It’s been a whirlwind trip for Mary Lou Piland of Vineyard Haven. In 2016 Piland gave a Moth talk at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs that set into motion a series of events that can best be described as head-spinning.
The story she told was of a high school romance in the ’80s, and the dramatic repercussions that ensued. When Piland was a freshman at Sacred Heart High School in Waterbury, Conn., she fell for a boy who was a junior — “the most beautiful boy I had ever seen” — and she fell hard. Nothing unusual about the story so far, except that Piland came from a traditional, white, Italian, Catholic family and the boy she fell for was Protestant — and black.
The first part of the story is about how Piland plotted to insinuate her way into the heart of Anthony, the boy with whom she was smitten. It’s funny, and involves a fair amount of teenage subterfuge, like Piland volunteering to work in the guidance department so she could learn Anthony’s class schedule and “accidentally” run into him throughout the day. Or finding his locker combination so she could “borrow” one of his sweaters (“That’s funny, I have a sweater just like that,” Anthony said). Piland’s stratagems would eventually win over the heart of Anthony, and this is when the story takes a dramatic turn.
In the words of Piland’s sister, “If Dad knew you were dating a black guy, he’d kill you.”
But in the end, love conquers all, and not only was Anthony accepted into the Italian family, but they were married, and today have three children.
Piland’s Moth talk was a big success, later to be repeated on Nantucket and performed in Boston before 2,000 people.
Prior to the Vineyard Moth talk, a practice run was held at the Yard in Chilmark. Harry Belafonte, singer and human rights activist, happened to be there to hear the talks. He took Piland aside and said, “I liked your story the most; I think you’re very courageous.” Piland thought, “Being told you’re courageous by someone who’s friends with Nelson Mandela, that’s pretty good.”
The talk also went viral, and as of today it’s been viewed by over 12 million people worldwide. One of the people who heard Piland’s Moth talk was an executive for 20th Century Fox, who encouraged her to write a book about the whole experience. Piland had never written a book before, but she reached out to Jenna Barrett Bernstein, an Islander now living in California, to co-write it with her. The book, “For the Love of Spumoni,” was released in June 2018. And this is where the plot thickens.
In the fall of 2018, local artist M-C Lamarre was thinking of taking a booth at Tivoli Day in Oak Bluffs. Lamarre is internationally known for her renderings of the iconic left-field wall of Fenway Park, the Green Monster. To cut down on costs for the booth, she put a post in Islanders Talk looking for someone to share the booth. Piland, looking for a way to sell books, took Lamarre up on her offer.
Lamarre and Piland hit it off: They had both studied abroad in Italy, and at the end of the day, Piland gave Lamarre a copy of her book. Lamarre didn’t get around to reading it for a month, but when she finished, she called Piland and said, “I’m laughing … I love this, and I want to give it to my brother; he’s a playwright, and he specializes in lovelorn Italian women.”
Lamarre’s brother, Jacques Lamarre, is a playwright whose previous works include a play titled “I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti.” When M-C showed Jacques “For the Love of Spumoni,” he jokingly said to her, “You know I write plays that don’t have Italian food in the title, don’t you?”
But Jacques loved the story. Especially when he realized the book was set in Waterbury, Conn. Jacques was no stranger to Waterbury; he lives in Manchester, Conn., but two of his previous plays had been produced in Waterbury at the Seven Angels Theater. He also saw the story as a testimony to what kind of obstacles love can overcome; as a gay man, Jacques had felt similar pressures when he was coming out.
Jacques contacted the head of the Seven Angels Theater and sent her the link to the Moth story, and she said, Send me a few pages of the play. Jacques locked himself up in a bed and breakfast for a couple of days, and came out with a 95-page manuscript … “I write fast,” Jacques said. Piland loved it. It was called “Love and Spumoni,” and while it was an adaptation of the book — the plot varied in places — it held true to the central theme. “It’s a story of hope, not just for black and white people,” Piland said. “The message is love has no color.”
There are many characters in the book, and it would be prohibitively expensive to stage, so Jacques came up with an ingenious theatrical device. The play is staged as if it is a Moth talk delivered by the present-day Mary Lou Piland. The other two players are “the young Mary Lou” and Anthony. Present-day Mary Lou acts out the parts of the other characters. Pictures of Waterbury in the ’80s are flashed on the screen, against a backdrop of ’80s music.
“Jacques did an amazing job with this,” Piland said. “He was able to capture both the pathos and the humor of the situation.”
Without a doubt, the story rings true today: “Just look at what’s going on with Megan Markel and the press today,” Anthony said; “it’s still very relevant.”
It’s a story that began with a Moth talk, which turned into a book, which turned into a play … where will it all end?
Last year Piland went to a comedy show in Boston and heard a young comic named Mark Riccadonna. “He was Italian and was doing Italian jokes, and he was really funny,” Piland said. “He used to be a writer for ‘Saturday Night Live.’” Piland introduced herself to Riccadonna after the show, told him about her book, and gave him a link to her Moth talk. Riccadonna got back to Piland and told her that he and his partner, Michel Grey, wanted to write a screenplay of the story. They came out to visit Mary Lou and Anthony last spring, and as Mary Lou said, “It was a perfect fit.”
Remember that exec from 20th Century Fox? The script just went out to him last week.
Love and Spumoni will be performed at the Seven Angels Theater in Waterbury, Conn., from Jan. 30 to Feb. 23.