SOLANA BEACH — If the North Coast Repertory Theatre had had a curtain, playwright Melinda Lopez would have been a bundle of nerves before it went up.
As it was, Lopez was still a bundle of nerves when the theater’s lights dimmed and the stage lights slowly surged on, revealing the world premiere of her play, “Becoming Cuba,” last Saturday night.
Speaking from her home in Boston, where she teaches theater and performance at Wellesley College and playwriting at Boston University, Lopez said that she was excited about the play taking stage for the first time.
Lopez was in the audience for opening night. She said she was relieved when the audience laughed in all the right spots and was quiet during the others.
“Becoming Cuba” is a drama that takes place in an apothecary in Havana, Cuba during the war for independence against Spain. It follows the apothecary’s owner, Adela, a widow, who struggles with family and life under the constant stresses of war.
It’s a play that’s about a lot of things, but at the heart of it, Lopez said, the play for her was about a woman choosing to live, rather than not live.
“And that’s such a simple discovery, but it completely contextualized the play,” she said.
As simple as that may sound, the play, which she had started a couple of years ago, was a “big, scary play,” for her she said.
She gives David Ellenstein, the play’s director and the theater’s artistic director, a lot of credit for getting her to write it.
A commissioned play, Ellenstein approached Lopez (the two had known each other for several years and had worked together before) for a work to produce. Lopez had suggested a love story or a story about a family.
And then Lopez mentioned “Becoming Cuba,” a play that she said she would rather not write. “And David said, ‘That’s the one you should write,’” she said. “In very large part, it was inspired by David’s faith,” she added.
“I don’t think I’ve ever written a play that was quite so steeped in history,” she said. “I have written other plays that required research – that’s not unusual. I like to hook my work into real events. But I knew nothing about this time period, and I read a lot.”
Being of Cuban and Spanish descent, both of her parents are from Cuba, and both of her grandfathers are Spanish.
Even with her family history, her great grandmother lived in Cuba during the uprising, and with all of the research that she had done, she still had to keep reminding herself to trust the creative process, and to continue to be guided by her “gut.”
“I often feel when I’m writing that… light bulbs go off for the characters that I’ve created. I won’t know something about a character and then suddenly I’ll have this moment of clarity, and I’ll know something very profound about them,” she said.
“But about myself — I will say, in creating this play, because there was so much that I didn’t know about the history and even about the story — I went into it very much guided by my gut. And it was very scary and I just had to keep reminding myself to trust the creative process. And so, I guess that’s a lesson that you can relearn every time you work on something.
“My ideas don’t come from my head, they come from my heart.”
But can the dramatic arts still effect change? For Lopez, she thinks the dramatic arts can change one person. “I think that people can still have that cathartic experience or have a light bulb go on, have that experience in the theater. And that’s all I care about. Otherwise I would do something else,” she said.
“I’m not trying to effect change on anyone, I’m just trying to communicate and perhaps touch someone emotionally, and tell a story that people, hopefully, at the end of the first act, are excited to hear the rest of it.”
Later this summer, Lopez will begin work on a new project, but next March “Becoming Cuba” will head back to the East Coast to begin production at the Huntington Theatre in Boston.
“Becoming Cuba” runs now through June 23 at the North Coast Rep.