As a music professor, Yaz teaches her students about John Coltrane’s jazz, specifically his use of “dissonance”—the tension between two things that don’t fit together. Yaz explains that dissonance provides the most freedom to the notes, since they are no longer confined by what came before them, but dissonance also often descends into chaos. Yaz’s commentary on Coltrane’s use of dissonance directly parallels her own life, in which the upper-class academic lifestyle she has made for herself clashes with the poverty experienced by her Puerto Rican extended family, which she was born into. To solve the painful dissonance of her own life, Yaz decides to give up her own freedom and return to taking care of her Puerto Rican family. Through Yaz’s story, the play suggests that individual freedom may be less important than embracing one’s roots and fostering connections with other people.
Yaz leaves behind the the poverty of the barrio—her family’s Puerto Rican neighborhood—to find her freedom and attempt to establish a “normal” life and new identity for herself, illustrating the common desire to be free of one’s constraining circumstances and take on a new identity. Although everyone else in her family and in the barrio remains trapped by its poverty, violence, and hardships, Yaz receives a scholarship for her musical talent and is sent away to an all-white prep school. Looking back, Yaz recalls that being the only Puerto Rican in a rich white prep school made her feel confused about who she was, demonstrating the dissonance of being caught between two different environments and identities. While everyone in the barrio is still in poverty, Yaz goes on to become a recognized composer and a professor at an elite college. To cement her “normal” life and identity, she buys an expensive Steinway piano and marries William, a white man whose family “has Quaker Oats for DNA,” implying that they are both wholesome and bland. The contrast established between Yaz’s new life and the world she was raised in—the world her family still lives in—is stark and increases her feelings of personal dissonance; she herself seems to be made of two things thrust together that don’t quite fit.
The dissonance Yaz feels between her dual identities begins to cause her shame and anxiety, suggesting that although she has found freedom and established a new life, that freedom’s foundation in dissonance is causing it to descend into chaos and noise. Yaz’s family is proud of her success and appreciated her now ex-husband. However, Yaz suspects that her ex-husband secretly sees her Puerto Rican family as “freaks” because of their eccentric cultural traditions and hard lives, and Yaz wonders if she herself began to see her family the same way. Every time Yaz returns home to the barrio to visit family as an adult, her husband remarks that she comes back “different,” and she finds herself guiltily wishing that she could “scoop the [Puerto Rican] blood out [of her] veins.” This demonstrates not only Yaz’s dissonant identity conflict, but also that she wishes to end that dissonance. Although Elliot knows she was working on her career and building her own life, Yaz feels guilty for not having been involved in the barrio or in her family’s lives, for not having helped take care of Mami Ginny—who held the extended family together for decades—while she was dying or supported Elliot when he became addicted to pain killers. Although Yaz’s freedom allowed her to create her the life she wanted, free of her family’s problems and poverty, her guilt suggests that, in her mind, the tradeoff was not worth it.
Yaz ultimately gives up her individual freedom and chooses to embrace who she is and where she came from, suggesting that her freedom is less important than remembering her roots and taking care of the people that she loves. It seems that for Yaz, the freedom was not worth the dissonance. Rather than maintain her “successful” life, Yaz chooses to sell her Steinway piano and use the money to buy Mami Ginny’s broken-down house in the barrio and replace her as the new anchor who holds the family together. This choice again suggests that, although she has tasted the freedom and comfort of defining her own life, Yaz decides that the dissonance is not worth it and chooses instead to embrace who she is and take responsibility for her family. Since Odessa (Haikumom) is now in inpatient treatment for her drug overdose, Yaz even takes over moderating the addiction forum, even though she herself has no addiction history. In the same way that Yaz takes on the responsibility of holding the family together as Mami Ginny once did, Yaz also takes up the role of holding Odessa’s “family” together. This suggests that Yaz’s return to the barrio is more than simply going home; it is a new stage in her life defined by embracing her family’s work, however un-glamorous it may be. It is worth noting that Yaz’s decision to forsake her freedom and her material success in order to resolve the dissonance of her identity is not an absolute value statement—though she assumes that Elliot will go back to the barrio and live with her in Mami Ginny’s house, when he tells her that he is instead going to Hollywood to be an actor and find his freedom as well, she is supportive. However, Yaz pointedly tells Elliot that he will always have a home with her, just in case. Yaz’s response suggests that she understands the need to spread one’s wings and taste freedom. But if Elliot should make the same discovery that she did—that he belongs in the barrio taking care of his people—she will welcome him home.
Yaz’s decision to embrace her family and heritage, messy and poor as it may be, is not an absolute value statement on personal freedom or communal responsibility. It does suggest, however, that it is vital to remember one’s roots and be true to them, not ashamed of them.
Freedom, Identity, and Dissonance ThemeTracker
Freedom, Identity, and Dissonance Quotes in Water by the Spoonful
YAZ: You wanna be my witness?
ELLIOT: To What?
YAZ: My now-legal failure. I’m divorced.
ELLIOT: Yaz. I don’t want to hear that.
YAZ: You’ve been saying that for months and I’ve been keeping my mouth closed. I just need a John Hancock.
YAZ: […] The ugliness bore no promise of a happy ending. The ugliness became an end in itself. Coltrane democratized the notes. He said, they’re all equal. Freedom. It was called Free Jazz but freedom is a hard thing to express musically with spinning into noise.
ELLIOT: All those have carnations. I don’t want a carnation within a block of the church.
YAZ: You told me to eliminate seven. I eliminated seven. Close your eyes and point.
ELLIOT: Am I a particularly demanding person?
YAZ: Yes. What’s so wrong with a carnation?
ELLIOT: You know what a carnation says to the world? That they were out of roses at the 7-Eleven.
YAZ: […] You know, [William’s] been to four funerals in the Ortiz clan and I could feel it, there was a part of him, under it all, that was disgusted. The open casket. The prayers.
ELLIOT: It is disgusting.
YAZ: Sitting in the pew knowing what freaks we are.
ELLIOT: He’s good people.
YAZ: I was probably at his side doing the same thing, thinking I’m removed, that I’m somehow different.
YAZ: […] Look at that guy. Arranging his daisies like little treasures. What do you think it’s like to be him? To be normal?
ELLIOT: Normal? A hundred bucks says that dude has a closet full of animal porno at home.
YAZ: I bet in his family, funerals are rare occasions. I bet he’s never seen a cousin get arrested. Let alone one under the age of eighteen. I bet he never saw his eight-year-old cousin sipping rum through a twisty straw.
JOHN: I lied in my first post. I’ve been smoking crack for two years. I’ve tried quitting hundreds of times. Day two? Please, I’m in the seven-hundredth day of hell.
ODESSA: You got it out of your system. Most people lie at one time or another on the site. The good news is, two years in, there’s still time.
ELLIOT: Titi, Odessa fucking OD’d and she’s dying on her living room floor and I can’t take this anymore! COME GET US before I walk off and leave her on the sofa.
YAZ: If you need to, go. No guilt. I got this.
ELLIOT: She’s my mom. Can I be angry? Can you let me be angry?
YAZ: […] I wrote a list [of achievements] on a piece of paper and dug a hole in Fairmount Park and put it in the ground and said, “When I turn thirty, I’ll dig it up and cross it all off.” And I promise you I’ll never have the courage to go to that spot with a shovel and face my list full of crumbs, decoys, and bandaids.
ELLIOT: I wanted Mami Odessa to relapse, Yaz. I wanted her to pick up that needle. I knew precisely what to do, what buttons to push, I engineered that shit, I might as well have pushed the thing into her vein. Because I thought, Why would God take the good one? Yo, take the bad mom instead! I was like, Why wouldn’t you take the bad fucking mom? If I stay in Philly, I’m gonna turn into it. I’m gonna become one of them. I’m already hallway there. You’ve got armor, you’ve got ideas, but I don’t.
YAZ: Go. Go and don’t you ever, ever look back.