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The romance, the drama, of old Ybor

For many in the audience, Anna in the Tropics, set amid Ybor City and its cigar factories, will revisit familiar grounds.

Published September 9, 2004

[Photo: American Stage]
Part of the cast of Anna in the Tropics gathers at Ybor Square, former home of one of the town’s famed cigar factories. From left are Karen Marie Garcia, Jose Antonio, Joe Masi, Jessica Pimentel and Geisha Otero.

[Photo: Burgert Brothers]
A lector reads to workers as they roll cigars in a Tampa factory in this photo taken in the 1920s. Juan Julian, the lector in Anna in the Tropics, reads Tolstoy’s romantic Anna Karenina.
Retired lawyer Willie Garcia, 73, tracked down the playwright and became a valued resource.   photo

Actors and directors who put on The Crucible don't have to contend with audiences full of 17th century Puritans critiquing the play's historical authenticity. But when American Stage presents Anna in the Tropics starting this weekend, some in the audience will have vivid memories of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play's setting: Ybor City's cigar factories in 1929.

Jose Antonio, who plays the philandering Palomo, says, "It's unique because some of the people coming in to see the play here will know all about that history."

Cast mate Jorge Acosta, the play's combative Cheche, says, "Not only do they know it, they'll tell us about it."

Nilo Cruz's play takes place in the last glory days of the industry that gave Tampa its longtime nickname, Cigar City, and its rich Latin heritage.

The play has been produced in Miami as well as New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois. But this is its first production in the Tampa Bay area, where some of the former cigar workers and many of their descendants still live.

When director Todd Olson, American Stage's artistic director, started working on the play, he knew he would have to do his homework to make it ring true for the hometown crowd. (The play has a preview performance tonight before the gala opening Friday in St. Petersburg, where it continues through Oct. 17, and then moves to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center Oct. 21-31.)

Olson recalls talking to another director who was staging the play. "He says, "I'm getting ready to do this play about Why-bore City. I guess I'd better do some research.' If he thinks the play takes place in Why-bore City, I'm not sure I'm crazy about seeing his (production of the) play."

Olson and the seven actors had to do much more than learn to roll cigars - although they did that. They conferred with the staff at the Ybor City Museum State Park and local historian Gary Mormino and visited current and former cigar factories and the neighborhoods where workers lived.

"I think we have our degree in Ybor City," Olson says.

Retired lawyer Willie Garcia, 73, was one of their professors. "I grew up in the cigar factories," he says. "My daddy had the coffee concession for the Cuesta -Rey factory. There was no such thing as a coffee break in those days. The coffee came to them. It had to be delivered three times a day."

The tall, courtly Garcia is a mine of information about the cigar industry, from the hierarchy of jobs in the factory to the anti-union politics that ended the tradition of the lector, a central element in Cruz's play.

The lector, or reader, was hired and paid by the workers, many of whom were illiterate, to read aloud to them as they rolled cigars. He or she read newspapers, political publications, poetry and novels throughout the work day.

Lectors were "rock stars," Olson says, men and women of talent and presence. The best lectors were performers and powers in the community, influence that led to their abrupt expulsion from all of Ybor City's factories in 1931.

The owners feared the lectors were inciting strikes and increasing union power, Garcia says. Some people say the lectors became outmoded as noisy machinery or radios came to the factories. Garcia says, "That wasn't the reason. The lectors just got kicked out in one weekend, in one fell swoop. It was political."

Juan Julian, the lector in Anna in the Tropics, incites not politics but passion when he reads Tolstoy's tragically romantic Anna Karenina. Joe Masi, who plays him, says if he meets the playwright, "I'd thank him because he brought into the spotlight this culture, this tradition of the reader. It's so beautiful."

Yet when Cruz wrote the play he had never visited Ybor City. Born in Cuba in 1961, he came to Florida with his family in 1970 and grew up in Miami. Cruz based the play on research, but he didn't come to Ybor City until this year. Anna in the Tropics had its premiere in Coral Gables in 2002, then went on to win the Pulitzer, prompting Garcia to track down the playwright.

"When the news came out that a play about Ybor City had won the Pulitzer Prize, I called Yale" - where Cruz taught playwrighting - "and I got his answering machine. So I called Manhattan directory assistance, and they gave me his home phone number. We had a nice talk."

Soon Cruz was not only soaking up Garcia's history lessons himself but sending other people involved in productions of the play to meet with him for tours of Ybor. For the Broadway production, Garcia offered tips to set designer Robert Brill as well as star Jimmy Smits.

Garcia's real mission, though, was to bring Anna in the Tropics to Tampa. He promoted the idea at the University of South Florida, Hillsborough Community College and Stageworks in Tampa. The Hillsborough County Library selected the play for its citywide reading project, and Cruz spoke at several events in March.

About 600 people came to see him at Ybor's Centro Asturiano, the home since 1914 of the mutual aid organization now headed by Garcia's wife, Vera, a retired teacher.

Vera Garcia says Cruz is "bueno gente (good people). He doesn't care about money. When he came here, I think he fit right in."

Much as he loves Anna in the Tropics, Garcia didn't hesitate to correct the author's historical goofs. "Nilo has this line in the play where someone is talking about rolling 500 cigars that day. I said to him, "Not with both hands and both feet could you make 500 cigars in one day.'

"He said, "It's artist's license.' I told him, "You know, I wrote three Pulitzer Prize plays this year.' He said, "You did?' Like that, like he believed me. I said "Yeah, that's artist's license.' "

When American Stage decided to open its season with Anna in the Tropics, Garcia was there with advice on everything, right down to costumes. Cigar workers, he says, dressed well to go to the factory, men in coats and ties, women in good dresses. "Pickers and packers (who meticulously sorted finished cigars by color) were the creme de la creme. They wore derbies."

And some of the lectors were fashion plates. One lector at the Cuesta-Rey factory was called El Duque de West Tampa because of his elegant wardrobe, which often included spats.

American Stage's production will bring many of those historical details to the play, from the height of the lector's stand ("They were way up high," Garcia says) to a bit of history about the theater company's building in downtown St. Petersburg.

Built around 1900, it was used for a time as a cigar warehouse, says James Raulerson, American Stage's marketing director. "The ghosts are coming through the cigar smoke."

For Olson, casting Hispanic actors was an important part of the play's authenticity. He auditioned about 75 actors in the Tampa Bay area and also held auditions in Miami and New York City.

The cast includes local actors Acosta and Joe Parra, Karen Marie Garcia of Miami, and New Yorkers Masi, Geisha Otero and Jessica Pimentel.

Jose Antonio says, "I'm local now. I was meant to be here. I was going to L.A. with my wife and kids. I was dead broke. But when I heard about this, I told my wife, I felt like I need to be here."

Most of the cast members have performed on soap operas, including Guiding Light, Loving, Ryan's Hope and All My Children.

Anna in the Tropics is no soap, but it does revolve around some of the themes that drive soaps: sex, love, jealousy and betrayal.

Pimentel, who plays Marela, the younger daughter of the factory owner, says, "We have our moments in rehearsal when it feels a little like you're in a soap" because of the emotions the play deploys.

But Parra, who plays factory owner Santiago, says, "When I was in Ryan's Hope, I felt like it was melodrama from start to finish, the histrionics. But a show like this is different. It reminds me of Arthur Miller, of Edward Albee. It reminds me so much of A View from the Bridge."

Olson says, "For me it's pure Chekhov. When you watch average Chekhov, it's pure soap opera. The challenge is to find a way to rise above that."

The actors are passionate about the play, they say, in part because it paints a rich picture of a Cuban culture few Americans are aware of.

Acosta says, "We live in a largely anti-intellectual culture. There's none of the appreciation of art and literature that these supposedly uneducated people had. They were not uneducated, though some of them were illiterate.

"I believe many people's perception of Latin culture is we dance really well, we're funny, and we make good gardeners. I love the fact that this play focuses on the culture, the love of art and literature, the traditions. It shows we didn't just pop off the boat to do your garden."

But, the actors say, the play crosses cultural boundaries to explore romantic and family relationships. "It's universal in spirit," says Otero, who plays Santiago's wife, Ofelia. "And the language is so poetic.

"I love my lines. I love that line, "I have the heart of a seal and when I get excited it wants to swim out of my chest.' "

Acosta says, "It's a play about big ideas that doesn't beat you over the head with the big ideas. It's about the people. You just happen to see it through the prism of that particular ethnicity."

The actors say they're braced for their critics, especially the ones who once rolled cigars themselves.

Garcia says, "I know there will be people going, "Oh, she can't roll a cigar. What does she think she's doing?' But I figure, hey, if you can smoke it at the end, that's great. And if not. . . ."

Pimentel chimes in. "It's just a play."

-- Colette Bancroft can be reached at 727 893-8435 or

PREVIEW: Anna in the Tropics, tonight through Oct. 17. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wed.-Thur., 8 p.m. Fri., 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. American Stage, 211 Third St. S, St. Petersburg. $22-$29. (727) 823-7529. The production moves to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for performances Oct. 21-31. The play may not be suitable for children.

[Last modified September 8, 2004, 08:44:27]

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