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The play ‘Mala’ aims to normalize difficult conversations about being a caregiver

An actor onstage with a lounge chair behind her
Melinda Lopez, the playwright of “Mala,” acting onstage.
(Rich Soublet II / The Old Globe)
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Melinda Lopez’s play “Mala” opens with one of the coldest Boston winters in recent memory. A daughter is grappling with her mother’s steady decline. She struggles to overcome her guilt of not being the perfect daughter during her mother’s final moments.

This isn’t a story about dealing with death or caregiving “the right way.” Rather, it’s about opening a dialogue and acknowledging the difficulties of supporting and caring for a dying loved one. “Sometimes serving the people who gave us everything is harder than we anticipate,” the playwright and actor says. “And that brings with it joy, it brings humor, it brings a lot of laughter — it brings struggles. And I wanted to create a forum where we could normalize the conversation.”

“Mala,” which was first performed in 2016 at ArtsEmerson in Boston, went on to have two more productions in 2017 and 2019 as well as a month-long streaming performance on PBS. Lopez’s one-woman show has returned to the stage at the Old Globe in San Diego, where it will play until June 12 at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, part of the Globe’s Conrad Prebys Theatre Center.

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This time around, the production will include — in addition to English performances — select performances in Spanish by Yadira Correa, a contributor to the Old Globe who will also play the understudy for the English performances. After its run at the theater, “Mala” will turn into a traveling production. The play will be performed at different locations in San Diego and will make a stop in Tijuana, Mexico.

Lopez wrote the play while tending to her ill mother and wrestling with the reality that she was dying. While other stories about death are often produced as a reflection of someone’s passing or in the immediate aftermath, Lopez wrote this story from “inside the chaos of it,” says the play’s director David Dower.

“The play — although it’s beautifully structured and it’s an elegant story — it’s a story of chaos,” he says. “It’s a story of careening from one mistake to another mistake, basically, told with a great deal of humor.”

Lopez changed parts of the play after feeling like she was in “a different place with the show.” That meant highlighting different scenes, such as those depicting the process of grief, as well as adjusting to the round stage at the Old Globe — completely different from the traditional stage the play is usually performed on.

“One of the things that was interesting to me is how, for example, the process of grieving is very different for each person. And we experience loss in many, many different ways,” Lopez says. “And some of us — we don’t always recognize it.”

When Correa read the script for the first time, she connected with it immediately.

“I think of my aunt a lot for this play — a whole lot,” Correa says.

An actor gestures onstage.
Yadira Correa in “Mala.”
(Rich Soublet II / The Old Globe )
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Correa’s aunt was the sole caretaker of her grandmother. Correa would visit her aunt and grandmother as many times as possible, with each visit lasting up to a month. During these visits, Correa would “see and hear her [aunt’s] stories” of pain, exhaustion, sorrow and guilt, she says.

Then, her grandmother fell multiple times, and Correa’s aunt was no longer able to take care of her. Correa’s aunt made the tough decision to transition her to a nursing home — a decision thatcaused constant pangs of guilt. Correa’s grandmother lived to be almost 100 years old and died in 2019.

“I do this in a way for my aunt and for people to just know that it’s OK, that there is no perfect way, that you probably will mess up, that you’re doing the best you can, to be kind to yourself, to give yourself some grace,” she says. “I just want people to walk away knowing that they’re seen.”

Situated in a place where Latinos make up about one-third of the population, the Old Globe has increasingly been producing plays that reflect on the myriad, varied experiences of its community members — which includes finding programming that incorporates the Spanish language, says Barry Edelstein, the Erna Finci Viterbi Artistic Director at the Old Globe.

While the company has featured plays created by Latinx writers, or that focus on issues that are important to the Latin American world, “Mala” is one of the first recent plays to have a production completely in Spanish.

Edelstein said the last play done completely in Spanish at the Old Globe was a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” way before he became artistic director 10 years ago.

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While the events that transpired between Lopez and her mother were in Spanish, Lopez wrote her play for an English-speaking audience.

When “Mala” was adapted into an audiobook, the audiobook streaming service Audible translated the play into Spanish. The Spanish performance of “Mala” at the Old Globe was later adapted from the audiobook.

“It’s really thrilling to actually be able to hear it in Spanish, and it has such an alive quality. It has such a beautiful, incredibly intimate quality in that language. Most of these events were in Spanish, but they’re written for an English-speaking audience, and getting to hear them again in Spanish is really, really fantastic,” Lopez says.

But reflecting the many communities of San Diego means finding ways to reach out and make theater accessible, which is why “Mala” will be a part of the Old Globe’s “Globe for All Tour” enabling the production to travel to different locations around San Diego.

Following its run at the Old Globe, “Mala” will be performed for free in English at Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility and at the San Diego Rescue Mission. The play will be performed in Spanish at the San Diego Rescue Mission, Lauderbach Park, Otay Mesa-Nestor Branch Library and Centro Cultural de Tijuana in Tijuana, Mexico.

Lopez hopes that the play will strike a chord with different communities.

“In a time where we’ve experienced so much division, some human experiences transcend your politics. They transcend your culture. They transcend your gender identity,” Lopez says. “The unifying experience that people have in the theater with the show is very beautiful.”

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'Mala'

Where: The Old Globe in San Diego at the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, part of the Globe’s Conrad Prebys Theatre Center. 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego, CA, 92101
When: English Performances: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 p.m., Saturdays at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Spanish performances: Thursday, May 19 at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 21 at 8:00 p.m.; Tuesday, May 24 at 7:00 p.m.; Saturday, May 28 at 2:00 p.m.; Wednesday, June 1 at 7:00 p.m.; Sunday, June 5 at 7:00 p.m.; Friday, June 10 at 8:00 p.m.; and Sunday, June 12 at 2:00 p.m. Through June 12.
Cost: $45 - $94.
Information: theoldglobe.org.

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