When Nilo Cruz became the first Hispanic playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama a decade ago, Latino theater artists in his adopted hometown of Miami and around the United States felt enormous pride.
The boy who left his Cuban homeland on a Freedom Flight in 1970 had become a spellbinding theatrical storyteller, a man whose Anna in the Tropics blended illicit passion, Cuban-American history and thematically resonant passages from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
The impact of Cruz’s triumph was also felt — and continues to be a source of pride — in the country his family left behind.
“To find an author like Nilo, who writes about things like cigars and tobacco workers and other traditions, we have to think that he is a Cuban author,” Carlos Díaz, director of Teatro El Público, said by phone from Havana, where his company staged the play last month. “He has very strong roots in Cuba and in his memories of it. We have to think about that with pride.”
Ten years after his life-altering Pulitzer, Cruz is one extremely busy theater artist, one whose work has broadened to include opera, theatrical songs and screenplays.
On Thursday, a Cruz-directed Arca Images production of his 2001 play Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams (Hortensia y el museo de sueños) opens at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s OnStage Black Box theater. On Nov. 22, the FUNDarte-Teatro El Público collaborative production of Anna in the Tropics (Ana en el trópico) begins a weekend run at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater, after winning acclaim during recent performances in Havana. Both plays will be performed in Spanish with English supertitles.
In the not-so-distant future, Cruz will see a summer workshop of Bel Canto, the commissioned opera he and Peruvian composer Jimmy López crafted from Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel, which will get its world premiere at Chicago’s Lyric Opera in the 2015-2016 season. His play Sotto Voce will premiere at New York’s Theatre for the New City, with Cruz directing, Feb. 15-March 9, 2014.
In the spring, the movie Castro’s Daughter, with a screenplay by Cruz and Oscar-winning producer-director Bobby Moresco ( Crash, Million Dollar Baby), will start shooting. He has a completed screenplay for Anna in the Tropics and is working on a still-untitled play about the collapse of Florida’s housing industry. In July, he’ll travel to Russia for the premiere of Anna in the Tropics at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre.
“I didn’t have a window to direct Hortensia in Miami. My agent fought me on it,” says Cruz, who has sold his place in New York and relocated to Miami full time. “But Alberto Sarraín had done a really good [Spanish] translation of the play, and I fell in love with it all over again. ... I like to direct one show a year, and this is a play I’ve never directed.”
As for the new Anna in the Tropics, Ever Chávez, founder and executive director of the Miami-based FUNDarte, remembers seeing a video of Repertorio Español’s New York production of it and thinking the play would be a perfect piece for Teatro El Público’s Díaz to stage.
“It had the elements of the United States, Cuba and Russia, but it was set in Tampa in 1929, so the political issues would be OK for Carlos,” says Chávez. “I brought Carlos to meet Nilo, and Nilo said yes to doing it in Cuba. ... This is our treasure. Anna in the Tropics won our Pulitzer Prize.”
Both Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams and Anna in the Tropics had their world premieres in English at New Theatre. Each was staged in the tiny Coral Gables space by founder and then-artistic director Rafael de Acha, Hortensia in 2001, Anna in 2002. (The company has since moved to Miami’s Roxy Performing Arts Center and is now led by Ricky J. Martinez.)
Hortensia, infused with gritty shocks, magical realism and Cruz’s beautifully poetic language, centers on Luciana and Luca. The sister and brother, who left Cuba on a Pedro Pan flight, return to their homeland during the Pope’s 1998 Cuban visit to try to reclaim their lost childhood.
Anna is set in an Ybor City cigar factory near Tampa, where a new lector (reader) keeps the workers entertained by reading from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The words and the man ignite a passion in the unhappily married Conchita, who proceeds to reclaim her husband in a most unusual way.
The new production of Hortensia features a cast of Miami-based Latino actors (Martha Picanes, Grettel Trujillo and Raúl Durán respectively play Hortensia, Luciana and Luca), while Anna is performed by a blend of Cuban actors (Alexis Díaz de Villegas, Osvaldo Doimeadiós, Fernando Hechevarría, Clara González and Yanier Palmero) and Cuba-born Miamians (Lili Rentería, Mabel Roch and Carlos Caballero).
“I have a word for my work with Nilo. I say I’m a ‘Niloist,’” says Durán, who is doing his fourth Cruz play in Hortensia. “When I moved back to Miami after nine years in New York, I was trying to find a place like Repertorio Español to work. I’m proud of being one of the people Nilo chose to create theater here. He’s the first Hispanic playwright to win the Pulitzer, and he entered into the world of theater here in Miami. He should have a company here.”
Adds Picanes, who plays the title character in Hortensia, “He doesn’t have that Pulitzer Prize for nothing.”
For Rentería and Roch of the Anna cast, working again in Cuba proved easy yet profound and joyous.
“All the actors are from the same school. We share the same form of artistic language. We’re all Cuban. ... I owe Nilo for this trip to Cuba,” says Roch, who plays the matriarch Ofelia.
“Going back was like encountering someone who was already waiting for me. Or someone I was wanting so much to see,” says Rentería, who portrays the restless Conchita.
Both actresses were gratified by the hunger Havana audiences had to see Anna. At several performances, several hundred would-be theatergoers waited outside, trying to figure out a way to get into the sold-out theater. And at one show, the crowd simply wouldn’t let a technical problem halt the play.
“One night in the middle of the piece, the lights went out for 15 minutes. There were over 300 people there, and no one moved or spoke. They held up their cellphones to light the stage, and we kept going,” Roch says.
In creating the new Anna, Chávez says FUNDarte and Díaz decided to start from scratch, beginning with a new translation by James López, a University of Tampa professor.
“We wanted to find another way to do it and not be intoxicated by others’ presentations,” Chávez says.
That meant making room for Díaz’s powerful visual imagination, a trait he shares with Cruz and another playwright both admire, Federico García Lorca.
“Nilo’s writing has a lot in common with the plays I like to produce in Cuba. There are a lot of ways to use poetry onstage. We share the same love for Lorca. To create very strong images onstage, in that, Nilo and I are like brothers,” Díaz says.
As a director, Cruz says, “I feel like my plays have to be layered. A theatricality has to be explored. The plays are full of images, but they’re rarely done that way. ... The actors and director have to fill in what’s not being said. They have to make unspoken moments be full.”
This week and next, two Miami-born Cruz plays will be done exactly that way. And, like the writer whose prodigious imagination and distinctive voice crafted them, they will have come home.