In 2003, when he became the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Anna in the Tropics, Cuban-born, Miami-raised Nilo Cruz experienced a thrilling tapestry of feelings: pride, gratitude, humility and a happiness so intense that he wept.
But the playwright didn’t fully understand then that being celebrated and elevated can interfere with the creative process. Or that seven years would pass before he had a play written after Anna produced.
Yet as he heads toward his 50th birthday on Oct. 10, Cruz is about to experience a rarity: two world premieres in less than a week.
First up is The Color of Desire, which opens at Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables and runs through November 7.
The Color of Desire is set in politically turbulent Havana circa 1960. Its characters are Americans and Cubans, expatriates, revolutionaries and theater people, all adjusting (or not) to the country’s rapid change. At its heart is the erotically charged relationship of an American businessman and an out-of-work Cuban actress — a relationship that becomes a metaphor for their countries’ ruptured love affair.
In the cast of The Color of Desire are actors with different connections to Cruz and to Cuba.
Hannia Guillen, once a regular on the daytime drama Passions, plays the Cuban actress Belén. She was directed by Cruz in the 2008 U.S. premiere of Cuban playwright Antón Arrufat’s La repetición on the same stage on which Color of Desire will debut. Like Cruz, she was born in Cuba, came to the United States at 10 and studied with castmate Teresa María Rojas — Cruz’s first mentor — at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus.
“Nobody knows our story better than we do,” Guillen says of Cruz. “Nilo’s work is beautiful for Cubans and for everybody. His characters are full of life and ambition. His plays are heart wrenching. It’s like a mirror of myself. I hope we can work together again and again.”
Isabel Moreno, who plays one of Belén’s aunts, was a teen in Cuba in the early 1960s and wasn’t able to leave the island until 1992. She believes Cruz has done a vivid, accurate job of evoking an era that was also the subject of Carlos Lacámara’s Havana Bourgeois at Actors’ Playhouse in 2009 — though Cruz’s play is as unlike that one as Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie is Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs.
“He captures a time before I knew what was going on, all that terrible uncertainty. I thought these guys with beards were very sexy,” Moreno says. “Information was always manipulated. You had to say yes to everything — and shut up.”
Rojas plays Belén’s other aunt in her second world premiere — after Beauty of the Father at New Theatre in 2004 — with her former student. She has known Cruz since he was a kid who dared to quit his day job to study with her at Miami Dade and become a part of Teatro Prometeo, the Spanish-language company she founded. That connection, Cruz says, was “a seminal moment in my life. I was dreaming of the world of theater. She planted seeds. Then years passed, and I get to create theater with her.’