Melinda Lopez readies Mala for its Boston return
Last fall, ArtsEmerson presented the world premiere of Mala, Huntington playwright-in-residence Melinda Lopez’s gorgeous, deeply personal, and unforgettable one-woman play about loss, family, and what it means to be human.
In the midst of trying to see her mother through the final months of her life—and just after losing her father—Lopez chronicled her experiences in short notes on her iPhone that would became the genesis for Mala.
Lopez is well-known to Boston audiences both as an actress (Grand Concourse, appropriate, Our Town) and a playwright (Sonia Flew, Becoming Cuba), and Mala is her greatest achievement yet.
When you were approached with the opportunity to perform Mala again, was there any amount of hesitation? It’s so personal and emotional that I imagine it must be painful to revisit night after night.
I don’t remember thinking about it at all. I remember being intensely curious about what it would be like to do it again. I ran the show at the Guthrie this fall, so I’ve been back in it even since you saw it [at ArtsEmerson], and I was sitting getting ready to go back into rehearsal and I had this really clear feeling that the play was my mother’s gift—her last gift—to me. Not her last gift—a gift that she gave me. And it was a really beautiful realization, and it was really satisfying. I knew she would be really proud of it, so it makes me really glad to be able to share it, especially with Boston because this is my home. Which is not to say there’s not trepidation and fear and horror and terror and all of the things that go into any kind of performance [laughs]. I really do like performing it. I guess maybe that’s counterintuitive, but it feels like a very complete experience. You leave it all on stage and you feel clean. You feel satisfied and you hope that the audience feels satisfied, too. You hope that you gave them a complete journey.
What does it feel like to sort of manipulate and dramatize such deeply personal events?
One of the things that’s become clearer to me is that even though Mala, the character I play, is myself, she’s also a distilled version of myself. I have a little bit more perspective on her. It’s important that the playwright is aware that there are mechanisms written into the play for the audience to also be able to step back and go, “Wow, she’s doing things wrong, she’s got some issues.” I don’t want them to empathize with her too much. I want an audience to have some distance and be able to go in to the experience and sit back and watch someone spiraling. We want to feel, we want something to happen to us when we go to see a play. I do. I want something to happen to me emotionally. And so that tension between feeling and thinking just lives so beautifully in the theater. That’s what I want to try and explore.
I think it’s so incredible that Mala started as notes on your iPhone. You didn’t know what would come of them at the time, you were just jotting things down as they were happening. When you decided to sit down and sift through those notes to try to distill them into something meaningful, what did it feel like to relive all that?
What I found in these notes was that I went back into them and I remembered exactly the moment, exactly what was happening, exactly what I was feeling. I wanted to sit down and remember. It seemed important to remember precisely and without a veil of nostalgia. It seemed important to me that I remember what it was like. I knew that that was going to be valuable to me as an individual, and so each text gave me a story to tell and those stories just fell into a kind of order, an emotional order, and I thought there was value in the subject matter. Because the play was written in the middle of it, it doesn’t have the perspective of a self-help book or of a wise friend who can sit down with you and say, “Spring will come. Spring will come.” We know that somewhere in ourselves, but when you’re in it, you don’t really know that that’s going to happen. The first line in the play is “She won’t rest until I’m dead.” It’s an appalling thing to say about someone that you adore, someone who’s been so much a part of your life. But there is a part where you think, “I won’t get through this.” And so it mattered that I could say that. And again, what is theater for? For me it’s about much bigger things than our political current moment. We might have trouble thinking how about we’re going to get through each day, but I think theater really has to address a much larger question of our collective humanity and those questions that we all have, like does my life matter? How can I do good in the world? Why do people suffer? Why is life so short? Questions about the fairness or unfairness of the hand we’re dealt—they’re much bigger than an election or a couple of bad blizzards.
What are you feeling as you’re about to dive into this again?
I feel like I have such a special privilege to work with an audience in Boston that knows my work. Every night I’m really striving to make a connection with that group of people and so it’s always different. I hope I can keep doing that. I think it’s an incredible privilege to have a community invest in you as an artist, and I feel equally bound to invest in the 200 people who are in the Roberts every night. There’s a lot of forgiveness in my life, there’s a lot of forgiveness in the play, and that’s also part of the journey is to forgive each other for the things you weren’t able to do for each other. I feel like ultimately—hopefully—that’s where we all arrive. At some point. You have to, right? You have to find a way.
MALA. 1.6–1.28. HUNTINGTON THEATRE COMPANY, 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. HUNTINGTONTHEATRE.ORG