Making Ybor in Tolstoy's Image

Anna missed on history, hit with Pulitzer

click to enlarge CAVEAT LECTOR! Readers should beware. - Anna is a lovely, lyrical, sexy play -- but fails to - capture the essence of 1920s Ybor City and its - lectors. - JENNIFER REILLEY
CAVEAT LECTOR! Readers should beware. Anna is a lovely, lyrical, sexy play -- but fails to capture the essence of 1920s Ybor City and its lectors.

Sound the trumpets. Release the pigeons. Nilo Cruz is finally coming to town.

The playwright won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Anna in the Tropics, an intimate play filled with romance and sensuality, and set in 1929 Ybor City.

The play begins with the arrival of a handsome new lector whose job is to read to the cigarmakers as they work. He has selected Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and as he reads the tale of passion and adultery, the characters in the play are affected in different ways. Events in their lives are foreshadowed, reflected and shaped by those in the book. A woman whose husband has lost interest pursues an affair with the lector. The factory owner's brother, whose wife has left him for another man, plots to mechanize the factory and get rid of the lector.

I won't spoil the story by revealing too much because Anna in the Tropics has been chosen by the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative for its One Community One Book project, and it will open American Stage's 2004-2005 season. If the library's project works, we'll be emulating people in the play the way they imitated characters in the book. In the play, characters talk about Anna Karenina — arguing about the book's nuances and implications. Some love it; others hate it.

Like Cruz's characters, some of us will love Anna in the Tropics for its sizzling romance and poetic gymnastics — and because the Pulitzer Prize means it has to be good. Others may hate it or at least find it disappointing because it fails to measure up to lofty expectations created by the Pulitzer — or because it fails to capture the essence of 1920s Ybor City and its lectors.

The play has gotten mixed reviews where it has been staged so far, and it closed after a short run on Broadway. Here, it is likely to be welcomed with more excitement because it's the only Pulitzer Prize-winning play set in Tampa. It's also likely to face more critical scrutiny here, because people who know their Ybor history will spot the details Cruz has fudged for dramatic convenience. A few such details will grate on historians and others who care about Ybor's unique politics and history. For example, Cruz has the factory owner's wife hiring and paying the lector, when it was the workers who did that in reality. That detail alone is fairly meaningless, but it points to a larger fallacy promoted by the play.

Cruz has said in interviews that he chose not to focus on the political aspects of the lector and Ybor history because he had already written a political play and wanted to focus on character in this one. However, 1929 Ybor was a tremendously politicized place, filled with turmoil. That was central to its essence. Much of the turbulence centered on the lectors, who read newspapers and political treatises in addition to novels and were often political lightning rods themselves. Cruz essentially ignores this fact, making the lector simply a heartthrob who reads romantic novels and sweeps women off their feet. He wouldn't have needed to politicize the play to simply acknowledge here and there that the lector read things besides romance novels and was more actor and political firebrand than bookworm and ladies' man.

Cruz clearly knows these historical facts, even though he never visited Ybor City for his research. Perhaps if he had, he would have been more respectful of its history and worked a little harder to portray the time and place accurately — without losing his focus on character.

It's not a playwright's duty to present precise historical facts. But the information transmitted through a historical play does find its way into the official version of how things were. All of the reviews I read summed up the reasons for death of the tradition of the lector and handmade cigars the same way: mechanization. That is only half of the truth — the easy half. The other half is that Anglo Tampa feared the communism, socialism, unionism, anarchism and atheism espoused by workers and lectors; and city leaders were ruthless in extinguishing worker activism. It's important to know that.

A play that does capture Ybor City at the end of its life as a hotbed of political innovation and experimentation is Denis Calandra's Cuban Bread. Calandra, director of University of South Florida's theater department, wrote his play in the 1980s and set it in 1931 Ybor, the year of the last major workers' strike, and the final year of the lector in Ybor City. The lector in Cuban Bread is reading Don Quixote to the workers, and that metaphor for pursuing a lost cause permeates the play. (Cuban Bread will be staged in Tampa at the 2005 Latin American arts festival now in the planning stages.)

Still, Anna is a lovely, lyrical, sexy play about the ways art can affect our lives. It captures the sadness at the end of an era and still manages to end on a hopeful note.

I encourage you to pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Let me know what you think. Cruz will speak at Centro Asturiano at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 4, and at John F. Germany Library at 10 a.m. Friday, March 5. Book discussions are scheduled throughout the county during March. Check the library's website ( or call 813-273-3652 for a location near you.

Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].

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