English words, Spanish hearts: Crossing cultures at NLT
Anna in the Tropics
By Nilo Cruz
Nutley Little Theatre
47 Erie Place, Nutley
By GWEN OREL
Nilo Cruz writes in English, but thinks in Spanish.
That’s what director Beatriz Esteban-Messina says. As a Cuban immigrant fluent in Spanish and English she recognizes some of the phrases.
For example, a character says he shouldn’t drink, and his wife replies, “Drink you should not.” The emphasis on the word reflects Spanish, she said.
Cruz wrote the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Anna in the Tropics” in English. It’s set in a Cuban immigrant community in Florida, and it made Cruz, a Cuban-American who immigrated as a child in 1970, the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Though the play is set in 1929 and was written long before the political battles over DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, its issues feel current: the play’s characters long to achieve the American Dream. Although they are documented immigrants, they are not integrated into society. But everything is about to change. “It’s about tradition being kicked in the ass by the modern,” Esteban-Messina said.
In rehearsal at Nutley Little Theatre, Esteban-Messina reminds the company that for people who speak English as a second language, “to” would be emphasized, because prepositions are hard. Similarly, the final “d” in “could” and “should” would be accented.
The play takes place in a cigar-rolling factory in Ybor, Florida. The employees hire a “lector,” or reader, to keep them entertained as they carry out their repetitive and boring tasks.
In the morning, Esteban-Messina explained, a lector would read news and nonfiction. “Even though they were illiterate, they knew everything that was going on,” she said of the workers.
In the afternoons, the lector would read fiction. In “Anna in the Tropics,” he reads Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina.” As he does, the story of the illicit love between Anna and Vronsky begins to be mirrored in the lives of the workers.
The play also marks a turning point before the stock market crash, and industrialization that makes the lector a thing of the past. With machinery, a lector’s voice could not be heard: radios come in. Jobs are lost.
For Esteban-Messina, it’s significant that NLT has chosen a Latino-centered play by a Latino author, with a Latino director. Many of the cast are new to the group, including Montclair’s Elizabeth Quiñones, who is a first-generation Dominican-American.
It’s the first time at NLT for both Esteban-Messina and Quiñones.
“Anna in the Tropics” is one of Esteban-Messina’s favorite plays. She recognizes some little things about the way her own family behaves: “At one point, the mother pinches the daughter’s arm when she’s doing something wrong, and I remember my aunt doing that to my cousins,” she said with a laugh.
In the middle of rehearsal — a rehearsal Quiñones missed, because she was mentoring the student-directed production of “Beauty and the Beast” at Studio Players — the cast stopped to discuss the play. The cast, Fred Alvaro, Rafaelle Danta, Keith Moran, Felipe Rodriguez, Laura Valente, Jennifer Vasquez, are all new to the company.
These discussions happen often, the director said. They talk about their relationships, their reaction to the lector, to the changing times.
Quiñones has worked a lot with Studio Players, and is on its board, but this is her first time at NLT, she said at Studio Players, following the rehearsal of “Beauty and the Beast.” She’s also in rehearsal for the upcoming romantic comedy “Almost, Maine,” and the variety of roles keep her stretching herself as an artist, she said.
She wanted to audition for “Anna in the Tropics” because “there are not a lot of plays about the Latin experience and a Hispanic family. You just don’t see that as much in community theater.”
Her character, Conchita, is married, as is Quiñones, and loves literature and poetry.
“She gets into the world of the characters of ‘Anna Karenina,’ and she thinks about the characters not just within that world, but also in the context of her life,” the actress said. She can relate to that and also to how her character is hardworking.
Harder to relate to is tapping into the character’s sadness that her husband is having an affair. “She lives in a culture where it’s just very normal for husbands to just have affairs with other women,” Quiñones said. “It’s sort of like in the old Spanish tradition. And she just feels powerless, like she just has to deal with it. And I think there are some women who might just live with it, but she’s just not the kind who is.”
So her character decides to have an affair herself: “If you don’t want to stop having an affair, and you don’t want to connect with me, then I’m going to have an affair and connect with somebody else.”
And in the culture she grew up with, Quiñones said with a laugh, people don’t mind their own business: if people suspected Conchita was having an affair, they’d come right up to her and say so. In “Anna and the Tropics,” people may suspect, but don’t confront her, she said.
Cross-cultural interactions are built into the play: most of its audiences are not Cuban, just as the Cuban listeners in the play, in 1929, are far away from the 19th-century Russia of “Anna Karenina.”
“Themes from different cultures can really resonate with anybody,” Quiñones said. “The way Nilo Cruz put it together is very beautiful, and I think that’s been my experience. I don’t have an archive of literature from Hispanics, it’s from different cultures. And people who are just the complete opposite of you, socio-economic status, whatever, you can still learn and identify from their stories and experiences.”