Of all the versions of Cuba that exist, few are as fragmented or elusive as those that live in the memory of exiles. Anyone who left the island before his or her own memories really began or grew up in the United States with exile parents knows stories of how food tasted better in Havana, the sea was bluer, the sun brighter. As Melinda Lopez attests, attempting to find out the truth, any truth, about what was left behind can be a maddening yet vital endeavor.
Lopez, an actress raised in New England by Cuban émigré parents, has stirred her own memories and those of her mother, father, grandmothers, and various aunts into Midnight Sandwich/Medianoche, an engaging one-woman show named after the popular Cuban sandwich. "Cubans aren't like normal people," she announces early on, observing a cultural penchant not only for the pork-heavy sandwich but also for drinking café con leche way into the early hours. Having learned how to make the titular culinary treat from her great-grandmother, a spiritualist of sorts who "once turned a man into a turnip," Lopez uses the memory of the food as a jumping-off place to explore her past. "The farther you get from Cuba, the more powerful the [sandwich's] effect," she says.
Less an ethnic manifesto than a comic essay on trying to understand the complications of family, Medianoche is nonetheless a valentine to things Cuban. As a young child, Lopez explains, the request "Let's go to Cuba," was a family catch phrase for turning up the heat in the winter when the house got too cold. "Usually, being Cuban spelled disaster," she explains in one hilarious sequence recalling how her mother prepared black beans for her slumber party guests in place of the requisite pizza. For the most part, though, she believed that "all the best things in life are Cuban," particularly her gigantic extended family, the five aunts and their families who would come to visit in the summer, transforming routine daily life into a raucous party.
Later, however, the notion of being Cuban takes on a different meaning for Lopez. "I have a vision of a place I've never seen," she remarks. Like most of us, Lopez's childhood is punctuated with her parents' vision of the world, whether those parents grew up in Havana or Kalamazoo. To be anyone's child is to have to assimilate the customs of one's parents' generation to the reality of growing up in a different place and time. The beauty of Medianoche is that it reaches across cultural specifics to embrace all family experience. Not until she needs to understand the specific realities of her parents' past does the specter of the historic Cuba come to haunt her. Until then, she declares, "I am a geek from the suburbs," albeit a geek who finds parallels between the characters on the '60s TV show Gilligan's Island and her family. "Mrs. Howell was the most Cuban of all," she says of the millionaire exile on the TV sitcom, whose "good breeding and funny accent" reminds her of her own mother.
Written by Lopez and shaped by talented Boston director Betsy Carpenter, the production benefits from creative staging, including one segment in which Lopez describes the difference between Anglo and Cuban bodies by twisting a bed sheet into various anatomical shapes. Lopez is an appealing actress, but in general her writing takes center stage. (She was recently named Charlotte Woolard Playwright by the Kennedy Center.) Medianoche takes on familiar themes such as the limited notions of Latinas as spitfires and the experience of being classified as a nonwhite "other," but these issues are less engaging than family specifics. "Beans are like children," we hear her grandmother say in one of several generic homilies that seep into the play. "They cook in their own time." More interesting is her mother's furtive confession that she considers Goya beans as good as the homemade product. "And your father does, too," she tells Melinda.
Over the 90-minute stretch, the actress brings several members of her family to life, but her imitations of her mother, father, and kooky Tía Isabel stop at the level of caricatures. Her verbal depictions of them are far more compelling. Speaking of her father, a scientist, whom she invokes by donning a long-sleeve guayabera, she remarks that the engineer compulsively doodles on anything, even a handy orange, and that his shirts bear no pocket protectors. "He doesn't need one. His pens are very well behaved."
Begging her parents to talk about their homeland, the young Melinda learns that her father loved to spend days fishing and hunting and also eating his catch. "Flamingo is too bony," he tells her. "Cormorant tastes just awful, but pelican is really quite tasty." This knowledge leads her to believe that if he took her to the zoo, she would learn that "he had eaten almost every animal there." It's when she asks them to describe Cuba to her in adult terms ("Don't say it was a paradise"), she encounters resistance. Like many an angry adolescent before her, Melinda throws her parents' legacy back at them, testing them with newfound beliefs about their part in bringing about the oppression under Castro.
The most powerful part of Medianoche is the segment in which Melinda gets her mother to describe a prison visit to her father, an early supporter of Castro later imprisoned with many other Cuban men for reasons that are never forthcoming. "These questions only get answers in a democracy," he asserts. The story is chilling on its own terms. Whether it's true to the letter or not, the experiences described here are, by all accounts, representative of what many Cubans endured. As family history it's also wrenching. How many children grow to discover that their parents' pasts aren't as simple as they assumed or without long-term effects? You don't have to be a child of Holocaust survivors or of Cuban exiles to understand the implications of learning what forces shaped the people who raised you.
Lest you get the idea that the charm of Medianoche is all in Lopez talking, let me assure you that the design elements are also marvelous, despite the obstructed sightlines of the Coconut Grove Playhouse's tiny Encore Room. Not the least among many good ideas is the use of Tom Petty's song "American Girl" to open the show. Steve Lambert's minimalist set consists of a frame suggesting the neoclassic pediments of a New England house. The open area inside the frame contains a box from which Lopez pulls the bits of clothing that augment her characters' identities. A small sleeping space is nestled between two columns. Here Lopez snuggles under a quilt as the show opens. She wakes to the sound of her radio, giving a weather report that segues into a monologue that merges with Melinda's subconscious. From this point the actress fuses her dreams with her memories, inviting us to enjoy the dramatic equivalent of a very tasty snack indeed.
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