When playwright Melinda Lopez was caring for her dying mother, she often found herself turning to her smart phone to capture her thoughts during her mother’s last days.
But what began as a “coping mechanism” for Lopez turned into a one-woman show and a meditation on human failings and families.
Mala, the story of a woman trying to be a good daughter at the end of her mother’s life, has its seeds in those little notes tapped out in Lopez’s smart phone.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing, that I thought, ‘Let me write down these things,’” said Lopez, who is playwright-in-residence at the Huntington Theatre Company. “Sometimes it was purely a coping mechanism [when] there wasn’t anyone I could call up and say, ‘I think I’m losing my mind.’
“Part of it was, I didn’t want to forget this,” she said.
Mala is premiering at the Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Emerson/Paramount Center through November 20. It’s directed by David Dower, co-artistic director of ArtsEmerson, which is presenting the show.
“Mala means ‘bad,’” reads the tagline of the show and a line from the play. “Not that you have done something bad, but that you are, in your core, bad.”
Lopez’s character in the play struggles to live up to this “mythology” around caretakers as perfect, self-abnegating children who “do everything right.”
“Mala is trying very hard to be that, and she fails,” Lopez said. “And that’s the humor.”
Some of those expectations arise from Mala’s (and Lopez’s) experiences as first-generation Cuban Americans, and the tension between her mother’s “Old World” attitudes and beliefs and her own “New World” reality, Lopez said.
“It’s very particular to the Cuban American dynamic, which is daughters do the caretaking and there is a hierarchy of family, and you do what you’re told, and there’s a whole set of expectations that go along with that that’s particular to that culture,” Lopez said. “But I also don’t think that’s exclusive to that culture.”
Lopez said she has many friends who, if they’re not going through the experience of caring for an aging and frail parent now, they just came through that “journey” or are preparing themselves for it in the near future.
And despite Mala’s Cuban American details, the core reality of the show—death—is universal.
People tend to wrap the act of dying in a kind of “mystique” and treat it like a singular and terrifying catastrophe, Lopez said.
“One of the things Mala realizes is that actually, dying is something everyone will do. It’s the most ordinary thing in the world,” Lopez said. “How do you get to the point where you acknowledge that grief is normal, pain is normal.”
Dower and Lopez have done about a half-dozen readings of the play for various audiences over the past year as the show has been in development, Dower wrote in ArtsEmerson’s October newsletter. With each reading, he’s noticed a “shift” in the room when audience members realize that the story they’re hearing is, in some way, their own.
“[Lopez has] opened her heart and her private grief to share her experience in communion with strangers out of a deep faith in us, in art, and in the power of empathy to call us to our higher selves,” Dower wrote.
For more information about Mala, or to purchase tickets, visit artsemerson.org.