Let me start by saying, I really wanted to like this play. I know Melinda Lopez, I like her writing, and I like her as an artist and a human being. Melinda even gave my wife a children’s book when my daughter was born, and it is one of her favorites. I also find fictionalized explorations of historical moments to be incredibly engaging. Frayn’s Copenhagen and Democracy are two of my favorite plays from the last 20 years. I also find America’s complex history with Cuba to be fascinating, and worthy of dramatic exploration by playwrights of any background. I was ready to enjoy the work of an artist I admire. Unfortunately, I did not have the theatrical experience I was hoping to have. It is not that I actively disliked the play or the production, but neither lived up to the potential I saw for a moving and majestic piece of theatre. A piece of theatre that captured the spirit of Cuba, its long struggles to find freedom on its own terms (something that continues to this day), and the analogous Arab Spring of the modern era—a connection that Lopez herself makes clear in an interview.
And the thing is, I was set up for this kind of story from the moment I sat down in my seat in the Wimberly Theater at the Calderwood Pavilion. The very first thing I saw was a towering set (designed by Cameron Anderson), full of bottles that contain the agents necessary for the craft of a pharmacist. This was further augmented by the abstract images and colors that filled the backdrop upstage of the playing space. Interestingly, the pharmacy, owned by the deceased husband of the protagonist Adela (played by Christina Pumariega), did not fill the stage. It had space to the left and right, and was slightly elevated from the deck of the stage. While I did not understand why this was the case when I first saw the set, I quickly came to realize that the pharmacy was an island unto itself on the island of Cuba. Visual elements that I found viscerally engaging, that encouraged me to look for a similar reaction in the storytelling.
Additionally, as I followed Adela’s story, I was introduced to the world of Havana in 1897 via a gorgeous soundscape. The sound design (by Arshan Gailus) helped create a concrete world. The Havana outside the pharmacy’s walls was a very real place, full of simple occurrences and nation shattering events. The sound scape surrounded and buoyed the island that the pharmacy became.
Unfortunately, I never felt like the play or the rest of the production lived up to scope the scenic and sound design promised. I watched Adela reside in a generally detached state for most of the play. This does make some sense, as she was trapped/torn between the rebels of her family and the loyalty to Spain demonstrated by her deceased husband. But whenever the stakes changed, or called for new, strong emotions Adela would often fall into shouting—which just served to mudded the argument being made. There were multiple times that I literally could not follow the dialogue because the characters where shouting at and on top of each other. The shouting matches often occurred between Adela and her half (as we are repeatedly told) brother, Manny (played by Juan Javier Cardenas).
The relationship between Adela and Manny had the potential to match the scope the spectacle offered. Siblings who have lived all of their lives in war, who have lost their home and any sense of stability because of the war, but are not striving towards a solution together. Manny, a rebel fighting against the Spanish soldiers, argues passionately for the rebellion and what it means. He urges his sister to give up the safety of her pharmacy and join her family fighting the good fight. However, Adela’s husband died at the hands of the rebels, but not those with Manny. This is undoubtedly a hard sell, and Adela has every right to laugh in Manny’s face. But the argument never seems to go any further than that. I would have loved to have seen Adela dive even deeper into the atrocities of which the rebels were guilty—to present several, factual counterpoints to Manny’s attempts to persuade her. This way I would feel Adela’s long march to becoming the representation of her country, her march to becoming Cuba, matched the depth of the historical context that is the backdrop of the play.
I was drawn to the one American character in the play (and I really hope it wasn’t because I identified with the American, too cliche), Davis (played by Christopher Tarjan). In Act one in particular, Davis was witty and engaging, and deeply committed to getting the story of Cuba to the US—to encourage US engagement in the war. There were times throughout the play when I felt I was watching a more sympathetic version of Graham Greene’s Quite American. And I dug that. But then, at the beginning of Act II, it comes to light that Davis is deeply in love with Adela.
This addition of the love story brings the play to a grinding halt. Any momentum towards a change in Adela’s engagement with the war stops, and has to get moving again, which takes time. The love story became awkward on stage, and not because the characters were awkward.
Ultimately, I understand that both Adela and Davis are allegorical representations of their respective countries and the complex relationship that the US has with Cuba. I just wanted it to fit into the scope of the revolution more completely.
I think I was so dissatisfied with Becoming Cuba because there was so much potential for a deeply engaging show. And there were certainly elements that grabbed my attention (particularly Marianna Bassham as Fancy), which may add to my disappointment. I do hope the play has additional productions, and that those productions help the play find the deeper heart and potential I know the play has.