If it's true that a prophet is always without honor in his own land, Nilo Cruz is doubly damned. The Cuban-born, U.S.-bred Cruz is forging his career as a playwright in large part on the basis that he is a chronicler of the human costs of the political reality in Cuba. But Cuba being Cuba-that is, a country where, by almost any standard, freedom of expression is severely limited-Cruz's plays have never been staged on the island.
Neither have they been staged in Miami, where you will find the largest, most irascible population of Cubans outside Cuba. The reason is simple: while Cruz's plays are quite political-they deal with such issues as government repression and power -they're not ideological enough for either Castro's haters or supporters to embrace.
Which is fine by Cruz. He's not as interested in taking rigid political stands and issuing political prescriptions as in portraying the very real dramas of Cuban people. That may account for the fact that Cruz's plays are far more interesting and fluid than dogmatic rants (as well as more enticing to the mainly white, apolitical regional theaters producing his work).
"I'm really not interested in writing manifestos or taking sides," says Cruz. "I don't have a political agenda. What I'm most concerned about is the strength of the Cuban spirit. No matter how hard their lives may be, these people find a way to compensate and persevere."
Cruz's latest play, Two Sisters and a Piano, receives its West Coast premiere on Friday at South Coast Repertory. And it's a perfect example of Cruz's apolitical politics. Set in 1991, the play is about two sisters, both of whom are artists under house arrest because of their refusal to curtail their art-even though their art consists of nothing more than playing the piano and writing romantic stories.
"The fact that they're under house arrest and trying to lead normal lives is perhaps even more political than abiding with a group or political party because these are people who are standing up for their individuality," Cruz says. Maria is the writer; her younger sister Sofia is a pianist. The two have just been released from prison after a two-year term sparked primarily by Maria's letter to Castro advocating a Cuban perestroika. Now under house arrest, they are subject to ruthless government "inventories" of their possessions. Their neighbors criticize them and heave rocks through their windows. Government censors check their mail, intercepting letters written by Maria's exiled husband, who is speaking out against Castro.
Enter Lieutenant Portuondo. Though his role is supposed to be that of a hard-boiled military man out to break the sisters, he is surprisingly sympathetic to their plight. He strikes an oddly perverse bargain with Maria: he will read her husband's letters to her-very sensual, passionate letters-if she will tell him the latest story she is writing. As the two embark on this unusual literary courtship, things get steamy and highly complicated. They grow all the more complex when news that the Soviet Union has crumbled leaks into Cuba, forcing all concerned to either completely revamp their previously held opinions or grow all the more rigid in their outlook.
Maria's character is inspired by the real-life Maria Elena Cruz Valera, a Cuban writer who did write a manifesto to Castro advocating perestroika. A mob invaded her house, dragged her into the street, and fed her the pages of the manifesto. She was jailed for two years and eventually placed under house arrest. Finally released, she left the country for Spain. That she chose somewhere other than Miami is, for Cruz at least, significant. Like Valera, "the women in my play don't think the alternative to Castro is the United States," he said. "They do believe in a socialist system of government, but not the kind that Castro patterned after Stalin's. There is a key moment in the play when the lieutenant tries to make them feel guilty by reminding the sisters that their mother was a revolutionary. Yes, Maria says, but maybe not the kind of revolutionary you would like. She held to the ideals of the revolution, not what happened after it."
That may be an insight into Cruz's own politics. Discouraged with Castro's regime, his family left Cuba in 1970, when Cruz was 10. Nevertheless, Cruz doesn't see Fidel as a cigar-chomping demon who has single-handedly kept Cuba a Third World country. He believes Castro's revolution achieved one vitally important goal: it succeeded in weaning Cuba from the hind teat of American colonialism. Without him, Cuba could very well have lost any sense of its own cultural identity. The problem-and tragedy-is that Castro then embraced Stalinism, thus embarking on a 40-year course of dictatorship and repression that belied the anti-colonial ideals he first espoused.
But dramatic politics don't get Cruz produced at regional theaters across the country. In fact, knowing SCR's oft-stated disinterest in political plays, it's a safe bet this play was chosen not because of, but rather despite, its politics. Cruz gets produced because his plays are highly stylized and rhetorically interesting, and they employ imagery that breathes, smells and feels Latin American. Like Federico García Lorca and Gabriel García Márquez, Cruz's works are lyrically powerful, even poetic, magical and mysterious. Cruz's play is filled with allusions and images drawn from nature, such as Sofia's love for a man who had "lots of veins, like a Roman aqueduct. . . . They showed his strength. All the rivers from his heart." Throughout the play, there are constant references to the turbulent sea, to the fragrant fruits of Cuba, and to the health and vitality of the plants cultivated by the sisters' mother.
"I can't speak for other countries in Latin America, but in Cuba, it's the mixture of Catholicism and Santeria and the whole African influence," Cruz said. "It's something that is passed on; it's in our blood. It's a superstition we have in our myths. It's a certain respect for nature, that it is bigger than us."
Two Sisters and a Piano at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Opens Fri. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through May 30. $18-$43.