Art Imitates Life in Melinda Lopez’s New Play, Mala
Playwright Melinda Lopez is sifting through a pile of old photographs stacked on the kitchen table in the stately Bedford home she shares with her husband, their 16-year-old daughter, Madeleine, a yellow Lab named Lewis, and two territorial cats. The dog sleeps at her feet as she points to a particular picture. “That’s Juanita Miranda,” she says. “My mother’s friend.” She holds the photo in her hand, cradling it gently, as if to preserve more than the image.
In 2011 Lopez went to Cuba, her parents’ homeland, on a humanitarian mission with the Friends of Caritas Cubana, a Cambridge-based nonprofit. While there, she took a taxi to her parents’ old neighborhood.
On a whim, she approached an elderly woman and asked about her family. That woman was Miranda, who had grown up with Lopez’s mother and had saved dozens of photos. “You make a connection, a bond that is instantaneous and permanent,” says the playwright, who has been back to the island twice, once with her daughter.
She then holds up a sepia photo of her parents, Manuel Lopez and Panchita Isidro. They left Cuba in 1959 after Fidel Castro took over—and never returned. But for Lopez, who grew up in Bedford studying the American Revolution in school and hearing about the Cuban Revolution at home, the trip to the island was a long-awaited homecoming. The story of that chance encounter received a shout-out from President Barack Obama in March during his historic speech in Havana. For Lopez, it speaks to who she is, where she came from, and where she’s headed. Her father passed away in 2014 and her mother died a year later. They remain on her mind, especially now as she is about to debut her new solo show, Mala, a bracingly funny and unsentimental account of caring for her parents during their final years.
The play makes its world premiere at ArtsEmerson this month, and it represents a daring departure for Lopez, who began her career as an actress and has since become an award-winning playwright whose works have been performed in regional theaters here and nationwide (Lopez is the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at the Huntington Theatre Company). Her work is eclectic: Some plays focus on her Cuban-American heritage, but she’s also written about subjects ranging from music to mathematics, evolution to revolution. “Every work of art is about ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘What do we do?’” Lopez says. A common theme is about losing one’s home, and several plays attempt to strip away the stereotype of the Cuban-American woman. Her work is laced with humor while aiming to reveal universalities. It’s truthful, with an edge.
Lopez’s emergence as a playwright over the past 18 years has mirrored a broader transformation in Boston’s theater community. When she started out, ArtsEmerson didn’t exist and the Huntington didn’t hire local actors, much less produce local plays. In the 1990s, it was rare for a local playwright to receive a production here—and if one did, it was often in a small, dusty theater, seen by family and friends. Today, the city boasts new performance spaces, more midsize theater companies doing original productions, and more opportunities for kids starting out.
If Mala is successful, it will mean another step forward for Lopez and, by extension, the local theater scene. While ArtsEmerson is focused on the play’s Boston run, it’s building the show to be a touring production. Lopez, whose work has been produced in cities such as Miami, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, has never had a commercial production in New York. This play could speak to the national theater’s core audience—baby boomers with aging parents and senior citizens who know that death is the coming attraction. For all involved, it’s new territory, a leap of faith. And it can be terrifying.
Lopez has mined her family for stories before, but this new play cuts close to the bone—and the umbilical cord. It unfolds during the long and painful period when her mother’s health deteriorated and she refused treatment. Her official cause of death was metastatic breast cancer, but “she was just done,” Lopez says. “They don’t have an option for that as cause of death, though.” The play unveils crisis after crisis and exposes the ambiguous feelings that arise while caring for a strong-willed and recalcitrant parent. “It’s a crafted monologue about the challenge of wanting to be good and wanting to be everything for the people who love you—and how you don’t always succeed,” Lopez says.
In a field in which certain luminaries are given to temper tantrums and megalomania, Lopez’s colleagues will tell you she is the ultimate collaborator—intelligent, generous, open, and kind. At home, she exudes a lack of pretension: Barefoot, hair in two braids, makeup-free, and dressed in colorful leggings and a tunic top, she looks more like an earth mother than a theater diva.
But this play leaves her emotionally naked. It unfolds during that unforgettable winter of 2015, when the city was buried under 9 feet of snow—the “Cut That Shit Out” winter, as Lopez describes it. The play resurrects endless phone calls to 911 and trips hurtling home down the highway. It recalls arguments about going to the hospital and Lopez’s resentment of her scientist sister, who showed up for an hour a week while Lopez did the primary caregiving, 24/7. In the play she’s painfully honest about her sister, who doesn’t contest her account. “It’s all true,” Mary Lopez says. “Melinda was on the front lines, and she really did the bulk of the daily interaction with my mom. It was extremely difficult for her.”
Lopez struggled to be the “good sister.” (In Spanish, the word mala means “bad.”) She didn’t write during that period, but she took notes on her iPhone. After her mother died, she rediscovered her jottings with some degree of surprise, including such lines as “She won’t rest until I am dead” and “When did my heart get so small?”
This is dark, personal stuff, the memories that can keep you awake at night. And it’s not easy to reveal. “It must be terrifying,’’ says Kate Snodgrass, a longtime colleague of Lopez’s and the artistic director of the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre. “She has family that is alive and well who are going to see this play.”
At 52, Lopez finds herself at another milestone in a career that has been marked by them. In 1988, two years after graduating from Dartmouth College, she landed the plum role of Viola in the Counterpoint Theater Company’s production of Twelfth Night. The theater, though, was in the musty basement of the Immaculate Conception Church in the South End. The theater itself was not exactly state of the art—or spic-and-span—so Lopez cleaned the bathrooms herself. “That is what you do when you are 24,” she says. “You clean the toilets.”