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New play presents a melding of Cuba and Maine, explored through food and family ties

Courtesy of Portland Stage
The play's main character, Bea (played by Ashley Alvarez) with her tío (played by JL Rey). The play is set in a fictional town in rural Maine, and co-writer Vanessa Garcia said it explores themes of love, loss, and forgiveness.

On the last day of rehearsals for the Portland Stage production of Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas, director Sally Wood was going through some last-minute blocking with the actors.

The name of the play comes from two pastries invented by the protagonist, Bea, a Cuban-American baker from Miami who moves to a mountain town in rural Maine.

Co-writer Vanessa Garcia said those pastries, which incorporate local ingredients such as goat cheese and blueberries into traditional Cuban recipes, are a symbol of Bea’s own melding of Miami and Maine.

"When you bring your culture, you bring your recipes, you bring the things you learned, and that no one can take that from you," Garcia said.

But Garcia said the play is about much more than food. Bea is estranged from her mother, struggling over whether to stay in Maine or move back to Miami – a question that pops up in conversations between Bea and her tío, her uncle, who comes up to stay with her.

"You know what would put me to sleep right now?" asks Tío Eme in one scene "Café con leche." 

"I miss that about Miami," says Bea, wistfully. To which Tío Eme responds, emphatically, "That’s why you should move back!"

Courtesy of Portland Stage
Bea (played by Ashely Alvarez) kneads dough on stage. The play centers around Bea's decision to move to rural Maine and open a bakery.

"I think at its center, it's love, loss, and forgiveness," said Garcia. "It's also something that we wanted people to leave with a lighter heart, then rather than a heavier one."

Garcia is a multidisciplinary writer, and grew up in Miami’s Cuban-American community. She’s also spent time interviewing Cuban refugees, specifically those who came to the US as unaccompanied minors in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. Those stories, she said, helped build the characters in this play, and the actors can relate to them.

"My own family story is very similar to the one in the show. My parents, they were political refugees," said Jezabel Montero, who plays the role of Bea’s estranged mother, Marilyn. In the real world, Montero's family fled Cuba about a decade after the Revolution. She was a born a couple years later, in New York.

Courtesy of Portland Stage
Jezabel Montero plays the role of Marilyn, Bea's estranged mother. Montero, whose family is also Cuban-American, said many of the characters in the play have backgrounds similar to those of her real-life relatives.

Montero said growing up as a first-generation immigrant, and seeing her family adapt to life in a new country, showed her the challenges and joys of making a home in a new land – a key theme of the play.

"They made me realize what it is to be an immigrant in a strange land, but building a community and a family in a new place," Montero said.

The play’s co-writer, poet Richard Blanco, also grew up as part of Miami's Cuban community, and now lives in the mountains of western Maine. He said that while the piece revolves around the experiences of the Cuban-American characters, it’s also a story about Maine.

"Maine is changing so much. So many different influences that are coming in. And so it's also, you know, how are we going to? How are we going to put all those ingredients together, right?" he said.

Blanco said the challenges and joys that Bea finds in her fictional town on stage run parallel to the culture shock he experienced when he first moved here.

"But also the delight of all that and the community that I found throughout the years, which has been just just such a pleasant surprise, because that's not what I thought," he said.

And on this last day of rehearsals, the actors are encountering another pleasant surprise – trays full of stunningly realistic clay pastries stocking the on-stage bakery.

"Can we just take a moment to acknowledge the unbelievable work of the prop people?" asked JL Rey, who plays Tío Eme. "Look at this thing! Holy mother of god!"

Sweet Goats and Blueberry Senoritas is running now through February 12th at Portland Stage.