"Role" of a Lifetime
Take one award-winning Cuban expatriate playwright, add a seasoned all-Latino cast, set it in the cigarmaking capital of America at the dawn of the Great Depression, and top it off with the multitalented Jimmy Smits in the lead role. You’ve now got the winning formula for Anna in the Tropics, the play that’s bringing cigar lore to the cultural cognoscenti.
By Mark Bernardo
you’ve ever visited a cigar factory, the first thing you’ve likely noticed is the heat. It’s a thick, humid heat, necessary to keep the tobacco leaves supple and moist, noticeably uncomfortable for the visitor and more so for the workers who toil there every day. What does not dawn on you, as you pass by the rollers, bunchers, and sorters plying their trade at their stations, is the monotony. Making cigars by hand - on a good day, they’ll produce over 100 - is a distinctive skill but a solitary one, requiring concentration, dedication, and a lack of entertaining distractions. In the old days in Cuba, before TV and radio, cigar workers hungry for knowledge, education, and escapism from their everyday lives started a tradition. Pooling their meager wages (factory owners themselves usually did not pay), they hired a lector - a reader, someone whose job was to come in every morning and read to the bored, curious workers from the newspaper, from books, whatever the consensus was. Like the rolling of cigars by hand, it is a tradition that the Cubans brought with them to the United States. But while the handcrafting of cigars survives in many Latin American nations outside the U.S., the tradition of the lector has long since been sacrificed on the altar of mechanized productivity.
Sitting in the audience at New York’s Royale Theatre last December, watching the curtains part to reveal the minimalist-style set built to evoke the interior of a tiny cigar factory, I could almost feel that familiar heat, that fresh, pungent tobacco aroma. The empty sense of crushing monotony was also evident, as actors in period clothing, working at the rolling tables, awaited the arrival of their new reader - and the inevitable chaos he would bring to their lives. I settled back in my seat as the evening’s attentive audience absorbed not only a dramatic saga about forbidden love and the dangerous power of art, but an enlightening slice of cigar culture, the Cuban immigrant experience, and how they were irrevocably changed by the evolution of American industry.
Anna in the Tropics, a poignant, earnestly poetic drama set in a fictional cigar factory in 1929 Tampa, directed by Broadway veteran Emily Mann and written by Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz, won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama, in what many would consider a surprising upset. The play triumphed over some impressive and heavily favored competition, including Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? and Richard Greenberg’s Take Me Out, and made Cruz the first Latin American to win the prize. Furthermore, at the time of the judging, the play had yet to be staged in New York, or any large venue, another rarity among prizewinners.
Originally commissioned by, and performed at, the tiny New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, the play is currently enjoying a run on Broadway, propelled by its Pulitzer pedigree and by the star power of its marquee attraction, actor Jimmy Smits.
The story revolves around the family-owned Ybor City factory that produces Flor del Cielo cigars, owned by family patriarch Santiago (Victor Argo) and his wife Ofelia (Priscilla Lopez) - at first glance, the typical quarrelsome, long-married couple, but beneath the surface, two wise people bonded through mutual strength, love, and respect for tradition. Their two daughters work at the factory, each haunted by her own brand of restlessness and longing for a better life. Conchita (Daphne Rubin-Vega, known by theatergoers as Mimi in the stellar original cast of Rent), is married to the philandering Palomo (John Ortiz), who also works at the factory. As the play begins, we see that Conchita is becoming increasingly despondent over her crumbling marriage. Her younger sister, Marela (Vanessa Aspillaga), is a virginal dreamer, waiting for a Price Charming to deliver her from her humdrum existence to the exotic life she can experience only in literature. David Zayas portrays Santiago’s half-brother Cheche, whose bitterness over his wife running away with the previous lector is matched only by his ruthless ambition to modernize the factory, even at the expense of jobs and cultural tradition.
Stepping into this simmering emotional mélange is the play’s catalyst, Juan Julian (Smits), a dashing, cultured, highly literate Cuban exile who has been hired by the workers to become their new lector. His presence instantly breeds romantic worship from Marela, who believes she may have finally found the elusive man of her dreams; and jealousy and resentment from Cheche, who sees the newcomer as not only a waste of good money but a painful reminder of his absent, unfaithful wife.
Things heat up when Juan Julian chooses Tolstoy’s romantic novel Anna Karenina to read to the workers. The events in the story begin to resonate in the characters’ real lives, driving the frustrated Conchita into Julian’s arms, and pushing the cuckolded Palomo toward Cheche’s campaign to oust the charming lector from the factory. Meanwhile, as Marela dreams of living a new life in Tolstoy’s Russia, Santiago and Ofelia must work through their own marital strife to preserve tradition and fend off Cheche’s attempts to mechanize the factory. Their answer is to gamble on a new handmade cigar, named after the romantic heroine who has now thrown their everyday existence into turmoil: the Anna Karenina.
The threads converge together to reach a shocking, tragic climax, which drives home the two major themes of Cruz’s play: one about art and its ability to change lives, the other about tradition being trampled by the inexorable march of technology. If you’re knowledgeable about the cigar business and its history, the ultimate fate of the Flor del Cielo factory and the rollers (or torcedors) who toil there, will strike you as especially poignant. In fact, cigar enthusiasts will notice an almost uncanny authenticity in Cruz’s depictions of cigar making, and in the culture of Florida’s immigrant cigar making community....
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SMOKE - Winter, 2004
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