us to all scream, an exercise in group connectivity.
“I’m going to join you in the scream. It’s almost a strange sort of prayer, or something,” you say.
And on the count of three, I let myself scream along with everyone else in the room. In the scream, I let the anguish of my insecurities echo within the space, I let myself feel the frustration of not being confident in myself in the way that you are. But for the first time, my screams are not alone. They are joined by everyone, they are joined by you, and if I listen close enough I can hear a harmony in the discordant noise of chaos. I realized that you and I both want to create the same thing: a prayer of love. But the disruption of a scream, or a punch, wasn’t just a random medium onto which you chose to convey these creations. Maybe, a disruption was the only way you could share love at all.
You describe your speech “Art and Disruption” as a bedtime story, a childhood picture book, even an Aesop’s fable. Your words don’t prioritize forming an argument as much as they do the humanity of the people they’re describing, which is probably more convincing proof than any amount of footnoted research.
You tell the story of two lifetimes between “an ordinary guy and an ordinary girl.” The first story you tell is about how a young black boy grew up in West Philly, “young, carefree, going with the flow,” living between two sides of his family that were middle class and more urban. He was raised by a mother who cooked with love but would also “cuss you out in a heartbeat,” and as he grew even older, he was held at gunpoint for simply naming the neighborhood he was from to someone on the street. When he was a man, he took care of his mother despite the terror that comes with the loss of physical autonomy, repeating the mantra “I can do all things through Christ, for it is he who strengthens me” when he faced struggles.
The second story you tell is about how this man came into your life. After completing a journalism major, he became a custodian at Yale University, where he felt like he joined his fellow workers in becoming “the backbone” of the school, where he would check in with students and see them open up. This man worked at this job until 2016, when a black alumnus pointed out to him a part of the cafeteria in which he worked that he had never noticed, due to his poor eyesight: a stained glass window depicting enslaved people picking cotton, smiling and happy. He learned about this at a reunion event on Sunday, and the following Tuesday, he’d had enough. He could no longer take the eyes staring at his neck, the shackles dangling at the slave’s feet. He could no longer take the unnerving sense of dread, of realizing that things would never change unless he did something, anything. So right before his lunch break, he smashed the window panel, and was subsequently fired. All of this became the subject of continuous media coverage, social media frenzy, and sensationalized headlines. After an extensive court case, and protests by student groups and Black Lives Matter activists, this man was re-hired by the University, and all criminal charges against him were dropped. This man’s name was Corey Menafee. You watched his court case in person: you had become friends with him, and wanted to tell his story.
Quiara, I didn’t know about Corey’s story before you had made him the central subject of your speech. But frankly, nobody did with the level of lovely, empathic detail before your speech: he was condemned to be known only for one impulsive action, and not the millions of actions that had made up his life before that moment. It is a surreal experience to watch you humanize a person within the very institution in which he was vilified, to see you use the privilege and platform that Yale has given you to point out the University’s own flaws, oversights, and insidious racism. But the disruption you created was not out of bitterness or spite. And although anger is a part of your project—and an appropriate reaction to the events that occurred—to call your speech simply an outraged middle finger to academia would be so reductive.
What you’re doing is hitting us with love, making us feel it deep in our bones, forcing us to see Corey as anything other than the crude image we’ve been conditioned to understand: to break the stained glass windows in our own minds, and create an open space for him to enter. There’s a reason why so many of your plays climax with an act of storytelling; Olivia speaks on behalf of her potentially-deported mother’s tender parenting in “Miss You like Hell”; Elliot and Yaz eulogize their mother’s devotion, calling themselves “standing, walking testimony to a life.” The climaxes of your plays are not violent or brutal acts meant to break others. They are the images of people telling the stories of people they love, revealing the cracks of their own brokenness, which can’t help but reveal the deep fissures of the institutions on which they stand. I’m also reminded of another act of testifying: Dominique Morisseau’s play “Pipeline,” in which a black mother Nya begs a high school board not to incriminate her son after an act of violence he initiates out of response to the systemic racism he’s facing.
“We didn’t carve out enough space,” Nya states. “He doesn’t belong anywhere. There is no block. No school. No land he can travel without being under suspicion and doubt. No emotion he can carry without being silenced or disciplined. He needed more space to be.”
When Corey Menafee broke that stained glass window on that fateful day, he was creating more space to be; he was breaking a world that was already broken in the first place, he was pointing out the true absence of anywhere where he could belong. Quiara, what you did was to create space for him, too. Corey sat two rows in front of me in the audience, witnessing his life story unfold in front of the very institution that had broken him, that he had broken in return. And watching him stand next to you on that podium, I could feel all of the anxiety I had felt before your lecture begin to fade away, if not completely shatter. The toughness and resilience I felt radiating off of you weren’t created in spite of feelings of non-belonging, but because of them. And all of the times I’ve wanted to erase myself from spaces, whether in the theater world or in academia or in life, were really just opportunities to rewrite myself in. Like you, I can exist in the spaces in between, in the gaps burst open through devastation. Just as Olivia says in her testimony, “There is a hole in the world in the shape of us… there is a shape to us.” It’s only in looking at the negative spaces in which we don’t belong that we can finally see ourselves.
Quiara, you left Wesleyan just before I entered this campus as a freshman, and although you’re still technically listed in the theater department under affiliated faculty as a “visiting scholar in theater,” I can still feel your absence. Once my friends Alessandra and Emily graduate at the end of this semester, nobody on this campus will have been taught by you. On days when I’m feeling self-centered, I see us as ships passing in the night, just missing each other, longing for a connection with you that I know I’m not entitled to. But after seeing all of the creative projects you’re working on, and reading “High Tide of Heartbreak,” in which you so beautifully express the need to step back from too often humiliating theater industry, I’m so happy that you know when it’s time to remove yourself from a situation. To create an empty seat where you used to be, to not put too much of your heart on the line.
It’s a restraint I wish I had learned sooner. Engaging in Wesleyan’s theater department and student theater environment can feel like an act of continual self-doubt and frustration. Are my feelings of not-belonging real, or do I just need to try a little bit harder to get what I want? Am I not receiving institutional support for my interests, or have I just not reached out to enough people? Do I leave behind this place that sometimes makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, or should I be the change I want to see in the world? The insidiousness of oppression is its ability to cause you to constantly ask whether or not something is your fault. It’s a surreal, frustrating logic that renders the most vulnerable people as the aggressors, the ones who must be stopped: it’s the logic that twists Corey into an instigator instead of a reactor. I’m constantly in fear of “biting the hand that feeds me” when offering criticisms to the world that I’m engaging in. When I’ve told my stories to people, and opened up about the pain that I’ve felt on this campus, too often I am told that people feel hurt by my actions—that reading my story hurts them too much, as if I’m attacking them instead of revealing my own brokenness. People sense anger in my words, when I really mean love.
Perhaps, as you say at the end of your speech, my “truth may be a beautiful disruption.” My mere existence within certain spaces will disrupt the way in which people have constructed narratives around belonging; because we live in the gaps between, in the spaces behind the shattered windows, our presence will necessarily cause people to be uncomfortable. Our very reality, our own truths, will reveal too many cracks that people don’t want to see.
But I also know that you are a disruptor in my life, Quiara. The final story you tell in your speech is your own: how you survived a “mayhem epoch” that ravaged your community and family; how you witnessed art that responded to the world by breaking down and breaking up and breaking; how you discovered that art could testify to people’s brokenness. When I read your writing, when I witness you in person, when I realize that someone has been through all of this before, I know that I’m not alone. And suddenly, I don’t feel intimidation for you at all, and I’m just grateful. That someone could disrupt the false narratives of fear I have in my head; that I can witness living proof that when stories need to be told, they will. And the people that need to hear them will find them, somehow, somewhere.
Ever since hearing Corey’s story, I walk around the Center for the Arts on this campus, looking at the brutalist architecture. Unlike the stained glass of Yale’s cafeteria window, it feels heavy, obdurate, unbreakable: an immovable weight that will only drag me down. But then I remember that even these seemingly untouchable symbols of institution still find ways to break, if very very slowly: snow, ice, and water still find ways to seep into the buildings, slowly weaving pathways against the hard rock, wearing away drop by drop (or in your words, spoonful by spoonful). Maybe the creation of space doesn’t always happen as dramatically, or quickly, as Corey’s creation. But it still finds ways to happen: high tides of heartbreak crash upon these system’s shores, wearing away until change must take place, eventually. As Olivia sings in “Miss You Like Hell,” “there are canyons where the river runs and leaves its scar, and there you are.” It’s spaces like this, created through disruption, that will only become deeper and wider with time.
Nathan Pugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.