This weekend, the Teatro El Público-FUNDarte production of Anna in the Tropics debuts at Miami’s Colony Theater. But last month, the ten-year-old play had its premiere in Havana. Cuban Art News contributor Norge Espinosa was on hand to share his impressions.
(By the way, we congratulate Norge on the recent Critics Prize for his book on the Camejo brothers, founders of Cuban puppet theater.)
Just a few weeks after debuting Antigonón, un contingente épico, by Rogelio Orizondo, Teatro El Público prepared to add another new title to its repertoire. Orizondo’s play was an exercise in political demystification, taking from everyday violence gestures, phrases, and an attitude that strives for immediate controversy. But then, to the Trianón in Vedado, director Carlos Díaz brings Anna in the Tropics by Cuban-American Nilo Cruz, the only playwright born in Cuba to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize—and for this particular play. The news of this honor surprised many, as Cruz had surpassed other strong candidates—including Edward Albee and Richard Greenberg—and the Pulitzer jurors knew this play only by reading it, not seeing it staged.
Commissioned by the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, the original 2003 production was directed by Rafael de Acha. That same year, it was produced in New Jersey, then went on to Broadway, where it earned a Tony nomination. A long list of productions and awards preceded its presentation in Havana. Since 2003, Nilo Cruz has been celebrated, admired, studied, and discussed. As often happens with the Pulitzer, this award marked a before and after in his life and work.
The recognition of the Pulitzer has allowed Anna, with its Cuban characters, to reach diverse theaters and languages around the world. Integrated into academic programs, it has been performed in English, Spanish, and many other languages by both students and professionals. It´s the most recognized work written by a Cuban today, and other productions again and again imagine that almost domestic environment in which Nilo Cruz gives life to his characters.
Set in 1929 Tampa, Florida, Anna in the Tropics takes place in the neighborhood of Ybor City, where the tobacco industry has settled. Immigrants of various origins work at rolling cigars by hand, an artisanal practice that will soon give way to mechanization. Along with the skills of hand-rolling cigars, Cuban immigrants have imported another tradition soon to disappear: the lector, an educated individual who reads to the workers as they toil in the factory.
Enter Juan Julián Ríos, a lector hired by Ofelia, the wife of Santiago, owner of the cigar factory. With a knowledge of the art of tobacco and his powerful voice, he seduces most of the characters. He brings a novel that Cuban immigrants do not know: Anna Karénina. Tolstoy’s chapters will end up blowing new life into this closed world, awakening fears and desires, merging with the fate of those tobacco workers. Juan is a man who brings a novel full of doom, and he himself will be a victim of it. But he will leave an indelible impression on all who admired, loved, or hated him.
Ybor City, still steeped in the memory of that irreversible time, jealously guarded buildings and monuments that Cubans built to reinvent the distant island. There, writer and politician José Martí has a park, the itinerary of his footsteps is preserved in the streets, and visitors are surprised by a bust of Antonio Maceo.
Nilo Cruz has confessed his fascination with tobacco culture, and the aroma and smoke that those fragrant leaves inevitably bring. Among his childhood memories are crayons kept in a cigar box decorated with marquillas. Lorca and Alberti felt the same fascination, which is allied to music—another way of remembering—and to the passions felt by the tobacco workers.
In Cuba, since the impact of the Pulitzer, Nilo Cruz has been published and discussed from time to time. The first extensive approach to Anna in the Tropics was made by Rosa Ileana Boudet, who knew the work through a production in California. In the journal Tablas No. 3 (2003), she commented on “Karenina of the Tropics.” Two years later, Cruz’s Lorca in a Green Dress was included in an anthology of recent Cuban-American plays, compiled by Lillian Manzor and Alberto Sarraín, Teatro cubano actual (Havana: Ediciones Alarcos, 2005). Another work by Cruz, La belleza del padre, was included in a day of dramatic readings in Havana, proposed as cultural liaison between authors of both shores and coordinated by Pedro Monge Rafuls.
Cruz was born in Matanzas in 1960 and emigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1970. Today he is recognized as a dramatic poet, a writer who uses words to reconstruct reality by mixing dreams, past, poetry, and atmosphere in an act of evocation that can be the theater itself. That has characterized his writing, encouraged by figures such as actress Teresa María Rojas or the outstanding playwright Maria Irene Fornes, who guided him in his early years in Miami and New York. Today, Nilo Cruz’s repertoire includes the aforementioned works, as well as Hortensia y el museo de sueños, Huracán, El color del deseo, Un país de bicicletas, Dos hermanas y un piano, as well as film scripts and opera libretti.
The production at El Público comes about through a long cultural exchange project linking this Havana company with FUNDarte, the Cuban Theater Digital Archive, and the University of Miami. FUNDarte, created in 2003 by Ever Chávez and actor Carlos Caballero, is a multidisciplinary organization that has created events and festivals in Miami, in which Latin and North American artists collaborate in music, dance, visual arts, theater, etc. Interested in publicizing emerging artists, FUNDarte has maintained a bridge with Cuban artists as diverse as Harold López Nussa, Marta Valdés, Nelda Castillo and El Ciervo Encantado, Ivette Cepeda, Gema Corredera, and Alex Cuba, as well as Teatro El Público, which presented Las amargas lágrimas de Petra von Kant and Calígula in Miami.
In 2011, in Havana, Carlos Díaz presented the show Si vas a usar un cuchillo, úsalo [If you’re going to use a knife, use it], starring Elizabeth Doud and Carlos Caballero, drawn from texts by Samuel Beckett. FUNDarte also organized the first “Virgilio Piñera, un fogonazo del absurdo” (Virgilio Piñera: A Flash of the Absurd) international festival in 2011, with groups such as Argos Theatre and Teatro de la Luna, Mephisto Teatro-Arte and Producciones Artísticas of Spain. For this project, FUNDarte collaborated with the Department of Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Miami, one of the pillars that supports the Cuban Theater Digital Archive, a valuable source of information that, under the guidance of Lillian Manzor, saves and rescues a great part of the Cuban theatrical history, and makes it available online, in collaboration with U.S. and Cuban institutions. All of these efforts, and the kindness of Nilo Cruz in assigning the rights to the new production, were crucial to the Havana premiere of Anna in the Tropics.
The cast consists of outstanding actors and actresses from both shores. On the Cuban side are such distinguished performers as Fernando Hechavarría, Osvaldo Doimeadiós, Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Clara de la Caridad González, and Yanier Palmero. They are joined by Lilian Rentería, Mabel Roch, and Carlos Caballero. For the first time, artists from both shores join together to celebrate the multiplicity of Cuban culture, working with a text of proven quality and guided by a famous director.
Some may associate Lilian Rentería with the popular television program Para bailar, where she dazzled with her youth and beauty. Others remember her as a splendid actress who was part of Teatro Irrumpe, directed by Roberto Blanco. She participated in such plays as Un sueño feliz, El alboroto, and above all, her consecration: Mariana, in 1987. Lorca’s text became a tragedy rewritten by the ingenuity of the director, gaining a density in which Rentería, as an actor, mirrored the anxieties and passions of the playwright.
Mabel Roch, an ISA graduate, was the face Humberto Solas chose in 1986 for Un hombre de exito (A Successful Man), a review of Republican Cuba. She joined Teatro Estudio and before moving to the United States performed in the television serial Shiralad. Recently she won resounding applause and critical acclaim in the play Cartas de Amor a Stalin (Love Letters to Stalin), directed by Alberto Sarraín.
Carlos Miguel Caballero is also an ISA graduate, under the guidance of Maria Elena Ortega. He has worked in television, both in Cuba and abroad, and was part of Teatro El Público in plays such as El público and Calígula. Recently he starred in the film Verde Verde (2012), directed by Enrique Pineda Barnet. Caballero combines his work as an actor with FUNDarte production work. For all of these actors, joining the Annaproject and working face to face with artists from the island has been a stimulus to their careers. It allows them to imagine a new dimension to this type of endeavor.
The characters in Anna in the Tropics don’t know the fate of the story the lector has brought. They hear or imagine a train bringing about the tragic end of the protagonist but, deafened by the same train, they cannot tell that, like her, they are also close to an inevitable rupture. In 1931, two years after the events Nilo Cruz imagined in this two-act drama, the small world of those cigar factory craftsmen broke apart. They were suffocated by the process of mechanization that wiped out the role of the lector and so many other traditions.
The play is centered in the conflict between modernity and age-old customs, between two different perceptions of a world that, in order to change, requires certain sacrifices. Life will not be the same for these characters when the lector vanishes. We hope that viewers in Havana and Miami, seeing Anna in the Tropics for the first time, will experience the hidden secrets in this story as an invitation always to return to books and theater.