An Interview with Melinda Lopez

In the 10 years since her play Sonia Flew inaugurated the Wimberly Theatre, playwright Melinda Lopez has been produced all over the country and has frequently returned to the Huntington as an actor. She now serves as the theatre’s first playwright-in- residence. Dramaturg Charles Haugland spoke with her prior to rehearsals about the genesis of the play and what fascinates her so much about this period in history.

Charles Haugland (Artistic Programs and Dramaturgy): Why did you start writing Becoming Cuba?

Melinda Lopez (Playwright): There’s a legend in my family about my great- grandmother, who lived through the Cuban War of Independence and the Spanish-American War. The Spanish came to take over her farm when she was 16 years old and sent her family to internment camps. The legend is that my great-grandmother refused to go; she took her pet pig under her arms and walked up into the mountain to join the rebels. That’s as much of the story as I could ever get from anyone. I always had an image of this young woman finding a way to survive a terrible war. The play that I eventually wrote is not her story, but it’s certainly infused with her spirit.

When I began writing dialogue, the Arab Spring was unfolding around me, and as Americans, we were saturated by images of people taking to the streets in the name of self-determination. I was also very struck by how, at least in our media, we didn’t get stories of heroes; we just saw images of ordinary people with shops or businesses, with babies in their arms, seeking something more from their lives and their countries.

CH: How did you discover that a pharmacy would be the nexus of the story?

ML: I found the character of Adela first, and I created many drafts of early scenes exploring her world. I had the character of Adela at her father’s house or out shopping; I had the character of Adela lying in a hammock, and none of them bore fruit. I kept getting pushed towards a more active woman with a career, someone who thinks she is in control of her life.

Christina Pumariega as
Adela in Becoming Cuba

CH: Can you talk about how you went about creating the world around her?

ML: Once I had a strong feeling for the location and once I knew what Adela’s day was like, I had a lot of fun bringing in the local population. I found her sister very early — perhaps modeled on my relationship with my sister, who is older and very competent; I see myself as the younger dreamer who fails mightily at everything. I knew at the core of the play were these two sisters. Then they intersected with this aristocratic Spanish woman and an American reporter.

This time of history is very interesting, because Cubans, Americans, and Spaniards are sharing the same air.

CH: It’s a fertile period in which to set a play because, as you’ve said to me, this is just before the period familiar to most American audiences. What interested you so much about this particular moment?

ML: We know of this period as the Spanish-American War, but preceding that War, there were almost 30 years of fighting where people who self-identified as Cubans were trying to throw off the Spanish colonial power. It’s a lot like the American Revolution; we were all British until some of us started throwing tea into the harbor and saying, “America is our land.” I grew up four miles from the Concord Bridge, and I’m very interested in the American Revolution. But as an American, I only learned about our part of the Spanish-American War. It’s bizarre how where you live shapes what you learn.

The revolutionary wars in Cuba were long, traumatic wars of attrition where hundreds of thousands of people were dying, and there is the United States, the closest neighbor. Much as we do today, our citizens were looking at the situation and saying, “Look at all these terrible things that are happening just 90 miles away. We can’t sit back and let this happen, right?” It’s Darfur, it’s Egypt, it’s Syria, and it’s Rwanda, right? It’s all the times the U.S. says, “There is this awful situation just outside of our country. Should we be involved?” This war is

the first time that American military power is brought in to fight a war to kick another power out. There is the heartfelt American desire to do right in the world, but in this period, it’s also butting up against, “Gee, we’ve reached California; we are out of land, and we don’t have anywhere else to sell our stuff. What’s on the horizon?”

CH: Your work has been seen on many different Boston stages since Sonia Flew but for those who haven’t been following every step, what have been the high points in the interim?

ML: Sonia Flew has played all over the country, and I still get emails from people who saw it in places like Michigan, Arkansas, or Texas, saying how it affected them. I followed that up with a rock opera set in Gary, Indiana called Gary. That production was my first time working with Bevin O’Gara, who directed it at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre.

The major highlight is being awarded the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, which allows me to be the playwright- in-residence at the Huntington for three years. I am so proud to call the Huntington my artistic home.

Amelia Alvarez, Will LeBow, and Carmen Roman in Sonia Flew (2004). Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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