Nilo Cruz
Nilo Cruz
You might think that Nilo Cruz, having won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Anna in the Tropics, would consider the play to be a finished product. But you would be mistaken. "I'm still making a few little changes," says Cruz, speaking from Costa Mesa, California during rehearsals of the play at the South Coast Repertory Theatre. "When you have a world premiere, I don't think the play is finished. Usually, it takes a second or a third production to really refine the script."

Over the past month or so, Cruz has had ample opportunity to do that kind of work. The South Coast Rep production, which opened on October 3 under the direction of Juliette Carrillo, is just one of three current stagings. Anna in the Tropics also bowed at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey on September 17; that production, directed by Emily Mann and starring Jimmy Smits, will transfer to Broadway's Royale Theatre in November. And in Chicago, the Victory Gardens Theater unveiled its own production of Anna on September 22, directed by Henry Godinez.

The play was commissioned by and originally staged at the New Theatre in Miami, Florida in October/November 2002, directed by Rafael de Acha, New Theatre's artistic director. Based upon that production, Anna received the prestigious Steinberg Award for the best new play that had not yet received a New York production. Days later, it was awarded the Pulitzer. One of the most remarkable aspects of that win is the fact that none of the Pulitzer judges had seen the New Theatre staging; the play won solely on the strength of Cruz's script.

Anna in the Tropics is set in Ybor City, a section of Tampa, Florida that is home to a large Cuban-American immigrant community. The year is 1929. Workers at a local cigar factory await the arrival of Juan Julian, a new lector. The use of a lector was a tradition begun in Cuba in the late 19th century: Literate men were paid to read to factory workers whose repetitive task was to roll cigars by hand. As large numbers of Cubans came to America, they brought this tradition along with them. In Cruz's play, Juan Julian reads from Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy's epic novel of love, marriage, and adultery. The novel serves as a catalyst for the actions of the factory workers, whose lives are affected by the powerful story and the presence of the handsome young lector who reads it to them.

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Julian Acosta and Adriana Sevan in theSouth Coast Rep's Anna in the Tropics.
Julian Acosta and Adriana Sevan in the
South Coast Rep's Anna in the Tropics.
THEATERMANIA: Anna in the Tropics deals with a piece of America's past that most people probably don't know about.

NILO CRUZ: Oh, completely! That's the reason why I decided to write the play. I felt it was important to write about this group of people that came here in the late 1800s and built a city. Tampa really flourished with the tobacco industry. And we [Latinos] didn't just make the economy boom in Tampa; we were also bringing traditions and culture to that society.

TM: Much has been made about your being the first Latino playwright to receive the Pulitzer. Do you feel any kind of pressure in regard to the responsibility of community representation as a result?

NC: I've always felt a responsibility to write about Latinos, even from the beginning. Because I feel like if I don't, who will? Certainly, there are a lot of writers out there, but I feel I should write about what I know. In terms of having a responsibility to the Latino community, the only way that I can approach it is through the work. I'm not a politician; I'm an artist. And the work is political in many ways, so there you have it.

TM: During the past few weeks, you've been hopping from one city to another, working on the New Jersey production of your play, then Chicago, and now California. Had you intended to be involved so directly with all of them?

NC: It just happens that these three productions are back to back, but I usually do this when I'm working on a new script. Listen, if a play has had five or six productions, I'll let go of it. But I always like to see my work while I'm still learning from it. I can always learn from the performance of an actor and, certainly, the interpretation of a director. I like to see my plays being done. That's why I write theater.

TM: You say that you're still making changes for the South Coast Rep staging. Does this mean that the three productions going on right now have slightly different scripts?

Anna in Chicago: Dale Rivera and castin the Victory Gardens Theater staging
Anna in Chicago: Dale Rivera and cast
in the Victory Gardens Theater staging
NC: Not at all. Every time I make a change, I talk to the directors and we have a dialogue. I tell them where I'm at and why I'm making these changes. So it's the same script. It's when you're actually doing the productions, when you can see how the play is working, that you can really give it finishing touches. We're still revising the script, still looking at how we can polish this baby. I think that's the beauty of theater. It's not like a painting, where you can just look at it in a different light and see if it is working. Theater operates in time and it needs all these other elements -- lighting, set, and everything -- for you to see what's there.

TM: Let's backtrack a bit to the original production at the New Theatre in Florida last year. Can you tell me how you got involved with that company?

NC: I had done a play with them a while back called Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams. It went very well. When we finished that production, Rafael de Acha called me up and asked if I was interested in writing a play for them. He asked me what I was thinking of writing and I said I really wanted to write about the tradition of the lectors in Tampa -- well, Cuba, actually. And we just went from there. We got a TCG grant and I was in residency [at the New Theatre] for six months. The beautiful thing was that I was in Miami writing and I had access to the archives at the University of Miami, where I was able to do a lot of my research.

TM: How did the script develop?

NC: It was really wonderful to see that first production. After the play closed, I knew there were some things in the script I wanted to work on further. We did a reading at the McCarter Theatre, then we did a reading at South Coast Repertory. I got suggestions from the producers and the dramaturg, and then I went back to the drawing board and made more changes. We did another reading back at the McCarter, I got notes from them, I made a few more changes here and there. We did a reading at the Public Theater and then another one at South Coast! It's been really great because I've been revising the script as I go along.

TM: What's your impression of the various takes on the play that you've seen so far?

Anna goes to Princeton: Priscilla Lopez, Victor Argo,and Jimmy Smits in the McCarter Theatre production
Anna goes to Princeton: Priscilla Lopez, Victor Argo,
and Jimmy Smits in the McCarter Theatre production
NC: That's the beauty of theater. It's why we go see Hamlet over and over again. We see what the actors bring to Hamlet, what the director brings to Hamlet. And that's the beauty of seeing my play done by three different directors in three different places. The factories are different; it's the same family but in different factories. It almost seems like they're different families at times, yet they're all living in Tampa in 1929.

TM: You've mentioned in other interviews that your idea for the play began with the lector tradition and then you decided upon Anna Karenina as the text that the lector would be reading. What led you to that particular novel?

NC: I started to read the book through the eyes of my characters. A lot of the dialogue came from that -- how were they interpreting the book, what was this particular book doing to their lives. And it was changing their lives. One of the reasons why I like writing plays is that I'm not into formulaic writing, I'm more interested in characters. So, at the beginning, when I start writing a play, I usually don't know what I'm writing about. I just let the play take its own form. Otherwise, I get bored.

TM: Does the audience need to have any prior knowledge of Anna Karenina in order to fully understand Anna in the Tropics?

NC: No, I don't think so. They get a lot of the story from the characters in the play, so I don't think it's really important -- though it would be great if, after they see the play, they run to the bookstore and buy this wonderful book written by Tolstoy.

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[Click here to access TheaterMania's review of the South Coast Rep production of Anna in the Tropics and here for our review of the Victory Gardens production.]