This week I reached out to the actors of Anna in the Tropics because after reading this play by myself on a rainy afternoon at a downtown brewery, I was moved enough to experience a mini, yet profoundly personal, wave of unanticipated catharsis.
Nilo Cruz’s script invaded my brain like a nostalgic dream that insists on lingering with you for the entire day. Okay, maybe the beer had something to do with this feeling, but I am going to attribute most of the credit to the words of Cruz.
Photo by Eric Chazankin, Pictured: Armando Rey (Juan Julian), and Bronwen Shears (Conchita)
(For the precursor to this interview, please see this short post before you read on!)
Set in 1929 in Tampa (Ybor City), Florida, Nilo Cruz takes us to a classic Cuban-American cigar factory where machines have yet to replace workers in a rapidly mechanizing industry. The arrival of a new lector, a well-dressed and well-spoken gentleman, is a cause for excitement and celebration, but when he begins to read aloud from Anna Karenina, he unwittingly becomes a catalyst in the lives of his avid listeners, for whom Tolstoy, the tropics, and the American dream prove a volatile combination.
I wanted to see what the actors thought after spending weeks immersed in this beautiful script and their archetypal, yet eerily complex, characters. This interview also allows you to get to know these artists, which as we all know can be such a rewarding aspect of community theatre!
Included in this interview are responses from the following actors:
- Armando Rey* – Juan Julian, the lector
- Dan Villalva, Santiago, the owner of the cigar factory
- Jared Wright, Cheché
- Kathleen Pizzo-St. John, Marela, Santiago’s daughter
- Laura (La) Sottile, Ofelia, Santiago’s wife
Lito Briano, Palomo, Santiago's son-in-law
* member of Actor’s Equity
The abridged and compiled interview:
What has been the most rewarding or interesting experience during the rehearsal process so far?
Dan: It was actually reading for the part that sticks the most in my mind. I read for the part of Santiago with La in a conference room at Marty’s work [Marty Pistone, the director], and although I had only received the script a few days before, we managed to pull off a very emotional scene between Santiago and Ofelia.
Armando: This is very interesting because, I don’t know if anyone has realized this but, I, Armando, am actually Juan Julian in real life right now. Here I am, this outsider that came to Santa Rosa to do this show, not knowing anyone, not knowing the town, but here I am, and I’ll stand in front of an audience to bring life to “pages of a book” and everyone has just opened their arms and welcomed me to their community and it feels amazing, just like Juan Julian feels. I just hope no real life Cheché comes into the picture.
La: Marty is extremely creative and intelligent. His eclectic approaches are future century, certainly at times I felt as if the form was solid in a particular blocking and then it would soon dissolve into a bewildering, yet enticing quicksand.
Jared: The artistic team have been wonderful and I’ve learned much about the Cuban culture of the 1920′s. We learned a bit about the cigar rolling process, the different roles and aspects of cigar factories, and we got to eat Cubano sandwiches, which were delicious. The play is very family-centric and we, the cast, have enjoyed becoming a family.
Can you talk about your relationship with your character?
Kathleen: Playing Marela has been great!! It is strange though because I strongly relate to her, so it’s been very enlightening to play upon her battles. She’s an idealistic young woman who sees everything through rose-colored glasses, and throughout the play she’s really trying to get the other characters to look past her naivety and take her seriously, which is easy for the older, more experienced, bit more cynical, characters to dismiss or take advantage of. But Marela is so strong in her push-back and protection of her beliefs and that’s admirable. I think the really difficult aspect of playing this part is that her struggles are so personal for me (and I think for any woman in her early twenties)(and really just anyone in their early twenties), wherein we just have all these beautiful expectations about life that can become so obscured through time.
Dan: This has been quite an adventure for me since I haven’t acted on the stage for over 30 years. But, I found that at my age many of the comic and tragic experiences in my life have helped me to reach for some sort of truth in the character of Santiago. Strangely enough, although I’ve spoken Spanish all my life, achieving a respectable Cuban accent is still one of my hardest challenges.
La: 3 words: My Grandmother, Survivor, Resolute
Lito: Palomo has been a lot of fun. He’s a complex, enigmatic and layered character whose narrative and arc is both enjoyably puzzling and tantalizing for the senses to wrap my body, mind and soul around.
Jared: Playing Cheché has been challenging and extremely enjoyable. Cheché is definitely more than just the antagonist of the story, he is a broken man with an enormous hole in his heart and soul. He is sad and angry and he displaces his aggression and does awful things not out of malice or hatred but out of inner pain and suffering.
Armando (who played Cheche, the antagonist, in a previous production) compares and contrasts his experiences with two polar charachters): It’s going from one extreme to the next. Juan Julian is more romantic, poetic, traditional, sensitive. Cheché is troubled, complicated, “in your face” eager to move forward with modern times.
It feels Like it’s a brand new show to me. My point of view and perspective as Juan Julian changes everything. Playing Cheché I embodied that character with its troubles, turbulence, and because of the nature of the character, the focus didn’t go into other character’s needs. Playing Juan Julian it changes. There is a special connection with all characters (including Cheché and Palomo) and is sensitive to their needs. Playing both sides gives me a whole new perspective. They all have one basic human need in common which is LOVE, and they’re all searching for it their own special way.
What theme(s) in the play speak(s) strongly to you?
Jared: The themes of the importance of family and of the complexities of love speak strongly to me.
Kathleen: All of them! Tradition vs. progress, cynicism vs. idealism. Male perspective vs. female perspective, especially in regards to love.
Lito: The theme of life imitating art is a classic theme that works its way in an ironic circumstance that’s enjoyable to unfold with the storytelling.
Dan: I hope audiences take away its timeless theme – that the real things of value – love, family, friendship are what endure long after the money is gone.
Why do you think Anna in the Tropics is important to produce right now?
Dan: It’s important to produce because of the conflicts and misconceptions regarding immigrants in the US today.
Jared: Anna In the Tropics was written in 2003 and it’s important because it deals with timeless human issues of love, passion, jealousy, loss, and family. It also touches nicely on how too much capitalism can be a hindrance to a society.
Lito: Anna in the Tropics is important because I appreciate how it portrays the Latin community in an intelligent and poetic light. It’s both intellectual and sensual. This play has a marvelous cohesion of these elements and to illustrate that on a Latin community makes this play unique and relevant.
Kathleen: It’s great to shine light on a fascinating piece of American History- Cuban immigrant workers and all that they brought from Cuba and donated to American culture. It’s so important that this play focuses on a minority group within America, because we need more of that! Also, I love that the women were written with such dominance and intelligence.
Anna in the Tropics runs from March 11th – 26th in the G.K. Hardt Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling 707-523-4185.