For their 2013-2014 season, The Huntington Theatre decided to produce local playwright Melinda Lopez’s Becoming Cuba, a story following a strong woman trying her best to shelter herself and her family from the growing military disputes in Havana. It’s a narrative that separates family and country, past and present, loyalty and impulse into independent choices one must decide between. Almost exactly one year old, Becoming Cuba was commissioned by North Coast Rep and has travelled from the opposite coast to delight Boston theatregoers with the help of a creative team that includes Director Bevin O’Gara, Dramaturg Charles Haugland, and Scenic Designer Cameron Anderson.
The play is set on the brink of the unexplained explosion of the USS Maine in 1987. The Spanish American War is soon to follow, however this play depicts Cuba before American military involvement and the high tension between Cuban rebels, Spanish aristocrats, American reporters, and the civilians only trying to live through it all. The play is almost entirely set in owner Adela’s medicine shop, a position usually not granted to women in this time, but acceptable with the inheritance of her late husband’s lease. Her excitable sister Martina is a nice contrast to the weary Adela, and they seem to support one another healthily before the introduction of Adela’s half brother Manny, a passionate Cuban rebel, Davis, a good intentioned American reporter, and Isidore, a smug Spanish lieutenant general.
Lopez manages to represent each national power through character and place them inside the medicine shop at one time without destroying one another. This is perhaps one of the most successful parts of the play, for Lopez accurately depicts the political climate through the rising and falling tension. Parallel to historical events, the tension has boiled up to a point that an explosion is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when and with whom. It is clear early on that this medicine shop has become somewhat of a safe haven, a constant in a time of fluctuation; inviting to the Cubans and suspicious to the Spanish. The slow integration of Spanish influences represented by bodies, gloves, and bullets, raise the tension even further and the haven becomes less and less safe. However despite growing tensions, there is a resistance to be bold in this room, a necessity to always be thinking critically. Strategy is clearly a key tactic of the rebellion and it makes for engaging scene work.
The setting itself bursts the play wide open. Martina says in the first act that it a medicine shop isn’t profitable – people get sick, buy medicine, then get better and don’t need it anymore. The shop must adapt and sell beauty products, sodas and candy to survive. Contrary to her changing scenery, Adela is stubbornly tied to the past, for any bold move towards the future hurts her. Only hours after she had almost kissed Davis, she witnesses her sister successfully finishing off the task and again sinks back into a traditionalist view. But around her the world is changing; innocent irresponsible Martina receives a bullet wound, military tactics turn into guerilla warfare, Crops are burned in the hopes of Spanish disinterest, and a celebration turns into a riot. The thematic thread of adaptation grows until it’s no longer feasible for Adela to rely on hope. She must make the largest sacrifice and destroy this home full of senses; smells, tastes, memories, all brutally colonized by Isidore through the pouring and smashing of expensive products while carrying her own sister’s ear, a sensory organ, around his neck. The flame she ignites is a mark of how much one must abandon when colonized.
Because the play used tension as a primary dramatic tool, it was quite obviously when it sank and the play became safe. It’s a difficult path to navigate, for I was thoroughly interested that political conflict and war was something Adela was used to. The past thirty years was wrought with fighting, Manny was even shot in the head as a child. War is all Adela has ever known therefore she is well versed at pleasing both sides, maintaining her sustainability with expert skill. But because the fighting was not new for her, it was not new for me and therefore had little stakes. The fact that fighting raging outside her window was something to be expected is an interesting and foreign thought, but it does not change the fact that at times the play lulled and the conflict I believe I should care about I stopped caring for.
Something that helped the problem above was the humor sprinkled throughout the play. Entering the theatre I wouldn’t expect this play to carry many laughs but surprisingly it had a fair amount of chuckling. Unfortunately only about half of the jokes landed and the ones that did served to give the room with a more comfortable atmosphere. If the stakes for the fighting had been raised and the humor was used as more of a coping mechanism, it could have the potential of moving patrons to the edges of their seats for most of this lengthy show. Instead, we sat back and were treated to a few ghostly appearances of figures who failed to serve the play as a whole. Each apparition spoke directly to the audience and provided a little context and a lot of contemporary references. They seemed to be reaching out to connect with the audience but without much to say. I believe the play speaks well for itself and these additional character weren’t needed. Or if they were, I would hope their point could be made clearer.
Overall the show was a pleasant passage into a history I had little knowledge of. The primary characters were clear, the narrative was easy to follow, the setting was illuminating and when tensions rose it became quite engaging. The safe haven of the medicine shop was simply too safe for too much of the show and lowered the stakes. But despite any issues, I believe it’s well written and provides an important perspective of a history in which Americans are not familiar with.