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.”
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.
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