¡Oh Mama! Melinda Lopez And Joel Perez Cook Up Some Virtual Love For The Huntington

Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez in "Black Bean Project." (Courtesy Huntington Theatre Company)
Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez in "Black Bean Project." (Courtesy Huntington Theatre Company)
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"Más ajo," Mariana says as she lifts the cutting board to her computer screen to show her brother Henry.

More garlic will make the frijoles negros taste like their mom's version.

In the Huntington Theatre Company premiere of " Black Beans Project ," a digital play showing through June 13, Mariana (Melinda Lopez) and her brother (Joel Perez) chat via Zoom to make their mother's black beans recipe and reminisce about their mom's presence in their lives.

Co-created by Perez and Lopez, both actors and writers, “Black Beans Project” was borne organically through the swapping of stories between the two. The stories morphed into characters they created and later developed into a script.

Fans of Amir Nizar Zuabi's " This Is Who I Am " might recognize the general setup of cooking via Zoom, but that's where the similarities end. Instead of the pain and residue of war and miscommunication between a father and son, Mariana and Henry recount a childhood full of love, the smell of delicious food cooking in the air, and memories of a mom whose personality crackled. The short 50-minute comedy is split into three parts and is primarily light and fun with a bit of Spanish folded in the dialogue.

Lopez ("Mala" and "Yerma") is a natural in the role of an older sister to Henry. The show starts with her sorting dry black beans that clink audibly as she drops them one by one.

Melinda Lopez at the stove in "Black Beans Project" streaming from the Huntington Theatre Company. (Courtesy)
Melinda Lopez at the stove in "Black Beans Project" streaming from the Huntington Theatre Company. (Courtesy)

"Sometimes, a little bean-sized stone or a piece of earth gets into the harvest, and you have to catch it before it goes into the pot. Otherwise, it can spoil the whole batch. No one wants to break a molar on their black beans," Mariana shares.

Mariana lived alone with her now-deceased Cuban mom for 10 years before Henry was born. They were poor, but she and her mom shared a love of music and often played a game her mom made up called secretos (secrets).  Her mom would tell Mariana something she never told anyone and then Mariana would reciprocate.

“And I told her everything. Lies I told, a boy I had a crush on. Come to think of it, that’s probably why she made up that game. It's very sneaky, right? It's a way to get me to be completely honest with her.”

A few minutes later Henry, who has a whole lot of personality and just some of the right ingredients for the beans, greets his sister. He's staying with his father in Florida to wait out the pandemic before returning to New York City.

The conversation flows effortlessly between Lopez and Perez, but Perez's more comedic lines land better than those meant to be deeply emotional. I find myself lightly chuckling at specific points as the siblings delve into everything from politics to sex and when Henry calls himself a "gaytheist." At one point, Henry tells Mariana she needs new beans because Goya is still canceled due to the CEO attending CPAC and stumping for Trump. She assures him that the beans were bought ages ago, and that they’re fine to use. He quips, "¡Suit yourself Republicana!” She fights back with, "I'm just fiscally conservative; it's not the same thing."

There are a few warm moments too. Henry reveals he was jealous of the intimate mother-daughter relationship Mariana had with their mom. He wanted to be part of the inside jokes the two of them had. Mariana cherishes that time but remembers how much richer their lives became when their mom met Henry's dad.

The characters created by Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez compare notes in "Black Beans Project." (Courtesy Huntington Theatre Company)
The characters created by Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez compare notes in "Black Beans Project." (Courtesy Huntington Theatre Company)

Their sharpest collective memory centers on a camping trip to New Hampshire. They had camp beans, Mariana lost Henry for a little and later joined him in a field of flowers, and a storm came through with raindrops that sounded a lot like the clinking of dry beans in a bowl.

Lopez is the 2019 Mass Cultural Council Fellow and 2019 Elliot Norton Prize winner for Sustained Excellence. Like most of her work, "Black Beans Project" centers on a strong female character and explores identity. It’s clear that even though the family's matriarch has died, the mark she's left on her children can still be felt.

Perez also tackles identity in his plays "From the Fountain," about a man who "returns home to his Puerto Rican Pentecostal family to bury his father," and "The Church of the Holy Glory," about friends who meet for brunch and embark on a voyage of faith and fabulousness.

As the beans simmer, both Mariana and Henry — who is part Puerto Rican and loves eating red beans and rice too — talk about all the things they hoped each other would be as a montage of drawings, photos, and film play. Mariana imagines her brother would be a runner or an engineer, and he'd definitely be musical. Henry thinks a sister might be a caregiver like their mom or be "an around the way girl with her hair slicked back with baby hairs gelled down and gold hoop earrings hanging down from her ears." Maybe she'd be a singer like La Lupe; that's who he wanted to be when he was little.

"Black Beans Project" acts as a quick respite from life's everyday doldrums. Still, the play might have benefited from a live virtual performance allowing the possibility of ad-libbing and the added energy of an audience chatting in real-time like some other virtual offerings this season.

As they add garlic, oregano, bay leaves, and red wine vinegar, well white vinegar for Henry, there are tears, talk of broken relationships, and a secret plan to free their mom's spirit in the mountains where she was happiest.

Just the three of them: Mariana, Henry and their papacito.

On-demand streaming of The Huntington Theatre's " Black Beans Project " is available now through June 13.


Jacquinn Sinclair Performing Arts Writer
Jacquinn Sinclair is a freelance arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in Performer Magazine, The Philadelphia Tribune and Exhale Magazine.



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