Looking at Cuban history through the eyes of ordinary people isn’t a new recipe for David Ellenstein, artistic director of San Diego’s North Coast Repertory Theatre. In 2006, he directed Melinda Lopez’s Sonia Flew, about a woman living in two realities: the Cuban “Pedro Pan” exodus of the early 1960s and the post–9/11 war on terror. That was the beginning of an artistic relationship that has since strengthened.
So when North Coast Rep board member Jenie Altruda decided to commission a playwright, Ellenstein called Lopez. He recalls that she said to him, “I have three plays in my mind right now: a comedy, a family thing and a bigger, scary one.” The “scary one” turned out to be Lopez’s newest: Becoming Cuba. It received a workshop last fall, and Ellenstein will direct its premiere May 29–June 23. “The scary part was the size of it,” Lopez says. “It involved my favorite geopolitical chess pieces: the U.S., Cuba and the colonial world power of Spain. Plus I had this personal connection—a great-grandmother who had lived through it.”
The story, set in 1890s Cuba, features a young widow who runs a local pharmacy and faces decisions of huge personal and political dimensions. “The play is about dilemma: the dilemma of priority, of family, of country,” says Ellenstein. Lopez’s work fuses fierce urgency with nostalgia. Her heroines struggle with a sense of inaction that ultimately affects their inner and outer world. “I was always taught that big choices come at the beginning of a play,” Lopez remarks. “But my characters are very often in rebellion against that.”