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Becoming Cuba by Melinda Lopez

Melinda Lopez’s new play, Becoming Cuba premiered at the Huntington Theatre this past month and I got the opportunity to catch a matinee in the middle of the run. As a student at Boston University, both the Huntington Theatre Company and Melinda Lopez are tied to my education and I was interested in how those two powerhouses melded.

Cuban identity and nationalism are represented in the play by theatrical conventions such as the breaks from realism and the use of liminal spaces. Upon first glance of the stage and the program, it seemed that the play would live comfortably in a realistic realm, a very detailed set, a program with a timeline of actual historic events, and I, alone in the theatre amidst a very distinct type of theatergoer (remember, Huntington Theatre Co. matinee) was prepared for a historically accurate, safe play. I was proven wrong the moment the house lights went down. Smoke filled the stage and on walked a conquistador in full armor and I knew the play would use its divergence from realism purposefully.

In the play’s break from realism, it often exists in various liminal spaces. From the first moment of the play, the ghost of the conquistador leads the room into the world of the play. He transcends time and language in order to guide the storytellers as well as the audience. The play breaks from the plot a second time to introduce  an indigenous woman who shares the story of the betrayal and overpowering of her tribe by Europeans. She introduces into the play the role of the oppressed, when before we had been familiar with the conqueror. These direct addresses remind the audience of the theatricality of the play but also call upon the inherent theatricality utilized in Caribbean and Cuban folklore. The break from realism also echoes themes from Cuban folklore. how myths are created and how stories are told, shared, passed down, the fabric of a person is their past and their family’s history.

Adela constantly blocks herself from the outside world and her livelihood is made by fixing other people’s problems. Lopez was inspired to write about “a more active woman with a career, someone who thinks she is in control of her life.” That’s exactly how Adela sees herself and the world around her, she fully believes she can control it all. Prescribe medication, fix the pain, prescribe medication, treat the illness, when outside the doors of her pharmacy, a wound is forming in her own country that she cannot ignore. She, herself, is neither here nor there, a liminal character. Despite her best efforts to stay grounded, the land she stands on is being uprooted and is a liminal space itself. The country itself is a liminal space, Cuba is an island that has fluctuated allegiances throughout time.

I was fortunate enough to go to a performance with a talkback with Dr. Isabel Alvarez Borland, a published author and Distinguished Professor of Arts and Humanities in the Department of Spanish at the College of the Holy Cross. A first generation Cuban woman herself, she explained how being Cuban is inherently being a mix, culturally and psychologically. To be part of an island nation, one is made up of many different things, and, especially Cuban culture, is still evolving. The Cuban identity has been dictated throughout the years by which country has held power. The island has had to adapt to every new colonization. The conversation then turned into the question of forming an individual, independent Cuban identity. Questions were raised about how to accomplish complete sovereignty for Caribbean islands. Producing this play at the Huntington gave me an interesting thought about comparing the relationship of an island nation to its larger, domineering counterpart to a theater company in residence at a giant, high budget regional theatre. Of course, there is not a war or dictatorship between the relationship of the Huntington Theatre Company and Boston University, but it gave me some interesting context when thinking about why this play, this theatre, this city and this time. This type of symbiotic relationship can be beneficial and there is the opportunity for mutual gain and independence through the guidance of a larger entity.

The final moment of the play where Adela stands separate from the rest of the pharmacy, the liminal space exists as a premonition of what’s to come. Melinda Lopez speaks directly to this point in her interview included in the program notes, “This time of history is very interesting, because Cubans, Americans, and Spaniards are sharing the same air.” The very environment of the last scene is full of cultural implications all mixed together. The final moment is not rooted in any specific time, representing the past, present and inherent future, that the destinies of America and Cuba are, and will be symbolically interlocked and interwoven after everything else has unraveled.

Melinda Lopez’s colorful play brings the audience on a historical, theatrical ride through a war-ridden nation. It plays with human emotion, but also the grander scheme of ancestors, a nation’s history, Cuban culture, identity, and future. Her play rallies for independence, as was evidenced in the heated, exciting discussion brought about in the talkback. She has formed an excellent play  in a tense period of history.

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