June 17, 2020

McCarter Presents Emily Mann “In Conversation with Nilo Cruz”; “Anna in the Tropics” Playwright Reflects on Writings, Recent Events

“IN CONVERSATION”: McCarter Theatre presented an online conversation between outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann and playwright and librettist Nilo Cruz. (Emily Mann photo by Matt Pilsner; Nilo Cruz photo by Marc Richard Tousignant)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter LIVE: In Conversation with Nilo Cruz” was presented June 12. Artistic Engagement Manager Paula T. Alekson curated the discussion between playwright and librettist Cruz; and outgoing Artistic Director and Resident Playwright Emily Mann. McCarter’s productions of Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and Bathing in Moonlight were directed by Mann.

The conversation begins on a somber note. “Given the events of the past two and a half weeks, I felt the need to not simply dive into the past, but to be in the present at the top of our time together,” Alekson says, adding that she felt a responsibility not to create a “structured absence of the outrage, pain, unrest, and division. I thought, as a memorial, we might mark the present moment first.”

Cruz recites “The Weight of a Knee,” a poem he has written in memory of George Floyd. The harrowing elegy is unsparing: “The knee in uniform, made of law, crushed the tendrils of an already buried throat, as it strangled the breath of history once again,” Cruz reads. “The knee, known to be used for the sacred ceremony of prayer, now profaned.”

Reflecting on the ensuing national dialogue about racial justice, Mann offers, “We are at a turning point in history. It’s a seismic shift that has great possibility — and of course great danger in it as well, as all great possibilities do.” She observes “people around the world feeling the need to walk together, and show … their need to see justice and change for their fellow human beings. This is something that artists know: the whole thing is to go deep inside yourselves and dream big, and see where you want to go, so that then you can go there together.”

Cruz and McCarter Theatre

Speaking from a high-rise in Miami, Cruz recalls that he was invited to McCarter by Janice Paran, the theater’s former director of play development. “My agent had sent to Janice an early play of mine called Night Train to Bolina,” he says. Mann remembers being deeply impressed by the play, which she says “was so beautiful and original. Nilo had found his voice even then.”

The inaugural season (1995) of McCarter’s Second Stage On Stage Festival included Cruz’s one-act play Madrigal. Cruz was asked to expand Madrigal into the full-length play that became A Park in Our House. The story concerns “a family in Cuba in 1970, which is the year that I left Cuba and came to this country,” Cruz explains. “Some of the characters are reminiscent of some of my family members, but what I was trying to do in that play was look at that year — things that were happening in Cuba then. I had never written about Cuba before.”

Cruz’s next McCarter production was Two Sisters and a Piano, which was conceived as a radio play. “We were working with a New York radio station [that] partnered with McCarter,” Cruz remembers. He adds that, subsequent to the broadcast, “I wrote a longer piece, and we did a series of readings.”

The playwright still appreciates the supportive feedback that was provided at McCarter. “As writers we live a solitary life,” he remarks. “So it’s great when you get the response of other people, especially sensitive peers in the theater.” In 1999 the stage version of Two Sisters and a Piano received its world premiere at McCarter; the following year it was presented at the Public Theater.

“Anna in the Tropics” and “Bathing in Moonlight”

Anna in the Tropics is set in 1929. The action takes place in a cigar factory located in Ybor City, a section of Tampa. “My father told me about this tradition that started in Cuba, with lectors reading novels to workers in cigar factories,” Cruz remembers. “When he told me about this beautiful tradition, it stayed with me.” The title refers to a cigar that is named after the title character in Anna Karenina, which is read by the lector.

The play was commissioned and produced by the New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida. Following this 2002 premiere, Anna in the Tropics won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

A few months later the play opened McCarter’s 2003-2004 season — and the newly constructed Berlind Theatre. “We wanted Anna in the Tropics to be the first play there,” Mann recalls. “I directed. We had a wonderful cast, [including] Jimmy Smits, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Priscilla Lopez.” She adds, “We had to extend [the run] almost immediately.”

After the McCarter run ended, the production moved to Broadway. It was nominated for two Tony Awards: Best Play (Cruz); and Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a play (Rubin-Vega).

Cruz appreciates Mann’s style of directing. “I’ve seen directors in the past [who start rehearsals by] blocking.” He contrasts this approach with that of Mann — herself a playwright — who considers, “What is this scene about? How can we go deeper?” Cruz also has great respect for actors: “They are more than just interpreters; they are creators as well.”

Mann says, “Because Nilo’s plays come alive when you dig deeply inside, he allowed me the freedom to find so much with the actors, and then we would talk about it: ‘How far can this go between these two people?’” She adds, “Nilo knew when to leave, and when to come back.”

Cruz’s Zoom connection is momentarily interrupted, briefly causing the writer to disappear from the event, though he reappears fairly quickly. Mann quips, “Nilo, that was not your cue to go!”

In 2016 Mann directed Cruz’s Bathing in Moonlight at McCarter. The play portrays a priest who must confront the conflict between his vows, and his love for a parishioner whose struggling family he is helping.

“We did a lot of talk about forming and shaping [the play],” Mann recalls. “It became this beautiful piece. Edward Pierce, the lighting and set designer, was with us. He responded to what Nilo and I were doing with the piece, in terms of its movement, and came up with one of the most beautiful designs I think we’ve had in the Berlind.” Cruz adds that the set “moved beautifully from scene to scene, because the play has several locations.”

“Towards a Pause”

Last month McCarter hosted an online tribute to Mann. At that event Cruz recited  “Towards a Pause,” a poem that he had written in honor of his collaborator. Much of the imagery anticipates the writing that Mann will have additional time to do when her administrative duties at McCarter have concluded. Cruz closes this conversation by reading the poem again.

“There are no more theaters than those we carry within,” Cruz recites. “You’ve been offered a pause, a silent gravity, to immerse yourself in the transparency of a paper, in the ink of words … You’ve been offered a pause to give all these things — who still wait in a solitary train — the hope of a journey, a place on the stage, with the honesty and holy ceremony of your sacred theater.”

To view the conversation between Emily Mann and Nilo Cruz, or to learn about upcoming McCarter@Home events, visit mccarter.org/tickets-events/mccarterathome or McCarter’s Facebook page.