A few words about the other Philadelphia Pulitzer

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The Inquirer’s Public Service Pulitzer for the Assault on Learning series is welcome and well-deserved.The series is an example of dogged, compelling multimedia reporting on a terrible problem that plagues not just Philadelphia, but many places across the country. The winners are all my friends and valued colleagues.

The award is especially welcome given the travails that the Inquirer, my former employer of nearly three decades, has been through during the last few years. The staff produced such high-quality, high-impact journalism while enduring crippling cutbacks. It is more unthinkable now than ever that this storied newspaper would fall by the wayside, which has seemed not so far-fetched in recent months.

But that is not why I am writing this. There is another Philadelphia-related Pulitzer story that has gotten much less attention in all the excitement.

Quiara Alegría Hudes, who is just 34 years old, won the Pulitzer for drama for her play Water by the Spoonful, about an Iraq war veteran from North Philadelphia who returns home and tries to cope. He had entered the service in part to avoid pervasive violence in his neighborhood. His mother runs an Internet chat room for recovering addicts. The play, filled with characters from all over the world he meets online, ultimately celebrates reconciliation and redemption.

Hudes, half Puerto Rican and half Jewish, graduated from Philadelphia public schools. And her interest in playwriting was sparked by a program called Philadelphia Young Playwrights.

In this program, professional playwrights join teachers in the classroom to help students develop their ideas and create a finished product. The best are then staged with professional actors during an annual festival. During her senior year at Central High, Hudes was a first-place winner.

Dare I make the connection: Hudes became involved in an arts program in a city school that allowed her to find her talent and go on to achieve stunning success. I wrote a lot about Young Playwrights over the years and got to know a few of the winners. Teachers in this program will tell you that the plays that students produced in some of the District’s most troubled schools were searing, cathartic, sometimes brilliant, and that many of the best pieces of work, especially in the early years, were not from Central and Masterman.

Almost always, students wrote about their lives, struggles, the kinds of things that the Inquirer series laid out in such heartbreaking detail – young people trying to avoid violence in their own lives or, worse, getting caught up in it. They wrote about the family and neighborhood conditions that often led to violence becoming a way of life.

Violence was very real for them – not long after a visit for my reporting, one of the students in the class, in the wrong place at the wrong time, was shot to death on a nearby corner.

But one thing that was unmistakable to me is that the young writers, and not just those whose plays received recognition, felt valued in ways they hadn’t felt before. Nobody had really ever asked them to explain themselves through drama. Nobody had told them their own lives, troubled as they were, deserved such attention.

Once, fully 12 years after I had spent two days in a Gratz High School classroom for an article about the program, a young man sitting across from me in a rehab facility (I had broken my wrist) called me by name. He recognized me after all that time. “You wrote a story about me,” he said. His name is Malcolm Hill. I had quoted a line of dialogue from his play in my article. He never forgot it.

More recently, Young Playwrights teamed with several local theater companies to help students at South Philadelphia High School write and produce a dramatic work about the ethnically charged violence there in December 2009, the horrific incident that was the catalyst for the Inquirer series.

As Hudes and her family have pointed out, playwrights have to be attentive. They have to be observant. They have to ask questions. They have to listen. And to create great characters, they have to make a strong effort to understand other people.

Of course, the expansion of such programs as Young Playwrights – or better, the integration of playwriting and other forms of student-driven self-expression into the regular curriculum – won’t solve the violence problems in Philadelphia schools.

But it could help.