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Critical Response: Becoming Cuba by Melinda Lopez

The second-to-last show in the Huntington’s 2013-14 season is “Becoming Cuba”, a new play by Boston-based playwright Melinda Lopez. The play takes place in a pharmaceutical shop in 1897, while the Spanish and American tensions regarding the Cuban War of Independence rise, leading to the Spanish-American War. Lopez writes of two sisters running the pharmacy while lacking a medical license in the city of Havana, but the real meat of the play exists in Lopez’s illumination of language as a key into the political and social nature of the play, as well as the exploration of design and Adela’s personal journey.

The play kicks off with a monologue on the subject of language, identifying that what we are hearing as English is actually Spanish. The monologue serves to open the audience’s ears to the lyrical timber of the Spanish language put inside the English language container, but also invites the audience inside the pharmacy. Setting a piece in a foreign country that uses a foreign language can imply that the audience acts as outsiders looking in, however, through this opening beat, Lopez extends a clear invitation to the audience to move inside the world of the play and denies them the excuse of not understanding. Language is no longer a barrier between the audience and the characters and for that reason the audience is forced to bear witness to whatever happens here.

Davis, an American but fluent in Spanish, is the most clear outsider in the play as he is the only character that does not have Spanish as a native language. Of course, the Spanish spoken in Spain vs. Cuba is very different, but they both have the same root, whereas Davis learned Spanish in order to come to Cuba. This isolates Davis as an American well to doer coming into the play assuming he is on the same page as everyone else: he is not. It is in this way that Davis seems to represent the United States during this time of conflict, wherein the United States wanted to help Cuba, who was being invaded by Spain, but also longed for more power and space. As Lopez says in her interview before the play ““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?” (Haugland). Arguably, this is what Davis does as well: comes in to get information, sees a chance to increase personal knowledge/power/insight through helping the resistance, fights, but leaves before he sees too much more.

In addition to the Spanish, American, and Cuban people in this play, actress Marianna Bassham is used, in a vignette, to portray the character of Hatuey’s Wife, a Taíno character. Hatuey, who is considered “Cuba’s First National Hero” is of Taíno descent who came to Cuba from Hispanola to warn the Cuban people of the imminent Spanish invasion on the Cuban island. Hatuey’s Wife speaks about the Taíno language noting that certain words, like “iguana,” have left their imprint in the English vocabulary. Through this monologue, Lopez speaks of the pervasiveness of language and lack of understanding regarding history. Although “iguana” is a word we use in the English language, its roots belong to the Cuban natives. While this is also a reference to a long-running theme through the play of allowing cultural and personal history to inform future actions, this moment also speaks to development of languages being fluid. Colonization of Cuba via Spain altered the language there from that of the Taíno people to Spanish, but some things, like “iguana” still remain. As a larger examination of the play reveals: some history can not be escaped, and remnants of the past, recognized or not, will live on.

The set design of tall glass bottles, working taps, and a painted backdrop, was instrumental in my understanding of the play. Adela’s work area was clean, organized, and over whelming sterile: clearly it is something she keeps good care of and maintains control over. Because of this, when Manny entered the space in rags and tatters I began to feel Adela’s loss of ownership regarding her space. The tall wooden walls creating the cavernous space of the pharmacy were overwhelmed with medicine bottles. Medicine, as Adela says, isn’t a great career as people use it, get better, and leave, but Adela prides herself on fixing things. Medicine is the career of someone who likes to be in control of death. Adela’s husband died and since, she works to create remedies that postpone or eliminate death, which aids her overbearing tendencies. It’s how she has managed to maintain control while her husband has died, her brother and father are leading a rebellion, and there is a war in her country. Thus, in Act 2 when the Isidore comes in and trashes her studio, this triggers her understanding that her life and emotions cannot be trapped in these little glass bottles but need to be messy and free in order to progress.

When Adela sets fire to the shop, she reclaims ownership on a life, not just the act of living. The fire triggered the rest of the set to separate leaving Adela onstage by herself with a large map of Cuba resembling a bloody heart behind her. Adela stands alone there, after leaving safety and moving into the rebellion and she is now “the heart” of Cuba; the individual who was strong enough to leave everything behind and fight with her countrymen for her country. Adela wears her signature purple throughout the play, which has a long-standing history of being the color of royalty and power. She leaves the place that she considers powerful, her safe pharmacy, and moves into a place where she has no power, the war, but by maintaining that color, we know she will overcome and be powerful in the future, or at least she has the option to be.

The play as a whole flowed together like a guitar song; it had beautiful riffs and heart wrenching moments, sewn together through musicality and heart. The language and design helped the flow the play together, creating a piece of theatre I think opens the door for the story of the Cuban people in the Spanish-American war to be explored even further.

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