Nilo Cruz first intended to set his play Anna in the Tropics in the 1800s, a time when lectors (readers) played an important role in cigar factories. Cruz, however, reconsidered and decided that a historical account would be ‘‘too complicated’’ to render dramatically, so he chose instead to focus on the role the lector played in the factories during a time when personal and financial independence were inextricably linked. Speaking in an article by Jennifer Kiger for the South Coast Repertory Playgoers Guide, Cruz states that ‘‘I decided to write about possibly the last lector in Tampa. The lectors were the first to be fired when the Depression began, so I set the play in 1929.’’ Lectors read novels and news to the workers, who paid the lector directly from their own wages. Cruz also wanted to tell the story of Cubans who fled to the United States prior to the 1959 revolution. ‘‘These were not immigrants. They were exiles who wanted Cuba’s independence, and they would have been killed if they stayed there. I thought it was important to document this part of our culture,’’ says Cruz (also quoted in Kiger). Anna in the Tropics was written while Cruz was playwright-in-residence at the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, which first staged a production of the play in 2002.
Anna in the Tropics portrays the lives of cigar factory workers in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida, when a new lector, perhaps the last to ply his trade, is hired. The men and women remain divided in their loyalties as economic hardship and the pressure to abandon old traditions force the owners of the cigar factory to adopt new, progressive manufacturing methods if they wish to stay in business. As the lector reads from Anna Karenina, a novel of adultery set in nineteenth-century Russia, he casts a spell over the workers, transforming their passions and desires through the affirming power of art. That the love they seek may result in a tragic end is ordained as much by the story of the Russian noblewoman as it is by the actions of the workers themselves.