Prize-winning actress and playwright Melinda Lopez came to the South End library in October, on what she joked was the first “Red-Sox-free night,” to talk about her remarkable career in the theatre. She was introduced by Isabel Alvarez Borland, Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, who called Lopez “one of the most exciting playwrights in the US.” They met through work at Holy Cross where Lopez was a speaker at Borland’s Transcending Borders seminar. “She still skypes with my students,” Borland noted.
Lopez grew up bi-lingual and launched her career by reading new plays at the Playwrights Center in Minneapolis, MN. From there, she moved to staged performances, including Romeo and Juliet at the Portland Stage Company in Portland, ME (1997); and A Month in the Country (2002); The Rose Tattoo (2004) and Persephone (2007) at the Huntington. Attuned to dialogue, Lopez wondered if she might do more than interpret the stories of others if she had her own compelling stories to tell?
Lopez began to write plays “to see what I had to say,” and discovered she had a lot to say. “Theatre is meant to keep a community together, like a church, where you are with your people,” she said. She writes plays with big themes, centered on Latino/Cuban women. because, as she put it, she likes to see them on stage as she sees them, flawed, complex, powerful. Although she discovered through her writing that she is “deeply political” she said she doesn’t write “political” plays. “They are plays with complicated, messy, talented women at their center,” she said. “My evil plan is, I think I can make you feel you like them.” Lopez was accepted into the MFA Playwrighting Program at Boston University where Nobel Prize-winning poet and author, Derek Walcott, was her mentor. In 2013, Lopez was named the first Playwright-in-Residence at the Huntington Theatre, thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Her 2004 play at the Huntington, Sonia Flew, was awarded both the IRNE and Eliot Norton Awards for Best New Play that year. Sonia Flew has since been produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, the San Jose (CA) Repertory Theatre and other theater companies. Lopez's other plays include Alexandros (2008); Caroline in Jersey (2009); and Becoming Cuba ( 2014.). Her poignant and powerful one-character play Mala, the only one of her works in which she also appears, won the 2016 Eliot Norton Award for Best New Play. Based in part on cellphone notes taken while caring for her mother at the end of her life, Lopez wanted to remember that time, though it was difficult and overwhelming. “All plays ask intensely personal questions,” Lopez reflected, “and Mala is the most personal.” She started to create the play just before her mother died. “I was trying to be a good daughter,” Lopez said. “I did not always succeed.”
Lopez read sections from an adaptation she is working on of the 1934 play Yerma, part of a rural trilogy by Federico Garcia Lorca, who was assassinated by Spanish fascists in 1936. Written in the last five years of his life to include Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba, Lopez felt the translations from the Spanish were written by academics, not by dramatists for actors who speak it. A play has to have “heart and compassion” and must “celebrate the human condition, whether it is for the author, a cast member or, as with Yerma, the translator and adaptor,” she said. The play, an adaptation with music, songs and flamingo guitars, will open in June, 2019, at The Huntington.
The dialogue Lopez presented was between two friends in the countryside, Yerma, a young woman who longs for a child but can’t have one, and her best friend, Maria, who keeps having babies. All Yerma wants is an ordinary life. It becomes her obsession. Maria tells Yerma, “but you have other things, quiet mornings. I am fed up with having them. Every day there’s more desire and less time.” Lopez feels that theater is at its best when exploring the existential questions of life and living. “We believe that if we work hard, we can achieve what we want,” Lopez says. “What if our fate and desire are in conflict? Where does desire go if it can’t be fulfilled?”
Lopez is also working on a podcast serial in collaboration with Audible, of which she has completed four episodes. The story centers on a “Big Oil” lawyer, Tony, who defends an 80-year-old man over a marijuana-related offense, someone with whom he shares a secret dating from the time of the 1980 Mariel boat lift when the Cuban government released many prisoners who then sought asylum to the United States.