APT’s Winter Words Series – Thoughts on ‘Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue’

Alison Graves, Contributor

Photo via American Players Theatre

In music, a fugue is a short melody or phrase which is introduced and then developed and interwoven throughout a composition. In psychiatry, it refers to a “fugue state”—a period of loss of awareness of one’s identity.

In Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue, it could be both. A drama written in 2006 by Quiara Alegría Hudes, APT’s reading was directed by Melisa Pereyra as the third in its series of four live-stream, one-night only Winter Words play readings, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue creates something new by melding both types of fugue. Lyrical, touching and without being political, it traces the legacy of war in a coming of-age story portrayed through three generations of a Puerto Rican family living in Philadelphia.

APT’s reading featured a stellar cast, with Donovan Diaz as Elliot Ortiz, a young marine in the Iraq War; Wendy Mateo as his mother Ginny, an Army Core Nurse veteran from the Vietnam War; Armando McClain as Elliot’s father, Pop, also a Vietnam War veteran; and Triney Sandoval as Grandpop, a Korean War veteran.

The play was a finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and is the first installment in a trilogy of plays by Hudes that follow Elliot’s return from Iraq. The second play, Water by the Spoonful, received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize and is followed by the trilogy’s final play, The Happiest Song Plays Last. Hudes body of work also includes the Tony-award winning musical, In the Heights.

Like a musical fugue, Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue weaves each character’s story throughout as they narrate each other’s actions and their own war experiences, telling of their literal and figurative battle scars. It also reflects on the second definition of fugue, as it explores the bubble of silence that often seems to envelop the stories of military veterans.

Through the course of the play, the legacy of war, post-traumatic stress, and the nature of military service are revealed. Each family member has their own stand-alone narrative, and they are also woven together, much like the garden Ginny plants and reflects upon in her beautiful monologue. Her garden has grown since Elliot left for Iraq. “Each seed,” she says, “is a contract with the future.” It is her expression of faith that “something better will happen tomorrow.”

Grandpop speaks of the flute he took to Korea, where he played Bach to soothe his fellow soldiers during breaks in the fighting. He discusses a musical form he compares to an argument: “The voice is the melody, the single solitary melodic line. The statement. Another voice creeps up on the first one. Voice two responds to voice one. They tangle together. They argue, they become messy.” How to sort the major and minor keys, “all at once on top of each other”? asks Grandpop.

He is speaking as much for the play as he is for himself and the intertwined strands of the family’s relationships, their military experiences and wartime remembrances when he explains, “It’s about untying the knot.”

The trauma expressed and untied by each character, and their wounds recounted—both physical and psychological—is transformative for the story tellers and for the listeners. The seeds are planted for the audience to take in and learn from.

The final reading of APT’s Winter Words series is sold out, but if you can, find a friend or family member in your COVID-pod who has Zoom access and watch Dontrell, Who Kissed the Sea by Nathan Alan Davis, directed by Ameenah Kaplan, on April 5.