Theater & art

Obama highlights Boston playwright’s Cuban connection

President Obama described Melinda Lopez’s encounter with a long-ago neighbor of her mother’s in Cuba.
Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff
President Obama described Melinda Lopez’s encounter with a long-ago neighbor of her mother’s in Cuba.
Melinda Lopez
Lopez (left) during a 2011 visit to the town where her parents lived in Cuba. With her are Juanita Miranda — holding a photo of Lopez as a baby — and her husband, Alfonso, in front of their home.

A cclaimed Boston playwright-actress Melinda Lopez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants, canceled an engagement Tuesday so she could watch President Obama’s historic speech from Havana, considering it “an incredibly important day for Cuba.’’

Little did Lopez know that she herself would make a vivid cameo appearance in the president’s address.

Lopez watched from her Bedford home as Obama spoke about the pain of separation felt by many Cuban-Americans and “the reconciliation of the Cuban people — the children and grandchildren of revolution, and the children and grandchildren of exile — that is fundamental to Cuba’s future.’’

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Then, to Lopez’s astonishment, Obama said her name. Even for someone who concocts and enacts imaginative stories for a living, it was a stranger-than-fiction moment.

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The president told of how, when Lopez traveled to Cuba and searched for her family’s old home, she had a chance encounter with an elderly woman who had been a neighbor of Lopez’s mother. The woman “recognized her as her mother’s daughter and began to cry” — later producing a baby photo that Lopez’s mother had taken of her infant daughter.

“I’m kind of freaking out,’’ said Lopez, reached after Obama’s speech.

Then she told the story, which she had recounted to Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a diplomat who is now the charge d’affaires of the United States Embassy in Cuba. The tale evidently made its way to Obama’s speechwriters. (A White House official confirmed that Obama was referring to Lopez’s story.)

In 2011, Lopez traveled to Cuba with the Cambridge-based Friends of Caritas Cubana, a humanitarian aid organization. Her parents, Manuel Lopez and Panchita Isidro, had left Cuba in 1959, shortly after Fidel Castro took power, and Lopez wanted to see where they had lived.

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“They left assuming they would go back,” Lopez said. “My father thought it would be six months.”

She took a taxi to their town in central Cuba and rode up and down the streets, feeling a bit lost. When Lopez saw an elderly woman sitting on a bench in front of a house, she asked the cab driver to stop and called out the window, asking the woman if she knew where the Isidro family had lived.

Melinda Lopez
Melinda Lopez’s parents, Manuel Lopez and Panchita Isidro, in an engagement photo that would have been taken around 1942 in Cuba.

“She came to the window of the cab and grabbed my arm, and she was saying ‘Who are you, who are you?’ and she started saying all the names of my aunts,’’ Lopez said. The playwright was unnerved, but decided to let the scene play out as the woman hurried into her house. “She came back with a stack of photographs that were pictures of my aunts, my cousins, my grandmother,’’ said Lopez. “In the middle of the stack of photos was my baby photograph that my mother had sent her 50 years ago. She kept stroking my face and saying ‘What happened to them? They never came back, they never came back.’ ’’

The woman also kept saying to Lopez: “Your face, your face.’’ It turned out that Lopez had stopped the cab just two houses away from the home where her mother’s family had once lived. The woman, named Juanita Miranda, took Lopez to that home, and the family that lived there let them in. Before the day was done, Lopez would visit her father’s former home and her grandfather’s factory. And when others in the area heard she was visiting, they came running to see her.

Lopez has explored the history of Cuba and the lives of Cuban-Americans in her work. One of her best-known plays, “Sonia Flew,’’ revolves around a woman who had been sent from Cuba to America decades earlier by her parents as the Castro dictatorship took hold. “Becoming Cuba’’ takes place in 1897, as Cuban rebels intensify their insurgency against Spain in a bid for independence. Lopez is playwright-in-residence at the Huntington Theatre Company and teaches at Boston University and Wellesley College.

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Lopez has complicated feelings about Cuba, where her father’s brother was jailed for 13 months because of his opposition to the Castro government. Obama’s speech was “profoundly moving and profoundly inspiring,” Lopez said. “What he said about moving forward and leaving the past behind really resonated with me. And I want to embrace that.”

Both of Lopez’s parents have died in the past two years. “I’m just heartbroken, because I would have watched the speech with them,’’ she said, her voice thick with emotion. “I miss them so much. I have so much joy and so much sadness at the same time.’’

Writers, of course, are forever on the hunt for material. Asked about her reaction to Tuesday’s events as a playwright, Lopez replied: “Part of me thinks it’s so theatrical that no one would believe it.’’

Related:

2004: Lopez gets her big break with an ambitious play about Cuban exodus

2013: Lopez chosen for playwright residency

2014 | Stage review: A personal battlefield in Huntington’s ‘Becoming Cuba’

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.