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A Conversation with Playwright Nilo Cruz

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Playwright Nilo Cruz hit the jackpot last March, when he was named winner of the American Theatre Critics Association/ Steinberg New Play Award and, two days later, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, both for his play Anna in the Tropics. In receiving the awards (and the $25,000 that came along with them), Cruz became the first Cuban-American winner of either one; an honor the 43- year-old writer takes seriously in a role-model way. Intelligent, soft-spoken and warm, Cruz says, 'I'm a workaholic, I'm a dreamer. If I couldn't write, I may as well die. I feel I'm a better person every time I write a play. I'm a very private person, but I feel I must be a face (for Latino authors) and participate in events.'

Those events are coming quickly. Cruz will be in Chicago next Monday (July 14) as part of a roundtable discussion on Latino theater at the Goodman Latino Theater Festival. Next, Anna in the Tropics will be produced this autumn in Chicago (Victory Gardens Theater) and at New Jersey's McCarter Theatre prior to a Broadway production. It's set in a Cuban cigar factory in the late 1800s, and involves the heroine of the title identifying herself with the heroine of the Tolstoy novel, Anna Karenina.

This summer, Cruz will have a new work, Lorca in a Green Dress, staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As the title suggests, it is about 20th Century Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, and deals frankly with his homosexuality. Cruz himself is openly gay (as well as the father of a daughter), but is not focused on gay issues as an author. 'When I write a play, sometimes a fever takes over me ... and when I'm away from the writing, I can't make it stop. I'm not a theme-oriented writer. I'm more inspired by a behavior, or a name or the visualization of characters.'

Cruz was born in Matanzas, a city on the North Coast of Cuba, famed as a center of poetry and music to which he was drawn early on. His family emigrated to Miami when Cruz was 10. 'I was terrified of my father,' he says. 'That being drawn to the arts would be interpreted as being gay. I was terrified to ask my mother to pay for piano lessons.' Mentored by Maria Irene Fornes, Paula Vogel and others, Cruz eventually completed a master's degree at Brown University, and moved to New York as a member of the prestigious writers' organization, New Dramatists, living for two years in an unused sound booth at the company while making ends meet clerking in a bookstore.

While there are an increasing number of Latino theater companies around the country (and in Chicago, too), Cruz recognizes that the appeal of his work to mainstream companies is limited. Such theaters may do one ethnic or minority play a year. 'It's what I call The Slot,' he says. 'And not all theaters have The Slot, so I'm grateful for theaters that do. I don't write plays for Latinos, I just write plays. I have always felt that writing for the stage must be musical and rhythmic, but my poetry is grounded in reality.' His plays might have wider appeal if he created Anglo characters, something he hasn't done yet. 'If I wrote an Anglo character, I would do a lot of research. I'd sit in cafes (and listen), I'd read plays. I'm more interested in inflections than accents. I'm interested in the rhythms. That's something August Wilson taught me.'

Research, however, is not a tool Cruz likes to use, fearing that the volume of information uncovered can overwhelm the primacy of the characters. Nonetheless, he did some research for Anna in the Tropics, since it has an historic setting. He was completely intrigued when he discovered the old Spanish and Cuban cigar factory tradition of lectors, or readers. Paid for by the workers themselves, not the factory owners, the lectors would read newspapers, novels, poetry out loud to the workers. 'The workers might be illiterate, but they could quote the classics and poetry because of the lectors,' Cruz explains. He found that many of the workers were socialists, and so had a keen interest in the works of Leo Tolstoy, who would have been a contemporary writer at the time. 'When I discovered that Anna Karenina was the book being read, the whole play changed.'

In addition to Anna in the Tropics, which Cruz says he still is refining, and Lorca in a Green Dress, Cruz also is at work on 'a play about a hurricane. I'm inventing a whole, little Caribbean island' upon which he will center a play about danger and displacement. It is, Cruz says, his response to 9/11 because 'I can't write about politics directly.'

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