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September 14, 2006

Fight or flight? A Jewish Cuban mom wonders

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/fight_or_flight_a_jewish_cuban_mom_wonders_20060915

Melinda Lopez's "Sonia Flew," which opens at the Laguna Playhouse on Sept. 16, depicts the parallel struggles of a Cuban girl in 1961 and a half-Jewish, half-Cuban American boy just after Sept. 11.
 
Of Cubans and Jews, Lopez says, "These are two cultures that have experienced Diaspora, two cultures that are disconnected from their homeland, two cultures that stress education, family, food, laughter. When you go to Thanksgiving in a Jewish household or a Cuban household, you'll talk about politics, tell jokes."
 
Speaking from Boston, where she lives with her Jewish husband, Lopez, who was born in this country to Cuban parents, says with a chuckle: "Two Cubans in a household is just trouble."
 
The first act of her new play takes place during Chanukah/Christmas vacation in 2001. To emphasize the seeming harmony of this "blended family," Lopez indicates in stage directions that the Christmas tree is decorated with Stars of David.
 
Yet we sense that something may be wrong when Sonia, the protagonist, and her daughter forget to make the traditional 7-Up Jell-O salad, a symbolic failure that suggests a rift in the family, similar to what occurs in Barry Levinson's "Avalon" when a guest, arriving late for Thanksgiving, complains, "You cut the turkey?"
 
In Levinson's movie, the discord is over the relative climb up the financial ladder of the differing family members, while in Lopez's play Sonia is distressed over her son's decision to leave college and join the Marines.
 
In making a parallel between the aftermath of Castro's revolution and Sept. 11, Lopez seems to posit that history doesn't repeat itself but it can overwhelm families and tear them apart. Like Stephen Dedalus, who famously says in "Ulysses," "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," Sonia feels she has been doomed twice by history, once in 1961 when her parents forced her to flee to the United States, the second time in 2001 when her son, Zak, heads off to fight in Afghanistan. Like Daedalus, the namesake for Joyce's character, who flies from the island of Crete to safety but loses his son, Sonia escapes from Castro's oppression but never gets to see her parents again, and 40 years later she fears losing her son, too.
 
One of the ironies of "Sonia Flew" is that flight, which should signify freedom, comes to mean betrayal to Sonia -- abandonment and a manipulation of patriotism.
 
With the subtext of the two hijacked airplanes flying into the Twin Towers, Lopez broaches the forgotten history of the Pedro Pan children, whose parents sent them away from Cuba on falsified student visas in the early 1960s; the play ponders why the parents never left the windows open so the children could return to their homeland.
 
Unlike Peter Pan and the lost boys, the Pedro Pan children don't live in Never Neverland; they live very much in the real world, in a new country, the United States, where they have to start all over, learn a new language, make new families. In that regard, Sonia shares a bond with Sam, her father-in-law, a World War II veteran who emigrated from Europe to the United States at the time of the Holocaust.
 
While there is no suspense in the first half of the play about Zak's joining the Marines, the act ends with Zak involved in an explosion in Afghanistan, followed by a blackout. Lopez leaves us uncertain for nearly the entire second act as to whether Zak lives or dies. For a scene or two, she also effectively withholds from us the key point that Sonia's parents hated the revolution under Castro. Occasionally, Sonia tips us off with Shakespearean-style soliloquies. Lopez began her theatrical career as an actress for Shakespeare & Company, a troupe in Western Massachusetts, and she says that when she first started acting, "I imagined myself exclusively performing Shakespeare's plays."
 
For years, she was primarily an actor. However, she enjoyed "contributing to someone else's artistic vision" to such an extent that she decided to write her own plays. She obtained a masters in playwriting from Boston University, where she studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and wrote her first play about 10 years ago, a one-woman show, "Midnight Sandwich," which was staged in Boston and in which she played all the parts of her bicultural family.
 
Since then, she has written several other short works, as well as a number of full-length plays. In addition to Shakespeare, whose Ariel is a precursor to Sonia in that she can fly, yet lacks freedom until the end of "The Tempest," Lopez cites August Wilson as an influence. Lopez doesn't write the way Wilson does with his flowing jazz-like riffs and authentic dialect. At times, Lopez's dialogue veers toward cliché, such as when young Sonia, in a line uttered countless times since the dawn of movies, tells her mother, "I'm not going to end up like you, I know that much. I'm going to do something with my life."
 
Despite the occasional, overly familiar line, Lopez creates characters who are inhabited with the kind of dedication and idealism we expect of pioneers. Given the waves of Jewish immigration in this country, it may not be surprising that after Lopez staged her one-woman show, "Midnight Sandwich," her mother-in-law said to her, "You're Jewish, and your whole family is Jewish." Her mother-in-law then began asking Lopez if her family lit candles on Friday nights, like Marrano Jews who conducted ancient Jewish rituals in the basements of their homes after the Spanish Inquisition.
 
"You came over with Columbus and stopped off at Cuba," theorized her mother-in-law.
 
Lopez took her mother-in-law's comment as a compliment, though she has no idea whether she actually descends from Jews. While her protagonist, Sonia, is very attracted to Castro, whose surname, according to tradition, is a Jewish surname, Lopez does not have fond words for the aging Cuban leader.
 
"I don't think he's going to die. He's too stubborn to die," she said. "Nothing will change. When he does die in another 50 years, things will get worse. Scarcity will be greater. I'm not very optimistic."  
These words contrast with those of Sonia's father in the play, who tells his daughter that Castro's reign will not last. But Sonia never sees her parents again. As we pass the fifth anniversary of Sept. 11, it's worth remembering that, in the months that followed the tragedy, many Americans shared with Sonia a fear of flying.
 
"Sonia Flew" opens Sept. 16 and plays through Oct. 15 at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach.
 
For more information, call(949) 497-2787 or visit www.LagunaPlayhouse.com.
 

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