Anna in the Tropics

by Nilo Cruz

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

Taino Indians
When Christopher Columbus first arrived on the island of Cuba he and his men were met by the indigenous Taino Indians. The word Taino meant ‘‘men of the good,’’ for the Taino were a gentle race of people whose lives where inextricably linked with their natural surroundings. The Tainos were a seafaring people who lived on the verge of dense jungle, but they also developed sophisticated agricultural practices that produced cassava, corn, squash, and peanuts. The Tainos wandered about naked, their bodies decorated with colorful dyes made from earth, and they lived in homes constructed of thatch and Royal Palm. They greeted Columbus and his men with the kindness and generosity that were honored Taino values. However, the Taino population decreased rapidly as a result of exposure to disease brought by the Europeans and forced labor.

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Ybor City
Ybor City, a district within metropolitan Tampa, Florida, was once known as ‘‘the cigar capital of the world’’ because so many cigar factories were located there in the period from 1885 to 1940. The city was named after Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Spaniard who, like his business partners Gavino Gutierrez and Ignacio Haya, immigrated to Cuba in the nineteenth century. Ybor operated a cigar factory in Havana in 1853, but soon labor disputes, a high tariff levied on cigars by the Cuban government, and the beginning of the Cuban revolution against Spain in 1868 forced Ybor to relocate his factory to Key West, Florida. However, lack of a fresh water supply and an adequate distribution system for his cigars cemented Ybor’s decision to move his base of operations to the Tampa, Florida, area, which had an established rail network and a recently improved port facility.

Ybor began developing a small community around the factory ‘‘with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners.’’ The community grew in size until, by 1890, it had reached a population of 5,500 and was incorporated into the municipality of Tampa as Ybor City. The community consisted of workers from all ethnic backgrounds, though Cuban exiles comprised the largest group, with Sicilians, Germans, Romanian Jews, Spaniards, and even a few Chinese composing the remainder of the population. Spanish and Italian were the two languages most often spoken in the factory.

Eventually, Ybor City rivaled Havana as a center for cigar production. In 1895, Ybor City had ten independent cigar factories, and the city continued to grow and prosper for the next two decades until the combined effects of increased cigarette consumption, automation, and the Great Depression forced many of the factories to choose between mechanizing their operations and going out of business. Many of the displaced workers either returned to their homeland or sought employment in the Tampa bay area.

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Literary Style

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Though the language Cruz uses in Anna in the Tropics is more like common speech compared to that of his other works, it is nevertheless charged with poetry that creates what Randy Gener calls ‘‘a living image of the exile’s experience.’’ The rhythms of speech remain strong from beginning to end as Cruz occasionally presents his characters’ beliefs and interior states of mind through vivid metaphorical passages, such as the one in which Marela describes her dream of snow or when Marela and Juan Julian discuss the many different shades of light that exist and how, according to Marela, ‘‘There’s always a hiding place to be found, and if not, one can always hide behind light.’’ The exchange between Conchita and Juan Julian in which they refer to their need for sanctuary is yet another example of metaphorical language in the play, for the characters alternately describe their trysting place as being ‘‘cold and impersonal’’ like a hotel or a hospital, neither place offering ‘‘temporary relief from the world or a temporary rest from life.’’ Furthermore, Juan Julian alludes to the restorative power of nature, of which sex plays a vital part, when he tells Conchita, ‘‘I detect sad trees in your eyes after we make love.’’

Triangle Structure
The playwright, using the relationship of Anna Karenina, her husband, and Vronsky as a model for developing character relationships within Anna in the Tropics, presents his characters in triangular relationships to one another so as to better underscore the shifts in power and control that exist between them. For example, when Santiago loses a bet to Cheché and stays away from the factory out of shame, Ofelia must then intercede and defend the family’s interests—and the tradition of the lector— against Cheché’s proposed automation of the factory. Because Palomo is torn between wanting to hear the lector read from Anna Karenina and wanting to be rid of him for conducting an affair with his wife, Palomo alternately supports and undermines Cheché’s proposal, thus forming one side of a triangle in the battle for control of the factory. Another, more comical example of how a triangular structure develops character relationships occurs when Marela intervenes in an argument between her mother and father, serving as an interpreter, or intermediary, until they are able to speak to each other directly. Finally, Palomo’s passing of the inaugural cigar directly to Juan Julian breaks a triangular relationship that is intended to maintain communication with the gods.

Cruz employs the love triangle to great dramatic effect within the play. The first and most provocative example exists in the relationship between Cheché, his wife Mildred, and the previous lector, a triangle that is broken when Mildred and the lector run off together. This triangle is supplanted by yet another one involving Cheché, for he soon becomes attracted to Marela, who, in turn, yearns for Juan Julian’s affectionate embrace. Perhaps the play’s most romantic example of a triangular character relationship, and the one that re-creates Tolstoy’s example faithfully, both in terms of its ardor and tragic outcome, is that of the love triangle between Conchita, her husband Palomo, and Juan Julian.

The foreshadowing used in the play heightens an element of suspense that is not fully realized until after the denouement. Early in the play, after Ofelia and Conchita have provided Juan Julian with the backgrounds of some of the workers whom he has met, they explain Cheché’s opposition to having a lector at the factory, saying that this opposition stems in part from Cheché being from the North and having lived outside their culture. They go on to say that Cheché holds something of a grudge against all lectors because his wife ran away with the last one the factory hired because she became so enamored with the romantic tales he told. Conchita dismisses Cheché’s cynical view as yet another one of his idiosyncrasies, for she says that ‘‘Cheché has a knack for turning the smallest incident into a loud and tragic event.’’ Little does she know how portentous these words are. Later, Cheché, unaware of the growing capacity for violence within himself, complains once more about the need for a lector at the factory, saying rather matter-of-factly that hiring Juan Julian will create ‘‘another tragic love story.’’ In retrospect, the audience comprehends the full weight of these words after the three celebratory gunshots are followed by two fired in revenge and Juan Julian lies dying on the factory floor.

Cruz also uses foreshadowing to add an element of mystery to the play. In the opening act, when Ofelia and her daughters stand at the docks waiting for the lector to arrive, Marela informs her mother that she has written the lector’s name on a piece of paper and placed it in a glass of sugar water to increase the chances that he will accept Ofelia’s offer of employment. Conchita then warns her sister against casting spells. She relates the story of Rosario and how her lover died as a result of her casting a spell on him. Rosario was so distraught that her father had to take her home to Cuba, where she would wander naked by the shore at night in hope of meeting her dead lover. Rosario remains alive in body but not in spirit. Marela, wearing a heavy fur coat in the heat of the Florida summer, experiences a similar fate after she is attacked by Cheché and Juan Julian has been murdered. Wearing the coat seems inexplicable to those who assemble for the final reading, yet to Marela’s devastated mind and spirit this act makes perfect sense.

Media Adaptations

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• Still photographs of the cast that performed Anna in the Tropics at the Royal Theatre in New York may be downloaded by opening a Web browser to search/3239.html and clicking on the thumbnail images.

Anna Karenina was first made into a film in 1915, though the 1935 version, starring Greta Garbo as Anna and Fredric March as Vronsky, is perhaps the most well known. Many versions of the Tolstoy classic have appeared on both the silver screen and television in the years since, with a miniseries directed by Sergei Solovyov scheduled for broadcast in 2005.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 590

Abarbanel, Jonathan, Review of Anna in the Tropics, in TheaterMania, September 25, 2003.

Anders, Gigi, ‘‘Work and All Play: Nilo Cruz’s Play Wins the Pulitzer Prize Despite Great Odds,’’ in Hispanic Magazine, June 2003.

Anstey, Chris, ‘‘It Must Be How It Is: On the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the State of American Theatre,’’ in OldTownReview, (select ‘‘Click here for the full Culture & Comment Archive’’; accessed November 8, 2004).

Barnes, Clive, ‘‘Tropics Smokin’,’’ in New York Post, November 17, 2003.

Cruz, Nilo, Anna in the Tropics, Theatre Communications Group, 2003.

Gener, Randy, ‘‘Dreamer from Cuba,’’ in American Theatre, Vol. 20, September 2003.

Kiger, Jennifer, ‘‘Reinventing History: Playwright Nilo Cruz Rolls History, Literature and Romance into a Pulitzer Prize– Winning Drama,’’ in South Coast Repertory Playgoers Guide,–04season/playgoers/anna/ nilo.html (accessed November 8, 2004).

‘‘Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy,’’ in Guardian,,5917,1279539,00.html (accessed November 8, 2004).

National Parks Service, ‘‘Ybor City: Cigar Capital of the World,’’ 51ybor/51facts1.htm (accessed November 8, 2004).

‘‘Nilo Cruz, Cuban-American Author of Anna in the Tropics Is the Recipient of This Year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Steinberg Award from the American Theatre Critics Associations,’’ in New Theatre, pulitzer.htm (accessed November 8, 2004).

Osenlund, Kathryn, Review of Anna in the Tropics, in CurtainUp, (accessed November 8, 2004).

Rouse, Irving, The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus, Yale University Press, 1992, pp. 5–25.

Slovo, Gillian, ‘‘Love in a Cold Climate,’’ in Guardian, March 20, 2004.

Sommer, Elyse, Review of Anna in the Tropics, in CurtainUp, (accessed November 8, 2004).

Del Todesco, Charles, The Havana Cigar: Cuba’s Finest, translated by John O’Toole, with photography by Patrick Jantet, Abbeville Press, 1997. The author traces the history of tobacco in Cuba from Columbus’s arrival to the modern day. Richly illustrated with photographs, many taken within cigar factories, this book describes in detail the processes of tobacco cultivation, curing, and, finally, the rolling of the cigar by hand.

Sontag, Susan, Preface, in Plays: Mud, The Danube, The Conduct of Life, Sarita, by Maria Irene Fornes, PAJ Publications, 1986. Nilo Cruz acknowledges Maria Irene Fornes, a native of Cuba, as an important influence on his development as a playwright. Fornes avoids ideological constructs when composing her plays, focusing instead on the needs of her characters. Fornes’ avant-garde plays, stark and often lyrical, revolve around characters who search for meaning in their lives in the face of psychological tyranny.

Stout, Nancy, Habanos: The Story of the Havana Cigar, Rizzoli International Publications, 1997. For years the habano has been considered the epitome of what a good cigar should be. Stout offers a unique perspective on Cuba’s growth and development as a nation, progress that has been inextricably linked to the cultivation of this valuable export. Dozens of cigar labels and art are reproduced within the volume, recreating a historical record of a bygone era.

Stubbs, Jean, Tobacco on the Periphery: A Case Study in Cuban Labour History, 1860–1958, Cambridge University Press, 1985. Stubbs provides a socio-political study of the working class that developed as a result of Cuba’s tobacco industry, a class that includes peasant growers, salaried workers, and slave and indentured labor. Exploring the agricultural and industrial development of the tobacco industry from its beginnings in the nineteenth century to the advent of the Castro regime, Stubbs’ book offers insights into why so many Cubans sought a more prosperous life in Tampa’s cigar factories.

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