Nilo Cruz, who in 2003 became the first Latino writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, uses lyrical language to create a sense of atmosphere and often to transport the audience to sites of collective memory. The play that won him the Pulitzer, Anna in the Tropics, for example, is set in a cigar factory in 1929 Cuba, where a lector, or teacher, reads Anna Karenina aloud to the workers, igniting new personal dynamics. In Beauty of the Father, site is less crucial than situation as poet-playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, executed during the Spanish Civil War, wafts in from the afterlife to open the play.
In Sotto Voce, Cruz’s new play, running at Theater for the New City through March 9, the playwright sites a ship: the M.S. St. Louis, which in 1939, three months before the start of World War II, carried 900 Jewish refugees from Germany to the Americas. It wouldn’t be Cruzian to offer an overt dramatization of how the leaders of Cuba, the U.S. and Canada refused their ports to the ship, forcing the St. Louis back to Europe and thus consigning most of its passengers to death by the Nazis. But the playwright does imagine Saquiel, a man of Jewish-Cuban extraction whose great-aunt was aboard the ill-fated ship. In Saquiel’s quest to learn more about the ship, he encounters Bemadette, a prominent, elderly, German-born novelist whose lost lover was aboard the vessel. And an unlikely “metaphysical love affair” ensues.
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*Photo of Franca Sofia Barchiesi in Nilo Cruz’s Sotto Voce by Jonathan Slaff courtesy The Clyde Fitch Report.