115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“You Can’t Do It Alone”: Performing Kinship in Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful

David Gardner, Phillips Academy

This paper uses a queer theoretical framework to examine the ways Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Water by the Spoonful, offers up new understandings of community, connection, and kinship that both critique and transcend mainstream family structures.


Water by the Spoonful is a tale of two mothers. One mother, named Odessa, manages an online chatroom for people recovering from drug addiction. The audience eventually discovers that she is the birth mother of Elliot Ruiz, a Puerto Rican soldier who has recently returned to Philadelphia from combat in Iraq. The other mother, named Ginny, raised Elliot after his birth mother was no longer able to care for him, but toward the beginning of the play she dies suddenly. The play follows and explores Elliot’s relationship with these two mothers as he searches for a sense of belonging after his traumatic experience in Iraq. Parallel to his search we also see Odessa’s search for kinship in her online chatroom. In my essay I argue that a queer theoretical framework allows us to examine the ways the play offers up new understandings of community, connection, and kinship that both critique and transcend mainstream family structures.


In her essay, “Queer Belongings: Kinship Theory and Queer Theory,” Elizabeth Freeman asks what kinship theory might have to offer queer theory, and vice versa. She writes that kinship theory “is the body of knowledge emerging from attempts to abstract the governing principles of relationality…from the practices of intimacy observed in a given culture,” which can be understood as “a ‘regime of alliance,’ or system of matrimony and generationality regulated by law” (295). Central to the field of kinship theory is a notion of dependence and caretaking. This regime of alliance has historically been opposed to a Foucauldian “regime of sexuality,” which “describes the mobile techniques of power…that organize the meaning of bodily sensations” (295). After tracing the genealogies of both kinship and queer theory (about which I’ll say more in the full paper), she finds their mutual relevance in their relationships to the body—and in particular in the ways groups transmit cultural practices and codes of conduct through shared, enacted performances. Freeman draws on Pierre Bordieu’s concept of habitus as “the way that bodies become similar and hence attuned to one another outside of a theory or even of language itself” (305). In other words, by enacting this “learned bodily disposition, stance, or schema,” bodies not only demonstrate their kinship but also—in a move that Freeman likens to Butler’s work on performativity—call into being the very kinship that they purport to indicate. 


With this framework in mind I turn to the ways Water by the Spoonful shows relationships that are intimate, that hinge on the characters’ dependence on one another, and that exceed mainstream understandings of kinship as bound up with marriage, procreation, and descent. Four characters of different ages, races, and locations come together in the online chatroom that Odessa (screen name: “HaikuMom”) has created for those struggling with drug addiction. Not only do the characters depend upon one another as they unlearn their “bodily dispositions” of drug use, but they also transmit new bodily schemas—logging on, getting hobbies, speaking with family, not using, etc—that not only help them in their recovery efforts but also draw them closer as a chatroom cohort. We see the sturdy but shifting boundary of this particular kinship group when a newcomer tries to join the chatroom community. He is not a member by virture of being a drug addict but must perform kinship both verbally (“I’m a fucking crackhead”) and kinetically, as when—in the final scene of the play—this character goes in real life to Odessa (who has used for the first time in six years) and bathes her. By performing this act of caretaking, this character practices kinship with “HaikuMom” that she, Odessa, had failed to enact with her biological child Elliot. 

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