Ten years after Boston playwright Melinda Lopez’s breakout hit Sonia Flew premiered at the Huntington, her newest work Becoming Cuba takes us back to the mercurial and volatile past of the island. An epic and passionate family story, Becoming Cuba zeroes in on the year 1897, late in the series of brutal and bloody civil wars that presaged the Spanish-American War.
The child of two Cuban nationals, Lopez can trace the path of the Cuban wars for liberation through her family tree, and the spark for this play is born out of an ancestral myth. “There is a legend in my family about my great-grandmother, who lived through the Cuban War of Independence,” Lopez says. “When she was 16, the Spanish came to take over her farm and sent her family to internment camps. My great-grandmother refused to go. She took her pet pig under her arms and walked up into the mountains to join the rebels. The play that I eventually wrote is not her story, but it’s certainly infused with her indomitable spirit.”
As Lopez began the play, she envisioned a widow, Adela, “whip smart, very Spanish, and formal.” Born on the island, Adela left the countryside where her brother and father remain active in the rebellion and married a Spaniard who runs a pharmacy in Havana. When her husband is killed in the war, she takes over the apothecary in his stead, adopting his steadfast loyalty to Spain as well. At the play’s rise, Havana is heavily blockaded, and the pharmacy struggles to stock even basic supplies. Adela’s business serves the aristocratic Spanish military (and the occasional, nosy American reporter).
When Adela’s brother Manny appears, begging for supplies, Adela responds practically. “My problem is I owe too many taxes, and I have too few customers,” she tells Manny. “The ones with money to pay me are the soldiers trying to kill you, and then you come for a handout. I should just ask them to send you the cash directly, and keep me out of it.” Adela’s reticence to get involved contrasts starkly with her impassioned sister Martina, who roots for the island to throw off the Spanish oppressors, to trade the Spanish sport of bullfighting for Cuba’s game of baseball.
In shaping the story, Lopez took inspiration from the Arab spring, which was unfolding as she created the first draft. “The media was saturated with images of people taking to the streets in the name of self-determination,” Lopez says. “Ordinary people — with shops and businesses and babies in their arms — who sought something more from their lives and their countries. What makes a person wake up one day and take action like that? And I realized too, that what I felt watching this struggle unfold in another country was a lot like what Americans might have felt watching Cubans butchered by Spain in 1897. I could substitute ‘Cuba’ for ‘Syria’, and the stories were so similar...But then, like now, American intervention leads to greater complexities and unintended consequences. We keep learning that lesson over and over.”
Lopez builds the theme of metamorphosis into the elemental structure of the play, as the specters of those who shaped Cuba’s destiny haunt the stage. “I love watching actors transform,” Lopez shares, “so many of the actors also play an apparition or ghost.” From a conquistador to the wife of Cuban folk hero Hatuey, these voices from history show the reverberations of war extend far beyond an individual time and place. And as the voices in Lopez’s play echo in our ears, so do the five hundred years of evolution for the Cuban people echo through the life of one loyal but achingly vulnerable woman.