NEW YORK -- Not many theatergoers saw "Anna in the Tropics" during its brief run last winter at the tiny, enterprising New Theatre in Coral Gables, Fla., but enough people read it, including jurors for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Now, the curtain is going up on three different productions of the Pulitzer-blessed play - in Princeton, N.J., Chicago and Costa Mesa, Calif. Broadway will see "Anna" in November when the version from New Jersey's McCarter Theatre, directed by Emily Mann, opens Nov. 16 at the Royale Theatre.
Their unveilings will focus even more attention on the play's soft-spoken, yet intense author, Nilo Cruz. For the 42-year-old, Cuban-born Cruz, it has been a heady six months since he won the Pulitzer. Countless interviews. Renewed interest in his earlier works. The required visits to Hollywood for talks with show biz executives.
"I certainly have less time to write," Cruz says with a smile as he contemplates his new celebrity status. "I am a little overwhelmed."
The author sits in an East Side coffee shop not far from his apartment and, over coffee and a buttered, sesame bagel, talks about the best-known, unknown play in the country - although certainly not for long.
"It is very much about the power of art," Cruz says when pressed to give a shorthand explanation of the plot. Yet the play is also very much about a time and a place.
"Anna in the Tropics" is set specifically in 1929 in a small town near Tampa, Fla. The place is a cigar factory that employs Cuban immigrants. While they roll cigars, these workers are read to by a lector. And what he reads is the great Russian romance, "Anna Karenina" by Leo Tolstoy.
"I wanted to write about the cigar industry in Tampa and specifically about the role of the 'lectores' (readers) in the cigar factories," Cruz says. "It's a beautiful tradition," a long-dead tradition the playwright first heard about from his father.
"I always thought it was fascinating that these workers, some of the illiterate, would pay out of their own pockets to have someone read to them from newspapers and world literature."
The play was commissioned by the New Theatre in Florida, using grant money from the National Endowment for Arts and the Theatre Communications Group. It had closed by the time the Pulitzers were announced and was chosen on the strength of its script.
"'Anna in the Tropics' is a gorgeous play and Nilo's most beautiful one to date," enthused Mann. The director, who runs the McCarter, has been one of Cruz's earliest and most ardent champions. For more than a decade, she and the McCarter have nurtured his work through readings, commissions and full productions.
"Anna" was chosen by Mann to open the McCarter's new 360-seat Roger S. Berlind Theatre, located next to its main stage on the Princeton University campus. With a cast that includes Jimmy Smits (as the lector), Daphne Rubin-Vega and Priscilla Lopez, it runs there through Oct. 19. In Chicago, the Victory Garden production, also already in performance, can be seen through Oct. 26. The third, at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif., plays Sept. 28-Oct. 19 with the possibility of an extension.
All three regional theaters booked "Anna" before there were firm plans to bring a version to Broadway, thus giving audiences beyond New York a first chance to sample Cruz's latest work. Like the McCarter, South Coast Rep has a long history with Cruz. Its production will be directed by Juliette Carrillo, who runs the Rep's Hispanic playwrights project. It stars Julian Acosta, from television's "The Job," as the lector.
Victory Gardens secured the rights to "Anna" after one of the theater's donors had seen the Florida production and enthusiastically recommended the script to artistic director Dennis Zacek. The Chicago version, using local actors, is directed by Henry Godinez, who staged the Goodman Theatre's first Latino Theater Festival earlier this year.
"Nilo is very particular kind of stage poet," Mann says. "He is a stage poet the way Tennessee Williams is a stage poet, Lorca is a stage poet and Chekhov is a stage poet. Nilo deals with the human heart and the human soul in a very romantic, very erotic, very beautiful and very personal way. He reminds me of each of them and yet he's totally himself."
That self was formed in Cuba, a country Cruz left when he was 9. As a child in Cuba, he wrote poetry and mounted little skits with his cousins. His family, brought to the United States by an uncle, settled in Miami. His father ran a shoe store which is where Cruz had his first job.
His theater writing was sparked by many things: seeing Jose Ferrer in a Miami production of "The Dresser," the Ronald Harwood drama celebrating a life in the theater; acting, directing and writing plays at Miami-Dade Community College; studying with playwrights Irene Fornes in New York and later with Paula Vogel at Brown University in Providence, R.I.
"We had this thing at Brown called 'the bake-off,' something we do every year, where aspiring playwrights are given mutual themes and they have 48 hours to write whatever they want," Vogel recalled. "Then we read it out loud.
"Two days later, Nilo came in with 110 pages of what became his play 'Dancing on My Knees.' He hadn't slept. That to me characterizes Nilo. He continued on as a guest professor and he put the same urgency in his teaching as he does in his writing. He's always had that urgency."
That urgency can be found in "Anna," although Cruz says the writing didn't come easily until he decided that "Anna Karenina" would be the novel his lector would read to the workers. It was a natural choice, he now says, since many Cuban and Latin cigar labels are named after romantic love stories.
"It took a while in terms of doing the research but once I found 'Anna Karenina' was being read at the factory, the play took off. When I realized what the book was doing to the workers is when I started to discover their internal lives," Cruz says.
"The book affects all of them. It becomes a catalyst in the play. If there is a main character, it is the book. I was happy that I got away from the history and the politics of the time, that I could focus more on art, how art can be revolutionary in many ways."
"Nilo is part of a generation of first and second-generation immigrant Americans who are forging a new American identity by building bridges between two cultures or maybe three cultures," Vogel says. "They can only enrich the tapestry of our stage."
Smits, best known for his work on television's "NYPD Blue" and "LA Law," agrees. He juggled his Hollywood career to be able to do "Anna" at the McCarter.
"I really believe in Nilo," says Smits, who has done readings of the play at the Public Theater in New York and at South Coast Rep. Smits believes Cruz is a Latino writer who is on the cusp of getting mainstream recognition. "Plus, I really like the character of the lector, a mysterious person who comes into everyone's lives and creates havoc."
"We knew that we wanted an all-Latino cast," Mann says of her McCarter actors. "When you read Nilo's plays, they are so Cuban-American. It's very important to get that kind of authenticity.
"Of course, we were open to seeing other great actors, but once you get a group together whose first or second language is Spanish, it really helps in terms of using the stage speech that Nilo has written," Mann explains. "In a way, you have to think in Spanish and speak in English. The writing is brilliant but it's subtle. It's not putting an accent. It's coming from that culture and speaking from the inside out."
Cruz finds theater ceremonial but also very childlike in that actors play pretend.
"It's also a very generous art form, meaning that it's not just about what I write but it's what other people - the director and the cast - bring to the play, too.
"There is something very beautiful in the English language. You have the word 'play.' We don't have that word in Spanish. We have 'obra' which has more to do with work. 'Una obra de teatro' - a work of theater. But in English, you say 'play' and you say 'players,' which is quite lovely. I think that's something that's very appealing to me. I think that's what I like about theater."
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