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Huntington’s Melinda Lopez Gets Personal with New Play

Mala based on alum’s experience caring for her dying mother

  • In 2015, playwright-actress Melinda Lopez (GRS’00) sent herself text messages as she cared for her dying mother
  • Those messages inspired her solo play, Mala, now on stage at the BCA  Calderwood Pavilion
  • Play a moving, often funny portrait of caring for a dying parent

Playwright and actress Melinda Lopez found herself caring for her dying 92-year-old mother three years ago, just months after she had lost her father. Not surprisingly, given her profession, Lopez began writing short texts on her iPhone, things like “blizzard equals hospice,” reminding herself that her mother entered hospice care the day of a major snowstorm.

“It was really the only writing I could manage because of the continuing chaos,” recalls Lopez (GRS’00), playwright-in-residence at the Huntington Theatre Company and the author of numerous plays, including the award-winning Sonia Flew. “I remember feeling that if I don’t express this somehow, I’ll despair, I’ll go mad. Looking back, part of it was about trying to impose some kind of order in a process that was decidedly chaotic. Because of my profession, I tend to understand the world in words, in sequences of events. What I saw later was that I was trying to document as clearly as possible an emotional journey. And it felt important at the time that I remember it in its entirety and its complexity.”

Lopez found herself often feeling overwhelmed as she tried to balance the demands of caring for her increasingly frail but fierce mother with her other familial responsibilities and her professional obligations. She frequently felt angry, resentful, and confused, “figuring out how to be the best daughter I could be and failing.”

Melinda Lopez with her mother

The playwright with her mother, “Mami,” in Miami in 1990. Photo courtesy of Melinda Lopez

A College of Arts & Sciences adjunct associate professor of playwriting, Lopez says she never imagined the notes she was sending herself would turn into a play. But later, after her mother’s death from metastatic breast cancer, she stumbled back over the notes and began to realize there was something there. Throughout her mother’s illness what had helped sustain her were conversations with other friends going through similar experiences, conversations that she says served as a “life raft” and helped her feel less alone.

As she began sketching out the autobiographical Mala, now being staged by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion, Lopez says, she was unsure what form it might take. “I had thought, oh maybe there is a play here about a mother and a daughter. Maybe there is a play here about a family. Maybe I’ll just interview a lot of medical professionals.” But it was the voice of a single character, herself, that kept coming through, and ultimately she decided to create a solo play.

Mala covers the first five months of 2015, when her mother was undergoing her final hospitalization and enduring a series of medical crises. Lopez purposely ends the play before her mother dies.

“I wanted to really be sure that the play never became a play about how to grieve,” she says. “And in order to accomplish that I needed the play to remain in this time of confusion and chaos.”

The play debuted at ArtsEmerson in October 2016 with the playwright in the title role. She hadn’t intended to star in the production, but when she asked a friend to do an early reading, the friend said, “This is your story. It’s your voice. You need to read it.” Lopez, who had made it a habit never to appear in her own plays, began to feel differently with this play. “I guess in the performing of it, I knew that I would be able to finesse it and make the piece better,” she says.

Reviewing Mala’s original production, the Boston Globe found it “piercingly honest, exquisitely moving,” noting that it “combines the intimacy of a deeply personal story with the ‘Yep, been there’ universality of experiences and emotions that most of us have had, one way or another.” The play won the 2016 Elliot Norton Award for best new script before moving to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The Huntington run is a remounting of the original ArtsEmerson production, with Lopez again starring and original director David Dower again helming.

In the days leading up to the Huntington production, the two were still tinkering with scenes, tweaking a moment here and there to make it land more effectively.

Lopez stresses that the play doesn’t set out to provide any answers. What it does offer, she says, is “recognition and a feeling that you are not alone in your experience.” And despite its serious subject, the play is laced with humor as she wrestles with feelings of inadequacy and shares funny anecdotes that friends imparted to her as well.

A scene from mala

Lopez’s play about caring for her dying mother is based on a series of notes she made at the time. It was a way, she says, of imposing some order on a chaotic situation. Photo by Paul Marcotta

Audiences are frequently moved to tears. Many viewers have come up to her afterward to thank her for sharing her story. Others want to talk about their own experience caring for a loved one. The fact that it’s been so cathartic for theatergoers doesn’t surprise her. “We’re not allowed in an open way, in a public way, to talk about our grief and our experiences, our challenges, or our failures, which is what I tried to do,” Lopez says.

She hopes that audiences will realize “that they’re not alone, that they’re not the worst at caregiving, if they’re going through it, that there’s a community of people who are desperate to talk about this.” And perhaps most important, she hopes the play helps people to come to a better understanding of their own feelings about end-of-life issues.

“We have an opportunity to come together as a group and look at this experience that we’re all going to experience for ourselves, for our loved ones.” 

The Huntington Theatre Company presentation of the ArtsEmerson production of Mala is running at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion’s Roberts Studio Theatre, 527 Tremont St., Boston, through February 4. Purchase tickets online, by phone at 617-266-0800, or in person at the Calderwood Pavilion box office or the Huntington Avenue Theatre box office, 264 Huntington Ave. Patrons 35 and younger may purchase $30 tickets (ID required) for any production, and there is a $5 discount for seniors. Military personnel can purchase tickets for $20 with promo code MILITARY, and student tickets are available for $20 (valid ID required). Members of the BU community get $10 off (ID required). Call 617-266-0800 for more information. Follow the Huntington Theatre Company on Twitter at @huntington.

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John O'Rourke, Editor of BU Today at Boston University
John O’Rourke

John O’Rourke can be reached at orourkej@bu.edu.

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