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Nilo Cruz: Pulitzer Prize Award Winner

May 15, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: When Cuban immigrants brought the cigar- making industry to Florida in the 19th century, another tradition came along with it. As workers hand-rolled each cigar, they listened as newspapers and novels were read out loud by a lector, the Spanish word for reader. A major center for the industry was a section of Tampa called Ybor City.

It’s the setting for this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Anna in the Tropics.” Commissioned by the new theater in Coral Gables, Florida, where it received its only production so far, “Anna” tells the story of factory workers in 1929, who listen to, and lived through, “Anna Karenina,” Leo Tolstoy’s classic tale of love and adultery in 19th century Russia. The play’s author is himself a Cuban-born immigrant, 42-year-old Nilo Cruz. We talked at New York’s Public Theater, which produced several of his earlier works.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nilo Cruz, welcome and congratulations.

NILO CRUZ: Thank you very much. Delighted to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your play is about immigrant factory workers, largely illiterate, who come to live through literature. What drew you to that?

NILO CRUZ: I was very intrigued by this group of people, sort of like musicians in my country, too, from Cuba, who sometimes don’t know how to read music, but they can actually play music. And so, I was very intrigued by this group of people that came from Cuba in the late 1800s, and started this little city in Tampa called Ybor City. Imagine, some of these workers, they were being read Shakespeare, Ruben Dario, Lope de Vega, all of these authors. So they sometimes could quote Cervantes, and yet they didn’t know how to read.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, in your play, they’re reading, they’re being read to, “Anna Karenina.” And they come to live through the characters in that famous novel.

NILO CRUZ: Well, sort of the book becomes a catalyst in the play, and it’s sort of that old saying that — certainly this has happened to me many times, like I’ve read a book, and it has practically changed my life — so basically, that’s the premise of the play. And how this book changes, or how the book starts to awaken the desire of these cigar workers, how they start… how the book starts reflecting… or actually, how they start reflecting about their own lives through the book that is being read to them.

JEFFREY BROWN: They’re, in a sense, small people living out a big story.

NILO CRUZ: Yes, small people with big dreams.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Cruz, here at a recent reading of his play at the public theater, has seen literature transform his own life. His father was imprisoned in Cuba when Nilo was a child. The family came to Miami when he was nine. Poetry, he says, was always present.

NILO CRUZ: I remember, as a child, that my uncle would all of a sudden, in the middle of a party or something, would break into, he used to break into poetry and would start to read poems by Jose Marti, or people would start singing.

You know, everybody made it a point in the old days to learn songs, but more than anything to learn poetry. I remember actually what got me started writing was reading a poem by Emily Dickinson when I was ten years old here in exile, and I remember reading that poem and saying, “I want to do this. I want to write.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Really, Emily Dickinson?

NILO CRUZ: Oh, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, it’s interesting you talk about poetry, because you have a very poetic, lyrical style of writing.

NILO CRUZ: Well, I think that you can find poetry everywhere, and I find that common people can say the most poetic things. Children are very poetic when they speak, and I try to capture that poetry in my plays, not only in the spoken language, but also visually.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a speech, a passage that I circled to show some of that lyricism. Could you read it for us? The character is Conchita?

NILO CRUZ: Oh, yes. She’s the character in the book who certainly makes… who identifies with Anna Karenina. Her husband is having an affair. And so, in this scene, she confronts him. And Paloma, which is her husband, says to her that she’s taking this a little too far, the fact that she identifies so much with this particular novel.

And then she says, “Am I? Have you ever heard the voice of someone who is deaf? The voice is crude and ancient because it has no sense of direction or place, because it doesn’t hear itself and it doesn’t know if anybody else in the world hears it. Sometimes I want to have a long conversation with you like this, like a deaf person, as if I couldn’t hear you or myself.

But I would just talk and talk and say everything that comes to my mind, like a shell that shouts with the voice of the sea and it doesn’t care if anybody hears it. That’s how I want to speak to you, and ask you things.”

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds as though you are a person who loves the act of using words, talking to one another, particularly here in a theater.

NILO CRUZ: I see words, I see language for the stage as music. I think language for the stage has to be rhythmic. It has to have the richness that music has. And that’s why you see… that’s what I do with words in my plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cruz directed TV and film star Jimmy Smits in the role of the lector at the public theater’s reading of “Anna in the Tropics.” Cruz was widely seen as a surprise choice for the Pulitzer. Three-time winner and American theater icon Edward Albee had also been a contender. And this is only the second time a Pulitzer has gone to a play not yet fully staged on Broadway, or elsewhere in New York.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess that means that the judges just went on the script alone.

NILO CRUZ: They listened to the script. They didn’t see it, which is great. This is what this play is all about. They read it, they listened to the words.

JEFFREY BROWN: You are the first Latino to win the prize for drama.

NILO CRUZ: Yes! Isn’t it incredible. Isn’t it incredible. Well, I mean, I think that this is going to open doors for other Latino writers. And it’s going to open doors, not just for Latino writers, for Latino actors. And not only that, you don’t know the amount of calls that I’ve gotten from the Latino community. They feel like they’re being represented. It is not just me winning this award, it is the Latino community who’s winning it with me. So, I think it’s remarkable. As a matter of fact, I go to a diner on the corner of my house, and there are Latinos working there. And when I came in, the day that I won the award, they were so happy, they invited me to lunch that day. They were so happy that I was representing them on the stage.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what happens now for you?

NILO CRUZ: There are so many things that I want to write about, there are so many plays circling me. And I’m anxious to go back to it. And then I feel that I’m honoring this award, because I feel that this award is about, it’s recognizing my work… it’s almost telling me, “Do more, write more.” It’s not just saying, “Oh, there you are at the top now.” On the contrary, I think it’s telling me, “Write more plays, Nilo.” And that’s what I want to do. I am anxious to get back to my little table and my pencil and write more.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nilo Cruz, congratulations, and again, thanks for talking with us.

NILO CRUZ: Oh, thank you for having me be part of your program. Gracias.