In recent years, the Latinx theater community has been fortunate to have "In the Heights" and "Hamilton" writer-composer Lin Manuel-Miranda as a devoted champion for increased cultural roles and diversity on Broadway. Still, Latinx roles — and representation — onstage is rare; so much so that it's often overlooked in local theatre company seasons. Rochester's theater scene has been working to change this in the last few years, largely driven by efforts of the Rochester Latino Theatre Company (run by Annette Ramos and Stephanie Paredes). Last fall, the company partnered with Geva Theatre Center to produce Miranda's "In the Heights," which had a sold-out run and raised more than $90,000 for hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
Blackfriars Theatre kicks off their 2018-19 season by working with Rochester Latino Theatre Company to produce a lesser known (and non-musical) show, "Anna in the Tropics," by Nilo Cruz. The production, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama, runs through September 23 and presents another vehicle for Latinx culture and history onstage.
"Anna in the Tropics" is set in 1929 Tampa and focuses on an immigrant Latinx family who owns and operates a Cuban cigar factory. As was commonly done in 19th and early 20th-century Cuban cigar factory culture, the family employs an educated lector (someone who reads aloud) to entertain the workers with novels during the tedious hours of rolling and filling cigars. These readings were a daily highlight for the workers, and usually lasted for hours (perhaps comparable to a Netflix binge in today's society), though the novels typically took a month or more to complete.
In this production, the power of literature is compared to the power of alcohol. The metaphor weaves throughout the plot as the new lector, Juan Julian (the charismatic, charming J. Simmons) arrives from Cuba and chooses "Anna Karenina" as his first novel. Throughout the two and a half hour show, the character - and the novel - becomes a catalyst for the family, challenging each to deal with a different problem they've been evading. For factory owner Santiago (a patriarchal, bumbling Adam Rosenfeld) and his wife Ofelia (the effervescent Adriana Riano), it is the issue of Santiago's gambling, which is creating debt for the factory; for their daughter, Conchita (a captivating Mary Mendez Rizzo) and her husband Palomo (the emotive Raul Torres), a rocky marriage; for Santiago's jilted half-brother Cheche (a desperate, cloying DimitarKominovski), a bitter heart; and for the family's daydreaming youngest daughter, Marela (sweetly played by Daimarelys Lara), the hope for romance. As the toil and heat of the Florida cigar plant is juxtaposed with the pomp and ice of Russian society, each character takes a different lesson from "Anna Karenina." Much like in Tolstoy's famous work, the choices they make change the family irreparably.
The cast has aligned skill levels (and surprisingly consistent accents), even if it's apparent some of them are the wrong age to be playing their respective characters. Director Patricia Lewis Browne, who last directed "Little Women" for Blackfriars, had the challenge of several intimate and violent scenes, and the dynamic that results is palpable - especially at the climax of the show.
The stark, tropical setting calls to mind a sort of Hemingway-meets-Chekhov aesthetic. Allen Wright Shannon has designed an airy, whitewashed wood factory, with accents of bright blue along the floor planks and around the windows and walls. Yellowed cigar ads and newspaper clippings cover the back wall and create a vintage mural, while furnishings are simple and allow for the acting to command attention. Lighting design by Ted Plant is full of warm yellows and greens, reminiscent of a hazy summer day.
"Anna in the Tropics" is important for local audiences who care about the future of diverse theater in Rochester and beyond. The need for Latinx representation is real. and it's inspiring to hear a pre-show greeting in both English and Spanish (as happened on Saturday night), as well as learn about Latinx history onstage.