It all began with the legend of Mama Juana, playwright Melinda Lopez’s feisty great-grandmother. In the late 19th century, Spanish colonialists in Cuba seized her family farm and sent the owners off to camps. Mama Juana refused to go. She picked up her pet pig and disappeared into the mountains to join a band of rebels.
That’s all Lopez knows. She never quizzed her great-grandmother, who died in Miami at 106, but that small snippet of history from her ancestral homeland was the inspiration for her play, “Becoming Cuba,” which is receiving its New England premiere in a Huntington Theatre Company production. It begins previews Friday and runs through May 3 at the Calderwood Pavilion.
“Ideas for plays come from many different sources,” Lopez, 49, says. “Some are personal. Some are intellectual. Sometimes a play comes because I learned about a historical event that seems impossible. Sometimes I hear voices.”
In this case, a Cuban pharmacist simply showed up in her imagination. She was strong woman who was suffering an aching loss. “The story of this play is the most mysterious kind of inspiration I have ever experienced,” Lopez recalls. “I didn’t know the story before it wrote itself.’’
The play, which unfolds in a pharmacy in Havana in 1897, is set against the backdrop of the Cuban War of Independence. Rebels have been fighting for liberation from Spain for years, and a brutal war is about to erupt. In this heady environment, a loyalist widow named Adela administers medicine to both Spaniards and natives. She and her brother and sister are on different sides of the conflict, and they squabble as chaos mounts in the city streets.
The play is both personal and political. “Melinda has found a way to make something as large and historical as the revolution in Cuba very intimate,’’ says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois. “You see the revolution through the lens of a family. She makes the epic personal.”
While Lopez began with her own family lore, she didn’t actually know that much about this period of history when she set out to write the play. Most Americans are somewhat familiar with the other Cuban revolution, the 1950s one with Fidel and Che. Lopez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, grew up in Bedford and was schooled in the American Revolution, not the Cuban struggle for independence. “Nobody knows this history, not even Cuban-Americans,’’ she says, adding that Americans refer to the conflict as the Spanish-American War, even though the United States didn’t intervene until the bitter end.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara had to do some homework, too. She turned to John Lawrence Tone’s “War and Genocide in Cuba, 1895-1898,” marking it up with a highlighter. It helps that she and Lopez are longtime collaborators. She previously directed a production of Lopez’s play “Gary,” as well as a reading of Lopez’s “Caroline in Jersey.” O’Gara is the Huntington’s associate producer, and Lopez is in the middle of a three-year stint as the theater’s playwright in residence. “We have been working on this play on and off for about two years, and we have gotten to know each other’s shorthand,’’ O’Gara says.
In fact, O’Gara, 31, is one of a handful of people whom Lopez trusts to read unfinished works. “The first draft is intuitive, and there is not a lot of math in it,” Lopez says. “You have to be careful. If you show it to the wrong person, they would say it is a mess.”
An earlier version of the play was produced last year at California’s North Coast Repertory Theatre, and the playwright and director have been honing it ever since. It has undergone several iterations since Lopez first sat down with that image of her gutsy great-grandmother. Complete characters have been created and cut, including a girl drinking hot chocolate on a hammock, Teddy Roosevelt, a Chinese herbal merchant, and rape victims who had witnessed their babies being impaled. “I wrote many, many pages of material that aren’t in this play,” Lopez says. “I understand now that it was a way to lay claim, linguistically and emotionally, to what it means to be in a country at war.”
The action of the play is interspersed with ghosts delivering monologues directly to the audience. It begins with a Spanish conquistador who quotes “Macbeth,” saying, “Blood will have blood.” But the ghosts aren’t stock spectral characters: They are very much grounded in the present. The Spanish conqueror, for instance, describes English as a “language of grunts and farts” and mentions Elian Gonzalez and Speedy Gonzales in the same breath. “The ghosts kept blowing apart my own tendency to sentimentalize,’’ Lopez says.
Both Lopez and O’Gara continue to be amazed at how the themes of the play — which pits brother against sister and underscores the cyclical nature of violence — continue to resonate today. Lopez was thinking of the Arab Spring when she first started the script, and today she is continually reminded of the violent uprisings in Syria and the Ukraine.
Lopez aims to personalize the immediate effects of war through the character of Adela, but she didn’t know that at first. “I thought I had written a play about war,’’ she says of her initial draft. “I didn’t know I had written a play about a woman who comes out of mourning and learns that in order to start over you have to burn your life down.” She describes her main character as one “tough cookie,” a woman who is not blinded by youthful innocence, especially when it comes to a potential romance with a married US journalist who is in Havana covering the war.
The journalist is a composite of several real-life reporters who covered the war and did not resort to the so-called “yellow journalism” of the era. He is in the play partly as a symbol of the looming US intervention but also as a catalyst for the main female character to discover her true self. “My secret evil plan is to put compelling, complex, deeply flawed Latina women onstage, women who don’t dance salsa or have roses in their mouths or wear a lot of eyeliner,” Lopez says. “I want to strip away the stereotype of what is often perceived of as a Cuban woman.”
The will-they-or-won’t-they love story unfolds as Cuba is on the verge of becoming a nation. Given that the production coincides with the beginning of baseball season, it seems appropriate that the play also features what is about to become the Cuban national pastime: There is an offstage baseball game that pits Cuba against Spain. “Spain is about bullfights, and Cuba is about baseball,’’ Lopez says. “Baseball is the thing that created Cuban patriotism at the time. When you picked up a baseball bat, you became a Cuban.”
In the play, baseball is depicted as a civilized sport, while bullfighting is savage. Likewise, the character of a Spanish lieutenant is outright barbaric. “I kept looking for a way to redeem him,’’ Lopez says. “I have never written a character who is only bad, but he refused to be redeemed. He is a military guy. He has a job to do, and he is going to get it done.”
Lopez may be channeling the spirit of her Mama Juana, who stood up to the Spanish when they took over the family farm. Lopez went to Cuba herself for the first time a few years ago, and while she didn’t learn more details about her great-grandmother, she heard a similar story about her paternal grandfather. During the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s, her father’s brother was arrested and jailed. Her grandfather owned a distillery, and he went to the communist officials and offered them the factory in exchange for his son’s freedom. “He was very smart,’’ Lopez says. “He swapped the distillery for his son, and then they left.”
She ponders the story, smiles coyly, and says, “That’s quite a story. It belongs in a play.”Patti Hartigan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
CORRECTION: An earlier version listed an incorrect range for tickets prices. The lowest price ticket is $25.