American Players Theatre
5950 Golf Course Road
P.O. Box 819
Spring Green, WI 53588
Box Office: 608-588-2361
For this week's Season Select, we're diving a little deeper into the quiet but mighty Mala, a play that's deeply funny and deeply human. A perfect story for the Touchstone.
Playing: Touchstone Theatre | August 12 - October 5
Featuring: Nancy Rodriguez
Genre: Contemporary Dramedy
Last Seen at APT: First time!
Go If You Liked: In Acting Shakespeare (2009, 2012), Dickens in America (2013), The Year of Magical Thinking (2014)
There are some topics that can be tough to explore with humor and grace. Mala is here to change that. She is doing her best to be the dutiful daughter, while guiding her fierce mother along her final path. But their journey is exquisitely moving, and surprisingly funny – every step combining the devastating with the darkly hilarious. After all, what’s left but to laugh when you think of what’s expected of us in these moments? How do we give so much of ourselves to someone else, and continue to be ourselves? A gorgeous, flowing series of vignettes; epic and intimate, like all the best plays. Like life itself. Told by one extraordinary actor, Nancy Rodriguez – just the soul to give this story its heart.
Mala is a play you may not have heard of. But once you experience it, it will stay with you in all the best ways that the best stories do. It is so honest; a slice of life that many have experienced, and most of us will experience. It is fleet of foot, whizzing past in about 90 minutes that hold the whole of life. And it is unspeakably funny. And wrenching. And real.
But without giving too much away, let's talk about how Mala came to be, because its story is a fascinating one. First, if you don't know, mala means bad. But not just bad. According to playwright Melinda Lopez in a 2022 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, when her parents fled Castro's Cuba in 1959, they brought the Cuban definition of the word along with them. Lopez said in the article, “It means your essential self is bad. It’s the tension of wanting to be the good daughter and make the right choices (as a caregiver). You’re bound to fail and be mala.”
And that can be just how it feels when caring for family that you know is approaching the end of their lives. No matter how good a job you do, at some point, it's just not going to be good enough. If you've been through it, you know. And if you haven't, you should know that the process is not all mala.
Lopez wrote Mala while caring for her 92-year-old mother at the end of her life. A playwright, educator and actor, Lopez recorded audio notes on her iPhone throughout the process, to document her mother's life, as well as her own frustrations with the headbutting that goes along with caring for a loved one - especially when both parties are equally stubborn. And it occurred to Lopez that her family wasn't the only one going through this, so she spoke with friends who were experiencing similar circumstances. Which is part of why the story rings so true. Because it is.
Mala premiered at Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, 2016. Lopez said: “The play is actually deeply funny because I think families are funny and honesty is funny,” she said. “I hear a lot of the laughter of recognition, like ‘oh I know that moment,’ ‘I’ve done that’ and ‘that’s my mom’ or ‘that’s my dad.’ The play is rooted in my experience as a first-generation American from a particular place in the world, but I’ve had people from China, Greece, Jewish families and a South Asian family stay after and tell me they needed to bring their whole family.”
While Lopez herself originated the role of Mala (both on stage and off), the extraordinary Nancy Rodriguez will step into those shoes this season at APT. Nancy was at APT for the first time last season, playing Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, and the Player Queen in Hamlet (and also stepping expertly into some understudy roles). Among her many other roles, Nancy also played Helena in the World Premiere of The River Bride by Marisela Treviño Orta (alongside Triney Sandoval as Sr. Costa). And the director, Rosa Joshi, is a brilliant director, producer and educator based in Los Angeles, who has been working with APT on the Creating the Classics of Tomorrow play Wildfire (working title), by Reginald A. Jackson. We'll have more on that down the road.
The playwright who created Mala, Melinda Lopez, wrote this authentic, compact, funny and moving one-woman play from the notes she took on her iPhone while she was caring for her mother. So it grew from real circumstances. It’s part the story of their family, and how they try (and sometimes fail) to navigate aging and end of life. And it's part the story of her friends who are going through the same thing. The result is this utterly genuine look at what can be a very difficult subject. Which sounds incredibly heavy. But I cannot begin to tell you how funny this play is, and the number of times I laughed out loud just reading it. Family is ridiculous, and only gets more ridiculous the older we get, and the more honest we can be about it. And Mala finds the ridiculousness in it, the humanity, and she is more than willing to share. Nancy Rodriguez plays Mala, and she is perfectly suited to take us on this journey. She is no nonsense, and funny, and has a heart the size of the world. And anyone who’s had a parent, or been a parent, or known a parent, is going to thoroughly relate to, and enjoy this story.
Learn more about Melinda Lopez's work (and her "secret evil plan: to create complex, latina women and put them center stage") on her Website.