Art Imitates Life in Melinda Lopez’s New Play, Mala
Theater is all Lopez ever wanted to do—apart from medicine, but she didn’t have the stomach for it. She was born in Cali, Colombia. Her father was a mathematician and meteorologist who took a job at the MITRE Corporation and moved the family to Bedford when Lopez was three. Raised just a few miles from the birthplace of the American Revolution, Lopez had a diverse group of friends: One was Irish (“as in lace curtains and tea”) and another was the child of Hungarian refugees. She didn’t think about “difference.”
As a bilingual Cuban American who thinks in two languages, she didn’t realize she was a minority until she got to Dartmouth. “I began to experience something akin to culture shock of being very different,” she says. “The dominant mode of being was very white, very Republican, very conservative, very wealthy. I realized, ‘Oh, okay, that’s how I am seen here.’ That was new information. I reached the age of maturity and found out I was a minority in my own country.”
After college, she studied at Shakespeare & Company, in Lenox, and then acted in Boston, working day jobs. She also did industrial films in which she was often typecast as a maid or secretary. At auditions, she frequently ran into fellow Latino Diego Arciniegas, now an actor, director, and senior lecturer in theater studies at Wellesley College. “Whenever we would see each other at casting calls, we knew they were looking for Hispanic performers,” Arciniegas says. “We used to joke that I would be the gardener or the delivery man.”
They both eventually stopped attending those calls, but the sting remains. One director told Lopez he couldn’t cast her because of the color of her skin. “This was said out loud,” she remembers. “That was the ’90s, not that long ago. Even in the arts, there is a tendency to do what is easy.”
In 1994 she and her boyfriend, Matthew Siegal—now her husband and the chair of Conservation and Collections Management at the Museum of Fine Arts—moved to Minneapolis, a thriving theater town, especially for playwrights. Lopez found herself doing staged readings of new plays and wondered, Do I have a voice? Can I write? She started penning dialogue from family stories and wrote God Smells Like a Roast Pig on a Summer’s Day (now titled Midnight Sandwich/Medianoche), a semiautobiographical solo show about a Cuban-American woman with a fancy education. She also wrote The Order of Things, a play about a mathematician.
Upon returning to Boston in 1999, she landed a slot in a women’s theater festival produced by Underground Railway Theatre and CentaStage. Right place, right time. She won numerous accolades that year, including the Charlotte Woolard Award and a prestigious grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays.
Thus her second act was launched. She was invited to join Boston University’s graduate playwriting program and studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, an exacting teacher. She was a member of the first class of playwriting fellows at the Huntington Theatre Company, in 2003. That happened at a time when it had become de rigueur to produce plays by Latino writers. “I used to be a ‘female’ playwright, and now I’m a ‘Cuban-American’ playwright,’’ Lopez says, adding that she doesn’t mind the label but that it doesn’t limit her. “Right now the conversation is very much about authenticity. I don’t think my work has changed, but the way they present my work has.”
It’s not supposed to happen this way. Rarely does. But it happened to Lopez twice.
In 2004 she presented a reading at the Huntington of Sonia Flew, a play about the “Pedro Pan children” who were sent to the United States by their parents during the Cuban Revolution. Jaws dropped. It was that good. Huntington managing director Michael Maso told Lopez, ‘‘I think something just changed for you tonight.’’
The Huntington was set to open the brand-new Calderwood Pavilion in six months, and after the reading, then–artistic director Nicholas Martin changed course and decided to open with Lopez’s play. “This was rare,” Maso says. “Normally, a new play takes years of development. But it was new. It was timely. It was moving. And it was local.” The production won numerous awards, including the Elliot Norton awards for best production and best new play.
Fast-forward. A little more than a year ago, Lopez presented a reading of Mala for colleagues at ArtsEmerson. Co-artistic directors David Dower and P. Carl decided on the spot to produce it as soon as possible. Again, this rarely happens.
Both Dower and Lopez credit the Huntington with being a leader in the transformation of the city’s theater scene. The theater began embracing local playwrights under the leadership of the late artistic director Martin, and it continues under current artistic director Peter DuBois. “They put the stake in the ground,” Lopez says.
The time was ripe for change. In 1999 Snodgrass and the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre launched the Boston Theater Marathon, a one-day festival of 10-minute plays by local writers. The Huntington fellowship program has nurtured such local writers as John Kuntz, Ronan Noone, and Kirsten Greenidge, among others, and many have seen their work performed on the Huntington’s stages. “There has been an attitude change,’’ Snodgrass says. Theaters are now more willing to collaborate and share. The focus is not exclusively on new work out of New York.
And Lopez has been at the center of it—and has inspired others. Huntington associate producer M. Bevin O’Gara was an intern at the theater during the reading of Sonia Flew. It changed her life. “It made so many things possible,” she says. “I knew there was a place in Boston for me if there was a place for her.”
Last March, Lopez took the day off to listen to Obama’s speech in Havana. She stopped short when the president mentioned her story. “I was sent into profound shock,’’ she says. “My heart was pounding. I couldn’t breathe.”
She wishes her parents could have heard the speech, but insists her narrative isn’t unique. It’s the story of all first-generation Americans who return and recognize their parents in the faces of those who remained behind. Yet Lopez is careful when she discusses race. The Latino population, she points out, is a diverse bunch. “We are not one race,’’ she says. “We are white. We are biracial. Some speak Spanish. Some don’t. There is a push to categorize, which I find myself pushing back against.”
The theater world has evolved since Lopez was first typecast as the maid or secretary—“People are more willing to talk about race,” she says—but it still has a way to go. “I worry that we are moving back to a conversation where we are limiting the choices that artists can make, rather than expanding them,” she says. “We still need to push producers to go outside of their comfort zone.”
Lopez’s parents were able to move to the Boston area and find a life here. She even married a guy from Bedford, which is the last thing she ever expected to do. Together, they watched both sets of their parents die in Bedford, and that memory fuels her latest work. At the end of a long interview in her home, she takes me around back to her parents’ apartment, behind the main house near her husband’s bountiful vegetable garden.
Lopez admits to a bit of paralysis. In the bedroom, she shows me two urns, the remains of her mother and father. She doesn’t know what to do with them. A relative, she says, suggested they spread the ashes in Cuba, but Lopez and her sister are adamant that is not the solution. Her parents, after all, embraced their new homeland. They assimilated. They raised a daughter who wrote a play about them. And she’s still pondering the future of those ashes. She wants to make the right choice. The playwright will figure it out. It’s another tale, waiting to be told.
Mala runs October 27 through November 20, 2016. During opening weekend, the city’s Chief of Arts and Culture Julie Burros will present Melinda Lopez with an official proclamation from Mayor Marty Walsh that Saturday, October 29, 2016, is “Melinda Lopez Day” in Boston.