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On Stage: Pulitzer-winning Nilo Cruz an appealing up and comer

Wednesday, June 18, 2003

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

The theater world was startled April 7 when the $7,500 Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded to Nilo Cruz's "Anna and the Tropics," a play few had ever heard of since it had not been seen in New York and had been staged only in a 100-seat theater in Miami. Just a few days before, "Anna" also had won the American Theatre Critics Association's annual $15,000 Steinberg Award for the best new play not yet produced in New York.

I haven't read "Anna" yet, but thanks to last week's ATCA conference in Minneapolis/St.Paul, I can report that Cruz is immensely personable, a sensitive, thoughtful, articulate man in the midst of life-altering developments. I say this after hearing him talk to the assembled critics and then discussing two plays we had seen over drinks. But this demeanor was already evident 10 years ago when he came to the Carnegie Mellon Showcase of New Plays to workshop his play "Graffiti," directed by Mladen Kiselov. (Kiselov left a strong expression: "I should work with him again," he said Saturday.)

There is a connection between Cruz's two awards: One Steinberg judge was also on the Pulitzer drama jury and recommended the script. For the Pulitzer, "Anna" beat Edward Albee's "The Goat" and Richard Greenberg's Tony-winning "Take Me Out"; for the Steinberg, it was Arthur Miller's "Resurrection Blues" and Craig Wright's "Recent Tragic Events."

Cruz came to talk to the critics out of gratitude for the Steinberg, but of course it is the Pulitzer that has catapulted him into the big time. "Anna" is slated for several productions, including the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and producer Roger Berlind is planning a Broadway move, with various stars being discussed. But Cruz is well aware of the pitfalls of commerce and, at 42, seems secure enough to stand up to the pressures.

He was born in Matanzas, Cuba, came to the United States when he was nearly 10 and grew up in Miami. He studied theater at Miami-Dade Community College with Teresa Maria Rojas, then won a scholarship to a writing workshop in New York with noted playwright Maria Irene Fornes. It was the next summer he came to Pittsburgh, just before entering the elite graduate playwriting program at Brown University run by Paula Vogel -- his third female mentor, to whom he adds a male fourth, the great playwright-poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

"Anna and the Tropics," set in a cigar factory in 1929 Tampa, is based on the "lectors" who were hired to read to cigar workers -- often, Cruz says, from Russian novels. In "Anna," the novel is "Anna Karenina" and a real-life affair parallels that in the novel. In another parallel from Tolstoy, Cruz heard about the Pulitzer on a snowy train platform after teaching a course at Yale. "'Miami, Cuba and all the Latinos got a Pulitzer Prize today," he told a reporter. "I'm at a train station, and I feel like I'm going to heaven."

Cruz is the first Hispanic to win the drama Pulitzer (Fornes was a runner-up in 1990), and he has yet to write an Anglo character -- "Russians, yes." He says he starts a play with a behavior or just a name, clearing his mind with yoga and proceeding with visualization exercises. His style is called poetic and magical, and, speaking in a soft Hispanic accent, he calls himself "a workaholic and a dreamer." He seeks to capture the rhythms of speech and credits "the license to do that" to August Wilson.

After the Pulitzer announcement, Cruz saw Wilson, who gave him a small case with two cigars. "I felt I was welcomed into the club," he said. On another occasion he was greeted by Broadway royalty Marian Seldes with three kisses, another sign of having arrived.

Bottom Line

Paid admissions at city's pro theaters for week ending June 15:

  • Miss Saigon/CLO (61%) .............. 13,697
  • Dirty Blonde/Public (82%) ............. 3,868
  • Hedwig/City (53%) ............................ 678
  • Maj.Barbara/PICT (58%) .................. 670
  • Arabian/Quantum (81%) ................... 311
  • A&C/Unseam'd (28%) ...................... 146

    For week ending June 8:

  • Miss Saigon/CLO (63%) ................ 8,839
  • Dirty Blonde/Public (69%) ............. 2,028
  • Hedwig/City (80%) .......................... 1,341
  • A&C/Unseam'd (41%) ...................... 287

Contact Chris Rawson at 412-263-1666 orcrawson@post-gazette.com .

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