By Gener, Randy
American Theatre , Vol. 20, No. 7
SINCE TAKING THE FREEDOM FLIGHT TO MIAMI IN 1970 at the tender age of 9, Nilo Cruz has set foot in Fidel Castro's Cuba only once. It was 1979, and he was 19. At the time, the Cuban government allowed families to visit their relatives, so Cruz and his parents spent two weeks with his two older sisters, who had remained there. Now that his sisters live in the United States, he rarely imagines going back.
"I haven't tried," Cruz says. "It hasn't been the right time. I don't have any immediate relatives left in the country. Sometimes I have the desire to witness what life is like there. Sometimes I don't." Unlike many from the generation that went into exile at the beginning of the revolution, the 42-year-old Cruz has no plans to permanently return to the country of his birth. His heart is not dispossessed; it does not ache for all that he has lost or obsessively dwell on what he left behind. He is not afflicted with the disease that creeps through an exile's mind and eats it away with torment, sentimentality and painful longings; neither is he the morose type who dreams of being buried there in old age. "I don't feel like I am bound by the place where I was born," Cruz remarks. "Cuba has changed tremendously. I have changed, too. I guess sometimes I fear what the impact of going back would be on me."
But exile is not only about alienation. People in exile, as the twice-exiled Cuban poet Octavio Armand once observed, "always carry along their homes: the language, customs, traditions of their countries. They transpose and translate: they live between two shores. Their homes and landscapes live within them, although they are no longer places of physical dwelling."
Seen in this light, the lack of a pressing need to return to Cuba is, for Nilo Cruz (pronounced knee-low), a reflection of how, in a profound and spiritual way, he has always kept strong ties to the island--and how through his writing practice, he has never forsaken it. In play after play, Cruz paints a portrait of cubania--of Cubanness--as a window out of the four walls of estrangement. His theatre is a form of escape, a flight from separation, displacement and cultural fragmentation.
In his plays, Cruz almost always journeys back to Cuba, even when the play is not set there. Cruz, who was raised in Miami and now lives in Manhattan, is no less Cuban for keeping a geographic distance between himself and the tropical island of his childhood. In Dancing on Her Knees, A Park in Our House, Two Sisters and a Piano, Hortensia and the Museum of Dreams and now the Pulitzer-winning Anna in the Tropics, Cruz reconnects with the richness of his culture and the paradoxes of his identity. His artistic creations give voice to the stories, struggles and sensibilities of Cubans with nuance, great sensitivity and a hothouse theatricality.
And he writes about Cuba like a dream. His words burn with the heat of visceral imagery and lyrical emotion. His plays, even the most naturalistic ones, have something of a well-made quality to them, but they bleed into something else; they seep with magic and mysticism. Like Federico Garcia Lorca and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cruz fills his writing with symbols and metaphors, allusions to literature and references to nature--the fragrance of guavas, the wet air of the bay, the sweetness of jasmine flowers, the veins coursing through a man's arms "like a Roman aqueduct."
Cruz is a sensualist, a conjurer of mysterious voyages and luxuriant landscapes. He is a poetic chronicler, a documentarian of the presence of Latin people in American life. He conveys, most of all, the strength and persistence of the Cuban spirit through a wholly dramatic imagination.
"It's not that it was an obligation," Cruz says. "It was where my heart was. If I don't embrace the richness of my culture, what are my options? To write about potatoes? To whitewash my characters? Just think of the fruits in the Caribbean; you have to get messy when eating a mango. …