Poetry in Motion

By Vicki Sanders / September / October 2003
June 22nd, 2007
Long before he won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama—even before his family fled Cuba for Miami when he was a boy— playwright Nilo Cruz developed an ear for poetry and music. There was the uncle who’d break into recitations of José Martí poems. There were the rhythms of an island country where people seemed to move to a pervasive, invisible beat.

And then there was—Emily Dickinson?

In an interview with PBS last spring shortly after winning the Pulitzer, Cruz revealed that reading a poem by Dickinson prompted him to vow, at ten years old: “I want to do this. I want to write.”

“Nilo blends a distinctively Latin sensibility—magical realism that reads like a dream—with realism, which has its feet on the ground,” a Pulitzer judge said of Cruz’s winning entry, Anna in the Tropics. “With that literary technique, the play creates pictures in your head in a way that’s almost unbidden. It’s like taking a warm bath and being submerged in another world.”

Set in the Cuban section of Tampa, Florida, in 1929, Anna is the story of cigar-factory workers and the lectores they pay to read them the classics while they labor. When a new reader arrives with Anna Karenina (the Anna of the play’s title), fact and fiction blur.

The custom of lectores died with the mechanization of the cigar industry. Cruz’s talent for capturing a vanishing culture and bringing its rich traditions to life distinguishes him among playwrights working today. “What I want to document is what we as Cubans and Latinos are trying to provide, our cultural gift of art to the Anglo world. We have beautiful, powerful traditions. As a writer and a human being, I want to share them,” he told Hispanic magazine last spring.

Cruz began studying theater at Miami-Dade Community College, where his teacher, Teresa María Rojas, saw his potential immediately. “I knew he was a writer, not an actor. His text stood out for its poetry,” she told Hispanic.

He began writing drama in earnest in the late 1980s, when he moved to New York City to study with the influential Cuban playwright and director Maria Irene Fornes. She later recommended him to Paula Vogel for Brown’s M.F.A. program.

Since then Cruz has received the American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award and a Rockefeller grant, among other accolades, but before winning the Pulitzer, he labored in relative obscurity. That has changed. His newest play, Lorca in the Green Dress, a rhapsodic meditation on the death of Spanish writer Federico García Lorca, drew national attention when it premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this summer, and producers are clamoring for Anna.

Now forty-two, Cruz says he has drawn different lessons from all his teachers. “You try for everything that you absorb from these people to enter your being,” Cruz says, “so when it comes out it’s very organic.” From Rojas he learned the dynamics of theater: “Her approach is very poetic and lyrical, and she really tries to bring out the poet.” From Fornes came an understanding of “character development, the muscularity of writing, rhythms, and the editorial process.” From Vogel he gained an appreciation for structure. She had a knack, he says, for tapping into the mechanics of a play and helping him identify elements still buried in his subconscious.

One day in class, for example, he read from a play he was writing about a brother and sister whose mother had died and whose father had vanished. Vogel turned to him and said, “The play is about the missing father.” Cruz was taken aback. She saw that the emotional crux of the play lay in the father’s absence. The brother and sister were fathering each other. “I hadn’t figured that out at all,” he says.

Vicki Sanders is a freelance writer in Boston.
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September / October 2003