Off-Script: ‘Water By the Spoonful’ shows that art can be the best tool for expression

Isabella Soto, Assistant Opinion Editor

Art has the distinct capability of conveying and communicating emotions that we struggle to put into words. When words fail, there always seems to be a song, a movie, a painting or a photograph that manages to say infinitely more than words can capture. I understood, in theory, the power of theater to engage audiences and provide a unique emotional experience. But, Quiara Alegria Hudes’ play, “Water By the Spoonful,” which will be performed this coming weekend in McCormick Auditorium and which I was lucky enough to be the dramaturg for, still completely transformed my perceptions of theater and its power to translate these experiences.

The story is centered around Odessa, who runs a chatroom for those addicted to crack cocaine. And a majority of the play’s scenes take place in this online sphere where the struggles of drug addiction are segmented through the lives of those in the chatroom. The play also focuses on Yaz, a Puerto Rican adjunct music professor and Elliot, a disabled Puerto Rican war veteran, and their relationship to their mother, Odessa. The story touches deeply on the issues of drug addiction, loss and trauma and how interpersonal relationships complicate these things. While it is not new to explore these topics in art, it’s still profoundly impactful to think of how art is capable of translating these visceral struggles to audiences.

Elliot’s character suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which manifests itself through haunting memories of his first kill while serving in the Iraq War. Elliot, however, refuses to seek out psychiatric help out of sheer pride and this prideful attitude can be attributed to the exaggerated, toxic male cultural identity that is prevalent within Latinx communities. This emphasis on machismo is a defense mechanism against vulnerability (and by extension femininity). The aggression, emotional repression and isolation that define machismo are only compounded when in tandem with trauma such as the PTSD Elliot is faced with. The way this form of toxic masculinity is presented in the play should make us reflect on its role in our communities on campus and in our lives, especially given the recent increase in discussions on the environment that fraternities create and the culture and actions that arise from it.

The play also makes reference to music, specifically the music of John Coltrane. The main point the show makes with Coltrane’s music is centered around dissonance, or the music term for a lack of harmony among music notes. Dissonance is mostly discussed in the scenes where Yaz is teaching about free jazz, but it’s especially valuable to examine the concept of dissonance in terms of the lives of the characters. In the play, Yaz says, “Dissonance is still a gateway to resolution.” While the line relates to music theory that she’s discussing with her students, it doubles as a way to think about the relationships between those in the play.

There’s the dissonance between Elliot’s knowledge and recognition of his PTSD with the idea that if he goes and seeks out help he is somehow weaker for it. There’s the dissonance between the characters in the real world and how they portray themselves online, as well as the dissonance between them wanting to use drugs but knowing it’s inherently harmful.

This dissonance also plays into our lives as college students. Too often we project a certain version of ourselves on social media, often in an attempt to make our lives look different than how they really are. We also tend to make decisions that we know are either unhealthy or unsound. The fact that the play lays its issues bare rather than depicting them symbolically is refreshing.

Telling the story of these struggles through art and providing a space where the audience can physically see and feel these issues makes them all the more powerful and visceral. It allows us to more thoughtfully engage with the implications of these often-painful experiences, albeit in a beautiful way.

Isabella Soto is a Medill sophomore. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.