Playwright feels the joy
and tears at end of a long artistic journey
BY CHRISTINE DOLEN
NEW YORK -- More than 1,300 miles separate Matanzas,
Cuba, from the heart of New York City. But just over
a week ago, a long journey that playwright Nilo Cruz
began when he left his Cuban hometown as a frightened
9-year-old ended just off Times Square when his play
Anna in the Tropics opened, at last, on Broadway.
From a boy whose parents brought him to Miami on
a Freedom Flight from Cuba in 1970 to a man who became
the first Hispanic-American to win the Pulitzer Prize
for drama in 2003, Cruz has evolved from a struggling
exile to an exalted artist, even though some New York
critics found his poetic play about Cuban-American
cigarmakers in Florida's Ybor City in 1929 less than
Even so, the weekend of Nov. 15-16 was one of the
happiest in the 43-year-old playwright's life.
Part of it, of course, was the thrill of his first
Broadway opening, of seeing a play written for the
tiny 104-seat New Theatre in Coral Gables open in
the 1,068-seat Royale, an ornate Broadway theater
with murals of Spanish lovers on its second-floor
ceiling. Too, there was the excitement of looking
around the opening night audience and seeing fellow
Pulitzer winners Edward Albee and Neil Simon, stars
like Brian Stokes Mitchell and Philip Seymour Hoffman
and Alfred Molina in the red velvet seats.
But what made the opening weekend sweetest for Cruz,
who lives alone in an East Side apartment in New York,
was that he got to experience it surrounded by family.
His former wife, artist Dorothy García, brought
their 15-year-old daughter Chloe from Pasadena, Calif.,
where the Westridge High School freshman studies piano
and is an aspiring jazz singer. Clara Martha Cruz,
a Spanish teacher at Hialeah Gardens Elementary and
one of Cruz's two older sisters, came up from her
home in Westchester with her husband, Ramón
Bezanilla, and daughter Krystel Ramos, a 17-year-old
senior at Miami's St. Brendan Catholic High School.
Missing were his father, also named Nilo Cruz, who
passed away in 1999, and his mother Tina, who is recovering
from knee surgery.
''It was really good that I could also have private
moments with my family and share this experience in
a more intimate way. They don't ask for anything.
They allow you who you are. You can just hug them
and kiss them,'' Cruz says.
``The media ask you to intellectualize emotion. I
was certainly elated, but they still want you to articulate
it. By the time I got to the opening night party [at
The Supper Club], the last thing I wanted to do was
talk about it. I was feeling so much, I was just trying
to take it all in and experience it.''
That's what Cruz's extended family did. They squeezed
in some family reunion time (they had breakfast at
the Times Square Howard Johnson's), some quick tourist
stops (the World Trade Center site and Madame Tussaud's
Wax Museum) and, of course, the in-the-spotlight glamour
of a major Broadway opening night.
''We walked to the theater from my cousin's hotel,
and there were all these photographers. It was crazy!''
says Ramos, who stayed up 'til 3 a.m. the night she
arrived, catching up with her uncle, whom she sometimes
calls ''Papi'' by mistake.
'I thought, `Wow, this is probably how Jennifer Lopez
feels'. . . And the night before, we got to meet Jimmy
Smits, who was so great, so elegant in the play in
his white suit. Then we got to stand on the stage
and look out at all those empty red seats.''
Ramos' mother, Clara Martha Cruz, was like the brother
she still calls ''Nilito'' in feeling waves of overwhelming
''Anna is very meaningful for us. She's like a new
sister, a new part of the family,'' says Cruz, who
spent the day after her return from New York taking
the poster of her brother's play from classroom to
classroom at Hialeah Gardens, reminding the students
that her Pulitzer Prize-winning brother was also a
product of Miami-Dade's public school system.
``When we arrived at the theater and I saw all people
outside, I was shaking. Then I saw my brother looking
very elegant, and my daughter and niece had gardenias
in their hair [like the character of Marela in the
``Our father's birthday would have been Nov. 15,
and the gardenia was his favorite flower. And the
name of the cigar factory in the play is Flor del
Cielo, flower of the sky. So I thought of God, of
our father, of our grandmother who loved theater and
taught us to love it.''
Chloe García-Cruz, who still has braces on
her teeth and whose glowing face reflects a blending
of her parents' Cuban, Mexican and Japanese heritage,
had seen an earlier production of Anna in the Tropics
at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, Calif. She found
the Broadway production faster-paced, more clear.
And she marveled at the effect that her father's words
had on the opening night crowd.
''I saw people crying,'' she says. ``It's an amazing
story -- beautiful but very tragic. You have to finish
the story for yourself. I loved it so much . . . I'm
really happy for my father. I've seen four of his
plays so far, and I don't think you can compare any
of them. It's like comparing two beautiful things.''
Cruz's ex-wife Dorothy, an artist, sat with him and
their daughter at the opening, her hair also sporting
a gardenia from Cruz.
She says of Anna, ``You just felt the whole time.
The feelings of the play live in Nilo . . . He's in
touch with his feminine side. I don't think that very
many men experience the broken-heartedness that Nilo
On Nov. 16, though, Cruz was anything but broken-hearted.
After the actors took their curtain call, basking
in the warmth of applause and cheers, Smits left the
stage, then brought out Cruz and director Emily Mann.
The first-nighters lept to their feet, cheering, shouting
''Bravo!'' and ''Nilo!'' Emotions played across the
smiling, tear-streaked face of the trim playwright,
clad head-to-toe in black Prada, a gardenia on his
lapel. It was, he says, something that ``. . . went
so fast but lasted so long. It was thrills, humility,
grace, generosity, all those emotions washing over
me. And being so grateful.''
But the sweetest moment of all happened as he exited
the stage, to find Dorothy and Chloe waiting in the
''I hugged the two of them,'' he says. ``I was in
the middle. It was lovely.''