Performing Arts

The memory of tragedy haunts Nilo Cruz’s poetic new play ‘Sotto Voce’

The 1939 voyage of the St. Louis, which carried 937 German Jewish refugees to what they thought would be safe haven in Cuba, is one of history’s more egregious examples of politics trumping compassion. Cuba turned the ship away, as did the United States and Canada. The ship returned to Europe, and an estimated 254 of the passengers wound up perishing in concentration camps.

That terrible tragedy, unknown to far too many younger people, forgotten by others, is the underpinning of Sotto Voce, the newest work by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz.

Sotto Voce (the term means speaking or singing in a soft voice) had its world premiere last month at New York’s Theater for the New City, in a well-received production staged by the Miami playwright. On Thursday, the play opens for a four-day run at Miami-Dade County Auditorium’s On.Stage Black Box theater.

Presented in English with Spanish supertitles, the Miami run is the second collaboration (after the Spanish-language Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams) between Cruz and Arca Images producer Alexa Kuve. That partnership, which both hope will send plays back and forth between Miami and New York, is so promising that Kuve surprised Cruz with business cards proclaiming him Arca’s artistic director.

The St. Louis was first suggested as a subject to Cruz by Mario Ernesto Sánchez, founder and artistic director of Teatro Prometeo, who commissioned him to write a play about it. Eventually, Theater for the New City took on the project that became Sotto Voce, commissioning Cruz and premiering the play.

“Mario Ernesto asked me to do it for many years,” Cruz says. “I didn’t think I wanted to. I’m not Jewish, and I didn’t think I was capable of writing about it. But I did my research and decided to try to enter that world.”

Sánchez thought the play should take place entirely in 1939, but over time, Cruz had different ideas. He wanted to explore the way that memory shapes and continues to wound us, and he felt Sotto Voce should flow between past and present.

“Memory is very important for the Jewish people, and I thought I had to write a play about that permanence of memory,” he says. “For me, the play is not really about the St. Louis. It’s a point of departure, the beginning of a journey. … I didn’t want it to be another Holocaust play. I wanted it to be a metaphor for grief and pain.”

Sotto Voce centers on three characters. Bemadette Kahn, played by Franca Sofia Barchiesi, is a reclusive German-born novelist living in New York, a young-looking 80-year-old whose long-ago Jewish lover Ariel Strauss was a passenger on the St. Louis. Saquiel Rafaeli, portrayed by Miami-raised actor Andhy Mendez, is a 28-year-old Jewish student from Cuba whose great aunt was a passenger on the St. Louis. Lucila Pulpo, played by Arielle Jacobs, is the young Colombian maid who takes care of the agoraphobic Bemadette, shields her and brings her what she needs from the outside world.

The play imagines an unusual 21st century relationship between Bemadette and Saquiel. Though the two never meet face to face, they establish a connection by phone and via email. As in Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Two Sisters and a Piano, literature plays a key role in the spiritual communion between Bemadette and Saquiel, whose disembodied voice and healing attention awaken her dormant passion for writing. Artfully, Sotto Voce also touches on war, loss, displacement, the lives of undocumented immigrants and more.

All three actors know Cruz and his distinctively poetic plays well. Barchiesi has appeared in the New York productions of Dancing on Her Knees and A Park in Our House. Mendez played Laertes in Cruz’s Spanish translation of Hamlet, Prince of Cuba for Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre. Jacobs starred in the Off-Broadway production of Cruz’s Farhad or the Secret of Being.

“To know Nilo through the realm of his characters is like being able to work with the soul of the person, an engagement which is the dream of an artist,” Barchiesi says. “I’ve also experienced the trajectory of his work...I feel that as I’ve aged and matured, I’ve been able to see Nilo’s women in their evolving maturity. Getting to experience the cumulative effect of Nilo’s work and being directed by the playwright is an extraordinary experience. It’s like getting to play with a coffer of jewels.”

Mendez, who will soon be appearing in an episode of the hit series Orange Is the New Black, remembers the night Cruz emailed him the script of Sotto Voce.

“He sent it to me at 8 p.m. on a Monday, and I read it three times in a row,” Mendez says. “Each time, I cried. I sent him an email at 1 a.m. telling him I wanted to do it.”

The actor, who left Cuba with his family when he was 5, believes Sotto Voce has much to say to the uprooted from all over the world.

“Cubans who came to see the play told me that I captured that leaving feeling, that feeling of loving someone but having to leave, not because you want to,” he says. “A lot of different people told me they know what that feeling is — devastating but at the end of the day beautiful because you really see what’s precious. You realize that at any moment you can be stripped of freedom, family, even life. The play’s messages are love more, respect more and understand others.”

Jacobs, who acknowledges she knew nothing of the St. Louis before signing on to do Sotto Voce, says she loves Cruz’s poetic style, the rich subtext in his writing and the collaborative process of working with him as a director.

“New work is so exciting. you get to put your stamp on it and find it together as a group,” she says. “I also like doing work that has a positive message for the world, work that brings history to light.”

Though Sotto Voce runs only through Sunday, the future is busy and bright for both Cruz and his play. Next month, he’ll be in Sarasota to receive the Greenfield Prize, a $30,000 commission that will lead to another Cruz world premiere in 2016. And legendary director Peter Brook, who runs the Théatre du Nord in Paris, has expressed interest in staging the play in French, calling the script “beautiful.”

And that, even to a Pulitzer winner, is thrilling.

“It’s such an honor,” Cruz says. “The day I found out, I couldn’t do anything else. I couldn’t write.”