Opening next Friday at the Classic Theatre of San Antonio is Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Anna in the Tropics. This romantic drama centers on a family of Cuban cigar makers whose loves and lives are played out against the backdrop of Depression-era America. Santiago, the factory’s owner, is determined to maintain the ways of the Old World, but he is being usurped by his half-brother Cheché, who is gradually taking the factory away from him by settling his gambling debts and has no interest in the customs of the past.
Santiago hires Juan Julian, a new lector (reader) whose job is to break up the dreary monotony of the workday by reading books and poems aloud. The lector’s choice of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina ignites the suppressed passions of the workers, including Santiago’s young daughter, Marela.
Kelly Hilliard Roush, the Classic’s Executive and Artistic Director (and also the director of Anna) was kind enough to bring the actors who portray Cheché (Joshua Segovia) and Marela (Josey Porras) to the theater for a pre-rehearsal roundtable about the show.
ArtsScene SA: How does Anna fit in with this season’s theme?
Kelly Hilliard Roush: This season’s theme is “the ties that bind,” things that bring us together and pull us apart. as families often do. When I was looking for shows this year, I had a couple of people recommend that I read this play. I was so excited to hear them talking about tradition in this Cuban community in Tampa, and how they brought their traditions from Cuba. They really worked to keep their traditions alive, and they changed Tampa more than Tampa changed them.
Also, the pace of this play — the conversations about walking in the park and not having to do things fast. It was so opposite the British pace of Miss Bennet. It’s fun to look at these different families and cultures, and how they’re still working together. But there’s also something pulling them apart, because conflict is part of drama. So that’s how it fits in. It’s about another family from a different culture, so that’s how all the shows “talk” to each other.
So the”Anna” in the title is Anna Karenina, but she’s not actually in the show…
Kelly: I would argue with you on that! I would argue that the book is the inciting incident. The book shows up and their worlds blow up. The lector is conjuring this book in their world. And Marela ends up dressing up as Anna…
(To Josey) Because you’re seduced by it?
Josey Porras: By the book? By the idea of the wonderful dreams within it. The whimsical love story.
Joshua, if the lector represents the Old World, your character represents the changing times?
Joshua Segovia: You’re exactly right. I represent the American world, the opposing world. It’s definitely one that’s more pragmatic. He’s concerned more with results and not as much for process. You see that manifest in all different sorts of ways for Cheché. Even in the way he’s written by Nilo Cruz. Shorter sentences and a lot of periods. There’s not a lot of emotive or poetic language.
Because the other characters tend to be more poetic.
Kelly: Arguably, Marela has the most poetic language and Cheché is the most terse, and they are constantly in conversation with each other.
Joshua: Yes, even on the page you can definitely see that there’s a struggle between him and the Old World.
Kelly: One of the things that intrigues me about the play is that art is dangerous. Many people I know have had experiences with a play or a book that has moved them and changed their lives. With Anna, we are watching this family and everyone reacts differently to this amazing story. Everyone latches on to a different character; a different idea. It affects marriages, fraternal relations and individuals. I think that’s what a good book does for all of us — it makes us think of things in new and different ways.
(To Josey and Joshua): Are you finding things within yourselves to put into your characters?
Josey: It’s funny. There’s a scene in which Marela writes a name and puts it in a glass of water to almost conjure somebody. I’m not at that level yet, but I do love coincidences; I do love serendipity. I think I resonate with Marela a lot in that I believe in people’s dreams. They should believe in themselves and they should believe in each other. Naturally connecting with Marela in her dreamy, feisty self hasn’t been that much of a challenge!
There are little things I like to do during rehearsal. Something simple, like smiling at people or making sure I make eye contact and talk to people. I don’t mean to get in their face, but to get in their space. I feel that Marela likes to bring that connection. I feel almost like she’s the veins of the family. She’s running from one point to another to make sure everything’s okay. She might not be doing it intentionally, but subconsciously she’s very aware of everybody’s positions in her family.
(To Joshua) And your character kind of busts things apart, right?
Joshua: Yeah. I’m a very laid-back person in real life. I don’t let a lot of things bother me. I will say, though, that in every role I play, I find something I can connect to and expand on. A lot of people say that when you’re playing a character, you shouldn’t judge them. At the same time, judging them right off the bat really helps you to understand how they’re different from you, and you’re able to flip that.
I’m able to look at Cheché and see that he’s very pragmatic. I wonder, “Where does that come from?” Well, it comes from somewhere, and that’s the part I connect to. He has hopes; he has dreams; he has sadness. He has aspirations he may not even be aware of, but they’re manifesting in these very pragmatic and terse ways that set him apart from their world. But I think the character desperately needs and wants to be a part of that world. He just can’t get to it. Connecting with those motivators is where I, as an actor, start.
How’s it been directing and working with the cast?
Kelly: I found lovely, talented actors who auditioned and wanted to be a part of it. I like having people in the room who want to work hard and collaborate. In my own prep, I distilled the image down to a cigar box. That this is a box of dreams, which the playwright talks about a lot. The actors came in with most of their lines off, which was their job, so we could work on finding the beating heart of the characters.
Anna in the Tropics runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. from Feb. 7 through Mar. 1 at the Classic Theatre of San Antonio, 1924 Fredericksburg Road. Reservations can be made online or by calling the box office at (210) 589-8450.