To find her most challenging role, playwright/actor Melinda Lopez looked within.
Her new play, “Mala,” is perhaps her most autobiographical work to date. She wrote it while caring for her terminally ill mother, less than a year after the death of her father. It puts her in the spotlight to a deliberately uncomfortable degree. This is the first time she’s written and performed a full-length monologue since her very first work for the stage.
That spotlight even protrudes into her between-rehearsal hours. Sitting for lunch in a cafe across the street from the Paramount Center, where ArtsEmerson is presenting the world premiere of “Mala” in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre with performances beginning Thursday, she points out the photo of herself that beams out from the Paramount’s electronic marquee.
“I saw my face looking down at me and I thought I was in trouble. I don’t even want to talk about it. It’s weird. There I am,” she says, negotiating a sandwich. But there she is, indeed. “Mala” is raw, displaying its creator in a particularly vulnerable moment of her life.
The particulars of the story and much of the ground it covers are inspired by the emotionally fraught time, a few winters ago, when time and frailty had conspired to place her in the “sandwich generation,” caring for both her mother and her own daughter. But the protagonist (for whom the play is named) is a “compilation character,” Lopez says, based on herself.
In the writing of it, did she discover anything about herself? She takes a long pause to consider before answering, frankly.
“Sure — how petty I can be, how small-minded, how ungenerous,” she says. “That the experience of truly becoming an adult, because you don’t have a parent, is terrifying. For me. Maybe for others it is not.”
She completed the first draft while her mother was still living, beginning by reviewing short notes she had typed to herself on her phone. Those notes didn’t quite amount to journaling, she says; they represented an act of desperation and a “form of survival.” Reviewing them, she recalled recent memories vividly. They became the germ of “Mala,” a play written very much from inside the experiences it describes.
“There’s many plays about ‘my mother who’s gone’ or ‘my father who’s gone’ that are written from a place of reflecting back on it. She wrote this in the middle of it, as a way to survive it,” director David Dower says one afternoon after a rehearsal. “So there’s a different voice to it. There’s a different urgency.”
That immediacy, he says, has led to an observable audience response. After each of a few private readings Lopez gave while working on the script, many of those present approached her wanting to share their own experiences. “It’s like you were having coffee with somebody who is telling you a story about what they were going through,” Dower adds, “and now you want to tell your story back.”
Lopez, 51, wrote the play earlier in her tenure as Huntington Theatre Company’s playwright-in-residence. An Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant funding her position — and now, similar ones in 17 other American theaters — was renewed in April for a second three-year term. (The same program, which is administered by the ArtsEmerson-affiliated group HowlRound, also funds Kirsten Greenidge’s position as playwright-in-residence at Company One Theatre.)
She was also honored this year with an approving reference by President Obama, who cited her 2011 journey to her mother’s former Cuban home in a speech he gave in Cuba in March. Her parents initially fled Cuba for Colombia, where Lopez was born, then moved to Massachusetts when she was 3. Other than a brief spell in Minneapolis, she’s been a Bay Stater ever since, and lives outside of Boston with her husband and daughter. Some of her best-known work, including “Sonia Flew” and “Becoming Cuba,” address the issues facing families that straddle different cultures.
Part of the challenge faced by Dower and Lopez is navigating her roles as playwright, actor, and the individual on whose experiences the play draws. Keeping those separate, Dower says, is essential to getting the most from the material. “She doesn’t want it to be exclusively an autobiographical experience. She wants to find the text as an actor, to tell the story of Mala as opposed to the story of Melinda.”
They’ve continued to make changes to the script in rehearsal, but very selectively. Running through a scene in a brightly lit studio at the Paramount Center recently, Lopez asked Dower to remind her how he’d rephrased a line in a previous session.
“Oh, I wasn’t giving you that as text.”
“But I want to take it!” she replied with a mischievous smile.
Working on a different scene, the director and actor make some adjustments to help a joke land. “Everybody wants a laugh right now,” Dower says.
It’s clearly not a laugh riot, but the one-act play is indeed laced with self-aware humor, some of it in the form of Mala acknowledging herself as a character in a play. “I think it’s a survival mechanism — how funny desperation is,” Lopez says. “You’re in an experience where your adult brain realizes that your parent is becoming your child, but your child brain is still fighting that. There’s a ton of humor in the truth of that journey.”
When she describes her experience caring for her parents, she may as well be talking about life more broadly.
“You’re making mistakes all the time, you’re failing all the time. You weren’t taught how to do it — no one trained you. Our culture doesn’t really help us do it. We feel alone. We’re not alone.”
Lunch is over and it’s time to go back to rehearsal. Lopez heads across the street, past the flashing image of her face, and continues on with the business of being herself.
Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre, Paramount Center, Boston,
Oct. 27-Nov. 20. Tickets: $60, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org