NEW YORK-BASED director Jo Bonney has had little time for sightseeing since arriving in Washington this summer to work on "Anna in the Tropics," the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz. On those rare forays away from the Arena Stage rehearsal rooms, she found being in the nation's capital resonant to Cruz's themes.
"The national monuments are all about representing America and Americans. Nilo's characters are new Americans, and as immigrants they're looking for ways to define what it means to be American."
"Anna in the Tropics" makes its Washington premiere at Arena Stage this week. The play is set in a Cuban American cigar factory in 1920s Florida, a place where cigars are still rolled by hand and "lectors" are brought in to read aloud to the workers. Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" -- the romantic and tragic story of Anna, her husband and her lover -- is read, inspiring a chain of events that mirror the novel and cause the characters to reexamine their own lives.
Bonney, originally from Australia, found Arena's ongoing mission to bring voices of the American experience to the stage, especially the immigrant story, particularly compelling.
"As an immigrant, I was completely interested in . . . representing the different voices in America, and of immigrants who make America their home. In part, that is what Nilo's play is all about."
The play, according to Bonney, is also about the new American and the conflicts that arise when old Cuban traditions -- hand-rolling the cigars, readers brought in to educate and entertain the workers -- meet and clash with the modern world.
"Holding on to tradition versus new ways of thinking, the conflict of past and future, the old world order being challenged by the mechanized industry; this is very much an American story, as immigrants struggle for the American dream."
Bonney cast only Spanish-speaking actors, even though the play is in English. "Nilo is Cuban; he thinks in Spanish. Although the play is in English, the language has a lyrical rhythm inherent in Spanish."
Describing Cruz's language as beautiful and poetic, Bonney felt her challenge was to portray the grittiness of the workers' everyday lives when wrapped in lyrical prose. There is also a shift between Cruz's language, and Tolstoy's, as the story of "Anna Karenina" is read aloud.
"You have this layered text. You see everyday people dealing with Tolstoy's themes: love, betrayal, passion and how that impacts their behavior and their lives. These are very human issues, and it profoundly affects these characters."
Bonney sees Cruz's play as part of a larger movement in this country: voices once pushed to the margins now finding space at the center of the stage. Quieted voices, Bonney explains, that are finally getting their chance to tell stories and to use their language in contemporary and exciting ways.