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The Mathematical Constant Grief (g!) as a By-Product of (Time)(Work) + Lorca

Melinda Lopez is the Playwright-in-Residence at the Huntington Theatre Company through the National Playwright Residency Program, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Find out more about her residency experience here, and learn about the impact of the program at large here.

I can’t get off the couch. Again. Is that grief, or summer blues? I stare at a blank page, no words come. Again. Is that grief, or writer’s block? I turn down another free ticket to see a play. Again. My fathers photo beams at me from over my Mac. He is singing, mouth wide-open, eyes laughing, He is so alive. His ashes are on my mother’s bureau. When I give her meds in the morning, or bring her dinner in the evening, she asks, “Did you talk to your father today? Go talk to him.” His eyeglasses sit on the tiny maple casket.

I’m a mother, a wife, a daughter, and a writer. I have first world problems. My father died last month. I was with him when he died. I went right back to work, directing a reading for the Huntington Summer Workshop. It was good to be busy. And I loved the play, written by a dear friend. Work is good and healthy and fulfilling. But at home, I can’t get off the couch. Staying busy isn’t digging deep. And Writing is all about that. It’s stillness in the mind that I need. But when I get still, I get so sad. Who wants to write that kind of play?

My plays have been described as “magical realism” (a term I hate by the way), because they are populated with ghosts and ancestors and impossible fissures in time and actors multi-cast in intentional ways. But I think my work is Math. Every equation, perfectly balanced. Spain’s war on Cuba, 1898 = Adela’s war on her family. Country v. Family, 9/11 USA = Country v. Family, Havana 1961. Second Act Time < First Act Time. Character × √Obsession = Good Play. My plays are unified, obsessively mathematical. I can’t find the math in grief though. Grief is a meandering road trip through boring country. It’s long series of unrelated events:

(Lock keys in car)(Sad) + (Mother needy)(Mad) + Muppet car commercial = Tears

The unifying principle is boring. It’s banal. It’s too kitchen sink for my taste in drama. Sad Unmotivated Protagonist = Dull Play.

I worked this summer on a translation of Yerma. Federico Garcia Lorca is a math-playwright that people confuse with a “magical realist” (gag.) Yerma is a perfect math play. Three acts; two scenes each; one theme. Repetition and variation, with music and guitar. Yerma is a terrible protagonist—terrible in the Greek sense. Single minded. Obsessed with bearing a child. At war with her fate. When she can’t realize her dreams, she destroys her own life. Plus murders her husband. I love this play.

I wrote this summer, but all channeled through the Lorca lens. Translating when you are sad, I can say, is a very good thing to do. You can experience wild creativity within very safe margins. It’s Lorca’s play. But I get to stand in his skin, and pretend. I get to leave the sad couch of my mind, and go somewhere else. Lorca is my Virgil.

Finally, I got off the couch, and heard the translation read out loud. A room full of my favorite actors. A director I love. A stage manager who brought chocolate. It was my first day in a theater since my father died. The readers were passionate, vulnerable. The play transcended time and place and I—for a time—for a six-hour window of time—forgot grief. Forgot myself. Forgot my father, and how much I miss him. I was transported. I was happy. And I want to go back to that place. My sanctuary—for my whole life—has been the theater. The physical building, and the mind building. That place where Magic is Real. Maybe that’s what that stupid phrase means.

My father was a mathematician. A genius. One of those people who are so smart that even the smartest people don’t understand them. He was always daydreaming about math. He’d stare into space, and solve problems in his head. On vacations, he would work at notebooks filled with symbols. I didn’t inherit his gift for numbers. But I understand that place where he went—that place of sanctuary, where there are no sad couches. He loved the theater because I loved the theater. My last play, Becoming Cuba was the first play of mine that he didn’t see. He won’t see Yerma. Or the next play I write. But I have to trust there will be a next play. There will be a next one, won’t there?


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