Born c. 1961, in Matanzas, Cuba; son of Nilo and Tina Cruz; married (divorced); children: Chloe Garcia–Cruz. Education: Attended Miami Dade College; Brown University, M.F.A., 1994.
Playwright. McCarter Theatre, Princeton, NJ, playwright–in–residence, 2000; New Theatre, Coral Gables, FL, playwright–in–residence, 2001–02. Has taught drama at Brown University, University of Iowa, and Yale University.
Grants from National Endowment of the Arts, Rockefeller Foundation, and Theatre Communications Group; W. Alton Jones Award for Night Train to Bolina; Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays award for Two Sisters and a Piano; American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Play Award, Humana Festival for New American Plays, for Anna in the Tropics, 2003; Pulitzer Prize for drama, for Anna in the Tropics, 2003.
Nilo Cruz shot to national prominence in 2003 when he won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his play Anna in the Tropics, a Depression–era tale about migrant Cubans working in a Tampa, Florida, cigar factory. The play "is about the power of art and how art can actually change your life," Cruz told Michael Kuchwara in a Boston Globe article. Cruz's tale of the Cuban–American experience centers on the "lector" of the factory, a man hired to provide cultural enrichment to the workers as they toil. The lector chooses to read Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to the workers, and as the play progresses their lives come to mirror those of the characters in the Russian classic. The immigrant experience is a common theme in many of Cruz's plays. "He gives voice to the stories, the struggles and the sensibilities of the Cuban American," Rafael de Acha, the director of Anna in the Topics, was quoted as saying in the Miami Herald, "with grace, sensitivity, imagination and immense theatricality." In addition, Cruz is often praised for his poetic language and his ability to weave strains of other literary traditions, such as magic realism, into his works.
Cruz was born in Matanzas, Cuba, and for the first few years of his life, his father was in jail for attempting to emigrate. When Cruz was nine, his family successfully fled to the United States in 1970 and settled in the Little Havana area of Miami. He became interested in theater in the early 1980s as an actor, and in 1988 he directed Mud, by playwright Maria Irene Fornés, who in 1990 became the only other Latin American ever nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for drama. Fornés invited Cruz to join her Intar Hispanic Playwrights Laboratory, and it was there that he began writing plays in earnest. Cruz's plays were soon produced in theaters across the country, from San Francisco to Princeton. Though several of his works have been staged by the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, Cruz is one of the few playwrights to win a Pulitzer without having a major presence on the New York theater scene. In fact, none of the Pulitzer judges had seen a performance of Anna in the Tropics; it won on the strength of its script alone.
In 2001, Cruz served as the playwright–in–residence for the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida, which commissioned Anna in the Tropics. The main action of the play pits the women against the men, with the dashing lector as the central figure of both admiration and contempt. The impoverished women, led by Ofelia and her two daughters, Conchita and Marela, are mesmerized by Juan Julian and are swept away from their dreary Ybor City lives by his recitation of Anna Karenina. But the men feel differently. Some, like Ofelia's brother–in–law Cheche, view Juan with ambivalence, but others, like Conchita's unfaithful husband, see him as unwelcome competition. Tensions mount when attempts to keep their tight–knit community together are imperiled by encroaching industrialization; cigar–making machines are on the horizon, and soon the lector—not to mention the workers' own positions—may be obsolete. The play opened to good reviews for both the playwright and the cast. Despite the characters' flaws, wrote Christine Dolen of the Miami Herald, "each of Cruz's characters commands attention and elicits empathy." Bruce Weber of the New York Times called it "a lyrical paean to a lost pocket of culture and a lost way of life," which exudes "the romance and tragedy of Tolstoy."
One of Cruz's first plays to be produced, the semi–autobiographical A Park in Our House, harkens back to the playwright's youth in Cuba, when Fidel Castro rolled out his "Ten Million Tons of Sugar Harvest" program in 1970. When a Russian botanist comes to stay with a Cuban family as part of an exchange program, the family is distracted from their economic deprivations by his presence. The mother of the family, Ofelina, is the emotional fulcrum of the play; she dreams of a romantic reconciliation with her husband, Hilario. But Hilario, a low–ranking government official, is obsessed with his desire to build a park in order to boost his reputation within the administration. The allegorical nature of the play is borne out through those who share their house. Ofelina and Hilario's gay nephew, Camilo, regains his voice after years of being mute; their niece, Pilar, longs to seek happiness in the Soviet Union. Their cousin, Fifo, a photographer, captures the symbolism of their predicament through his photographs. According to Cruz, the play attempts to understand the human reaction to oppression: "They take flight and move into the imagination in order to transcend their immediate reality," he said in American Theater. In terms of its autobiographical elements, Cruz said that writing A Park in Our House "helped me understand my own loss of innocence."
Another of Cruz's early plays, A Bicycle Country, takes place on a raft manned by three refugees, known as baseleros, who are making the treacherous journey from Cuba to Florida. They pass the time by telling the stories of their lives, and as their situation becomes more desperate, their stories take on mythical and hallucinatory qualities. Julio is a wheelchair–bound widower recovering from a stroke who is sure that all the misfortunes of his life will evaporate once he sets foot on American soil. Julio's gloom is tempered only moderately by his traveling companions: Ines, the nurse who cares for him, and his friend, Pepe. Like Cruz's other plays, A Bicycle Country concerns both the prisons of the physical world and the psychological shackles the human spirit seeks to overcome in order to be free. According to Diane Thiel of Brown Alumni Magazine, "the waters of the Straits of Florida seem to have their own role" in the play as the metaphorical walls of the jail that must be breached for the characters to gain their freedom. Other reviewers also noticed the play's use of water as a symbol. Madeleine Shaner of Back Stage West wrote that "Cruz's language is uncluttered, simplistic, sometimes banal, but informed by an unpretentious poetry that rocks with the inevitable bonding of the first act and the rhythm of the unforgiving ocean in the second."
Two Sisters and a Piano, though not autobiographical, features characters based on Cruz's sisters as well as on the Cuban poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela, who was imprisoned by Castro for her writings. The play is set in Havana in 1991, where the sisters Maria, a romance novelist, and Sofia, a pianist, are under house arrest following Maria's release from prison. Her crime was writing a letter to Castro urging him to support the Soviet reforms known as perestroika. In order to get her hands on the letters her exiled husband has mailed to her from Europe, Maria offers to tell some of her romantic stories to her police protector. The sympathetic policeman, Lieutenant Portuondo, is secretly a fan of Maria's novels, and eventually he seduces her. Sofia's romantic interest is the piano tuner, Victor, who flirts with her as he tunes her piano, but their relationship goes stale when Sofia's house arrest prevents her from seeing him on a regular basis. Above all, the sisters are tied to each other in their isolation and in their memories, as the regime's grip around their lives tightens.
Critics recognized Two Sisters and a Piano as a mature continuation of Cruz's earlier works. Robert L. Daniels of Variety called it "a provocative observation of the snail–paced changes of Cuba's political landscape" that is "layered with lyrical flights of romanticism." Ben Brantley of the New York Times noted parallels to Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters, saying that Cruz's play "somehow seems more old–fashioned than its Russian antecedent," even though it "fitfully evokes a poetic appreciation of the visions of phantom lives bred in circumscribed existences." David A. Rosenberg of Back Stage praised the play, calling it an "affecting piece, even if stronger on releasing passion than explaining politics." Similarly, noted Variety's Daniels, "there is a restless ambiguity in the narrative, and an under-current of tragedy that is never fully realized." Survival instincts are more the point than politics, according to Cruz, who told Randy Gener in the New York Times that "Two Sisters and a Piano is about two women who, even though they live in very harsh conditions, make the best of their lives. They create a little paradise in their house. Even though they are under house arrest, they bring out the beautiful china and use a tablecloth. It's the integrity of that, the dignity of it, that moves me."
In 2002, Cruz adapted Colombian author Gabriel García Marquéz's short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" as a musical that premiered at the Children's Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The story concerns an injured angel who falls to earth and is nursed back to health by two children. Though the children try to protect him, the adults in their village see the old man as a curiosity to be exploited. Soon he is caged and put on display where he is at the mercy of people's misguided desire to be cured of all their physical and spiritual pain. Rohan Preston of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote that the play "is full of the layering common in Caribbean and Latin American cultures," in which ancient Earth–based religions coexist with Christianity. While Marquéz's story is steeped in his trademark blend of magic realism, Cruz told Preston that for him, the question is not so much magic as it is religion: "It's this mesh of Catholicism and Yoruba religions, for example—that's reality." Or, as Robert Simonson of Playbill quoted Cruz as saying, his plays are "realism that is magical."
In 2003, Cruz's Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Anna in the Tropics, eventually opened on Broadway at the Royale Theater, starring Jimmy Smits in the role of the lector. In January of 2004, his play Beauty of the Father debuted in Coral Gables, Florida. That same year, Cruz began working on his next play, which was about a Caribbean hurricane.
Consistently, critics have commented favorably on Cruz's poetic language. "The words of Nilo Cruz waft from a stage like a scented breeze," wrote the Miami Herald's Dolen. "They sparkle and prickle and swirl, enveloping those who listen in both a specific place and time." In addition, Cruz's works are steeped in his cultural heritage. His plays are "imagistic dramatic poems," wrote John Williams of American Theatre, that are "rich in myth, symbol and metaphor." Commenting on A Bicycle Country, Brown Alumni's Thiel similarly wrote that Cruz's "language becomes increasingly rich with [the characters'] 'hallucinations' and evocative surreal visions."
Though Cruz is acknowledged as a rising star of the Cuban–American literary scene, he says he doesn't aim to speak for the community as a whole, nor is he trying to advocate for political change in his homeland. As he told Gener in the New York Times, "Ultimately my plays are about being an individual. Belonging to a particular group, left or right, entails a political loss. When you embrace your whole being and all that you can be in this world, that's the strongest position."
A Park in Our House, Magic Theatre, San Francisco, CA, 1996.
Dancing on Her Knees, Joseph Papp Public Theater, New York, NY, 1996.
A Bicycle Country, Florida Stage, Manalapan, FL, 1999.
Two Sisters and a Piano, McCarter Theater, Princeton, NJ, 1999.
(Adapter) Gabriel García Marquéz, A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings, Children's Theater, Minneapolis, MN, 2002.
Anna in the Tropics, New Theatre, Coral Gables, FL, 2002; New York, NY, November, 2003.
Lorca in a Green Dress, produced at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 2003.
Beauty of the Father, New Theatre, Coral Gables, FL, 2004.
Also author of the plays Night Train to Bolina, produced in San Francisco, CA, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams, and Graffiti. Translator of Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba and Dona Rosita, the Spinster.
American Theatre, July–August, 1996, p. 8.
Back Stage, March 15, 1996, p. 60; March 3, 2000, p. 56.
Back Stage West, April 12, 2001, p. 16. Boston Globe, April 7, 2003.
Brown Alumni, March–April 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, December 12, 2003, p. 41.
Miami Herald, October 14, 2002.
New York Times, February 16, 2000, p. E1; February 27, 2000, p. 8, p. 22; April 9, 2003.
Playbill, April 7, 2003.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), September 6, 2002.
United Press International, December 8, 2003.
Variety, March 1, 1999, p. 93.
"The Pulitzer Prize Winners: 2003," Pulitzer Prize, http://www.pulitzer.org (July 3, 2004).