In a world where we are more likely to read stories about how our differences separate us, it’s important to remember that we can learn from these differences, too. Anna in the Tropics, a beautiful play by Nilo Cruz, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003. The play has much to say about how cultures intersect. This convergence, if allowed to, will inspire, educate, and influence our emotions.
Anna in the Tropics tells the story of a family of Cuban-immigrant cigar makers in Florida near the beginning of the 20th century. The workplace dynamic at the factory is upset when a new lector arrives. In traditional Cuban cigar making, the lector was hired to read stories to the workers as a means of entertainment to alleviate the monotony of rolling tobacco. Emotions run high, both agitated and consoled by the story of Anna Karenina, the first novel chosen for oration by the new lector.
The characters in the factory all have strong emotional responses to Anna Karenina, both positive and negative. At best, the workers feel stimulated, their hearts stirred in romantic ways they hadn’t known before. At worst, they find the romanticism banal, fearing that it stands in the way of progress. But throughout the scenes of Anna in the Tropics, the characters can’t help but be influenced by the story as it unfolds in day-long segments as the lector, Juan Julian, reads the book aloud.
The brilliance of the play comes from the way the two stories run in tandem, with the characters in the play mirroring those in the novel, both consciously and unconsciously. In this excerpt, Juan Julian explains his selection in reading material:
CONCHITA: Why did you choose to read Tolstoy?
JUAN JULIAN: Because Tolstoy understands humanity like no other writer does.
CONCHITA: That’s a good enough reason to read him.
JUAN JULIAN: Someone told me that at the end of his life, when he knew he was going to die, he abandoned his house and he was found dead at a train station. The same as . . . Oh, perhaps I shouldn’t tell you this.
CONCHITA: He was probably on his way to visit God.
JUAN JULIAN: That has always been my suspicion.
What struck me the most in revisiting the play recently was the unabashed love that grew for Russian culture among the Cuban immigrants, namely the sisters, Marela and Conchita. They were unafraid to identify with Anna and the other characters, willing to learn from the social signals of the novel. In fact (spoiler alert), the owners of the cigar factory ultimately decide to launch a new brand of cigars named after Tolstoy’s main character. It was exciting to see people with distinct traditions of their own allowing themselves to be influenced in such a way. They didn’t turn against their own heritage but were able to embrace what they might learn from another one.