It was tough, growing up poor and Puerto Rican in the Bronx. Hector Melendez-Figueroa moved to Tampa with his family 20 years ago, when he was 15, and he carried a lot of emotional baggage.
“My mother wanted us to have a better lifestyle; that’s why she came down here,” says Melendez-Figueroa. “She just got tired of the violence, the gangs and all that. She wanted to live in Tampa because her immediate family was here, and here, kids could go to school without metal detectors.”
This week, Lab Theater Project world-premieres Hector Melendez-Figueroa’s first play. The Wendy House is part crime drama, part ghost story, and part catharsis for its playwright.
In England, a back yard playhouse for children is called a Wendy House. It is, of course, a reference to J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan stories, where children never grew up and could escape the harsh realities of the world.
In Melendez-Figueroa’s play, the title refers to an old shed in the woods. A place where his protagonist Sebastian, as a child, could go when things got dark and ugly while he was in foster care.
And they did get dark. And ugly.
In The Wendy House, Sebastian, grown up now, returns to bury his father. “Sebastian is trying to face his past head on,” explains Melendez-Figueroa. “His father’s partner, who’s a detective, comes in because he, too wants to solve a cold case. And they both end up in the Wendy House, where the truth comes to light.”
Premiering original works is part of the Lab Theater Project DNA. Melendez-Figueroa started The Wendy House six years ago, with the encouragement of the company’s founder and artistic director Owen Robertson.
Lab’s mentorship program, in which green young writers are paired with published playwrights, was what Melendez-Figueroa needed to cross the finish line.
“I went from being very expository, just talking about problems … I wrote it six times! Six different drafts, from hardcore to what it is now. If you think the play is tough – but still good – the other versions were rough.”
One of the most important lessons Melendez-Figueroa learned was this: “Don’t put all your demons out on the table. Owen told me that. And he told me ‘Give these characters a voice – not your voice but their voice.’”
The family arrived in Tampa on Monday, Sept. 10, 2001. Hector was supposed to start at Gaither High School the next day.
He had friends back at home who were directly impacted by 9-11, and they were weighing heavy on his mind when he started school on Wednesday the 12th.
Fitting in – a new state, a new city, a new school, new classmates – was going to take some time. “New York, you had to be strong and make sure that nobody don’t mess with you,” he says, “compared to here where it’s more of a mental thing, trying to survive. At the time, Gaither was nice, but it was also kind of segregated. It’s a great school, and I love it to this day, but it was very tough for me.
“Because I didn’t fit in too well. I was too poor to be a New Yorker, because everybody had stereotypes of people from the Bronx. They thought we all had Tims and Nikes, and I was like ‘No. I’m broker than you.’”
He dropped out during his senior year, to help his struggling mother keep food on the table.
There followed years of emptiness, dead ends and depression, during which he wondered what he could do in this strange new world to make him look forward to getting out of bed each day?
He’d done some acting back in New York, even briefly attended a performing arts school. So he searched out local theater groups, auditioned and got onstage.
“In the Bronx,” he says, “my mom stole cable, as a way for us to not be in the streets so much. So I was watching movies after movies after movies. And movies I shouldn’t be watching! But my mom always told me hey, know the difference – when you step out on the streets, that’s reality. When you see this on TV, that’s fiction.
“We used to all lay in this big bed with her and watch movies. She didn’t speak a word of English. But if the acting was good, it would capture her emotions.
“And my mom has always been a tough mom, so I guess you could say I’m always trying to capture her emotions.”
Acting led to writing, and with Robertson’s support and encouragement, The Wendy House began to take shape.
“The story came to me as a vision,” explains the newly-minted playwright. “It was a vision that came to me as I was listening to one of my favorite songs, ‘All Apologies’ by Nirvana. The vision was about a little girl standing at the end of the bridge, apologizing to the world, how sorry she is. She was afraid to jump. The only way she was going to jump off this world was to think about going to Neverland.
And I though ‘Oh man, that’s my past,’ because when I was a kid, when things was rough for me in the Bronx, I always wished there was a Neverland. And I said to myself ‘OK, I have to tell this story.’”
Info and tickets here.