Anna In The Tropics, by Nilo Cruz
This play won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and it was a well-deserved win. I have to admit that a great deal of my fondness for this play comes from my intimate knowledge of its context. This is a play set in the waning glory days of the cigar industry in Ybor City, part of Tampa, Florida . Being very familiar with those factories and the threat of mechanist cigar rolling to the well-being the people familiar with the highly paid work of hand rolling. Not only is the context a dangerous one, but so too the novel takes advantage of the quirkiness of the fact that the time this is set in was a time when people were hired to read books aloud to the workers. I would think that being paid to read sounds like something that would almost be a dream job, and in this particular play the knowledge of the temporal context, the placing of the themes and plot of Anna Karenina to Central Florida, and the authors grasp of the play are all quite worthwhile and worthy of appreciation from those who are able to relate to all of these complicated layers.
Anna In The Tropics is set in a particularly combustible context and the author does a good job of showing it. We are seeing a small part of the Cuban-American society of Tampa during the time close to the Great Depression. There is a great deal of ominous change threatening the well-being of cigar workers and a strong sense of personal dissatisfaction, and a widespread involvement in gambling when into this mixture arrives one Juan Julian to serve as a lector. His job is to read books to the cigar workers, and he chooses Anna Karenina as his book to read. His reading of this book prompts some to engage in romantic affairs and turns the frustrations and longings of the community into concrete action. While Juan Julian himself enjoys the sensuality his broadmindedness earns him with the local women, the ominous presence of Chechè shows that there is discord in this community. One gets a sense of mounting drama and the inevitability of tragedy as the play moves towards its conclusion like a Greek tragedy. Overall, there is something deeply satisfying and truly excellent about this play, and it is one certainly well worth seeing and one that makes the reader curious to know the author’s other works better.
There are a great deal of insights that this book brings out. For one, Chechè represents several different types of evil. These include a hostility to literature, a tendency to seek to dominate or destroy others through violence, be it rape or murder, and even the use of false arguments about a blind adoption of technology that would benefit the ordinary laborers even as it turns them from skilled laborers into low-paid and exploited ones. In addition to exploring the serpents in the garden, the play also points out that the role of great literature in our lives is often a tragic one, in that it reminds us of our discontents and encourages in us longings that often lead to our destruction. Some people can be moved by jealousy to become better people, but some people simply kill and destroy to obtain what they do not possess and that others are unwilling to give them. Tampa is certainly a good place to explore the book’s thoughts of transience, frustrated longings, and the resolution of conflict and tension by violence, and this play is one that readers will greatly appreciate. When one moves Anna to the tropics, the results are still tragic no matter the context.
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