Theater Review: “Black Beans Project” — Tasting Togetherness

By David Greenham

The heart and soul that so prominently flavors the Black Beans Project no doubt reflects the hopeful moment we’re in.

Black Beans Project, written and performed by Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez. Directed by Jaime Castañeda. Sound design and composition by Mikhail Fiksel. Video design by Hana S. Kim. Video editing by Tiffany L. Tavers. Produced virtually by the Huntington Theatre Company through June 13.

Melinda Lopez and Joel Perez in Black Beans Project. Photo: Huntington Theatre Company

Remember those old science fiction films that anticipated the advancements of tomorrow? One way Covid has forced us into that future is how the pandemic has made the widespread use of Zoom and other video platforms accepted, even commonplace. Suddenly, no matter where we are, we can set up a private conversation (at least we hope) in which we can see and hear each other.

Huntington Theatre Company artist-in-residence Melinda Lopez is one of several playwrights who have recognized that the Zoom platform can work perfectly well as a stage, particularly for intimate family stories. Her Black Bean Project takes up some bracing unfinished business between siblings Mariana Martinez (performed by Lopez) and Henry Ortega (Joel Perez), the little brother she calls Kiki.

The virtual production, which runs just under an hour, begins with a scene where Mariana, on Zoom in her home in Ithaca, is sorting dry beans “old school.” She is preparing them for the 24-hour soak that will plump them up for her late mother’s masterpiece, a perfect example of Cuban Frijoles Negros. She takes pleasure in the comfort of the task, its ritualistic frisson. “Sorting beans is like doing the rosary … without guilt,” she says.

Her brother Henry, who arrives via an online call from his father’s home in Orlando, isn’t all that sympathetic with his sister’s semireligious appreciation of his mother’s dish. The Catholic Church isn’t a home for him. As he says, “I’m a gaythiest.” For Henry, the dish is sacred because of its Proustian power to evoke the memory of the time the family would spend camping in New Hampshire. When he smelled his mother’s black beans, cooking on the open fire, he could come running from the lake, eagerly anticipating the flavorful first bite.

Today, Mariana and Henry are cooking Frijoles Negros together in honor of their mother. The session also offers Henry an opportunity to learn the secret of making the dish, which now, with their mother gone, only Mariana knows.

Their “Papacito” isn’t home. He’s vaccinated and is excited to get out and about and see his Florida friends. But the truth is that their father hasn’t been able to come to terms with the death of his wife, their mother. “He talks in grunts and John Wayne quotes.” There has been no closure for this family. Mom’s ashes sit in an urn on a closet shelf.

As they cook, Mariana and Henry discuss family issues and each other’s lives. Henry left his place in New York City when the pandemic hit to move to Florida and take care of his father. He hates his celibate life and is having difficulty with a man who is unable to grieve.

Recently divorced, Mariana is living in a house that she hates — it has become too big. She is surrounded by stuff that no longer matters to her. She’s bitter that her husband, Carlos, left her for a former secondary school classmate – a romance they’d been planning since middle school, she confesses in defeat. Like the good little brother he is, Henry assures her that he always thought Carlos was a dick. What’s worse for Mariana is the isolation of Covid: all the clients in her accounting business have been meeting with her online, so she hasn’t left the house in a year. She’s struggling with the intimidating emotional weight.

The pair laugh easily and, often along the way, they recall the beautiful field of lupines located near their campsite in New Hampshire. It was one of their mother’s treasured sights. They jab at each other over what to put in the dish. Mariana insists that black beans are required, not the red kidney beans used in Puerto Rico. And any good Cuban knows that parsley is called for, not cilantro, which is what Mexicans use.

Henry retorts by condemning Mariana’s use of Goya Beans. “They’re cancelled. Their president spoke at CPAC.” Mariana insists that she bought the cans before Goya became political poison. “These are Obama beans,” she protests.

As flavors develop in their stove-top pans, the impulse behind the pair’s cooking venture becomes clear. Like their father, they have not been able to properly mourn their mother’s passing. Mariana and Henry agree that they need to find a meaningful way to say goodbye to their mother. “Time doesn’t fix everything,” Henry insists, “I feel like our family is in some kind of limbo. I don’t know if we’re heading to heaven or hell, but we need to move on.”

Black Beans Project comes across as familiar domestic drama — a sort of small family Big Chill. But the pressures of Covid gives the script some immediacy, and Lopez and Perez establish a compelling rapport, despite a few forced moments. Director Jaime Castañeda has crafted a well-paced production that enhances the siblings’ slow discovery of the depth of their relationship.

The kitchen-centric setup makes it easy to be caught up in the action. The pair are actually cooking (the recipe is included in the program), so the performance is sure to make you long for some delicious Frijoles Negros  — whether they’re Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Mexican.

Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design and composition and Hana S. Kim ‘s video design are effective. The visual “special effects” highlight is an interlude that suggests the passing of time as the beans simmer. Someone, presumably Kim, has created a wonderful multimedia sequence as each sibling describes their early expectations of the other. It is a visually beautiful video made up of watercolors, ink drawings, and photos.

In the end, the siblings not only sample their creations, but have hatched an improbable plan for closure that will unite all four members of the family: Mariana, Henry, and their parents. The heart and soul that so prominently flavors the Black Beans Project no doubt reflects the hopeful moment we’re in. On the cusp of summer, we can set the politics of mask-wearing aside for a while and venture outside where we can safely taste togetherness.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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