Cruz’ Cuban Roots

Paran the Dramaturg

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`Two Sisters, a Piano,’ Shaded by Politics

This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on February 17, 1999. All rights reserved.

I’ll clobber him if he comes up with just one more

rewrite," announces McCarter Theater’s dramaturg Janice Paran.

She has championed and been closely involved with the development

of "Two Sisters and a Piano" by the 39-year-old Cuba-born

playwright Nilo Cruz, now ready to receive its world premiere on


main stage.

It isn’t that anyone would really think that Paran would physically

assault Cruz or even consider placing him under house arrest. Over

the past two years Paran has mentored Cruz with both a hands-on


and a respectful distance, which ever seemed right at the time. She

has a strong feeling that "Two Sisters and a Piano" will be

Cruz’s "breakthrough play." Opening night is Friday, February

19, for the play that runs to March 7. On March 10 the play moves

to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark for six


through March 14.

At the very core of "Two Sisters and a Piano" is the reality

of house arrest and political repression. The idea for Cruz’s play

came to him after reading about the experience of Cuban writer Maria

Elena Cruz Varela, who, together with other artists, sent a manifesto

to Castro in the late 1980s asking him to embrace


After being forced to eat the manifesto in front of a crowd of


outside her home, Varela was sentenced to two years in prison.


during the Pan American Games, she was then placed under house arrest

so that she could not speak about the regime to foreign reporters.

Cruz has set "Two Sisters and a Piano" during those Pan


Games. Its protagonists, Maria Celia, a writer, and her younger


Sofia, a pianist, have just served two years in prison. They are under

house arrest during a time Cruz calls "the special period in Cuba

when the Russians were pulling out." Passion infiltrates politics

when a lieutenant assigned to their case becomes infatuated with Maria

Celia, whose literature he has been reading.

"In my play, although the sisters can not leave their house, the

two sisters maintain their individuality and live like queens. They

create a different environment, their own political environment,"

says the playwright.

Cruz acknowledges that "a breakthrough" play

would be a welcome accomplishment considering that his previous plays

have not been as successful as he would like. He says that,


for the very emotional expatriate Cuban population in Miami, he has

"to create a whole new vocabulary on how to expose the political

situation without being too graphic. But like Puccini, I want my


to wear their emotions on their sleeves."

"From my first memories, my life has been shaded by politics,"

he says. "I always ask what are the political surroundings of

my characters." Cruz also quotes at length from Marguerite Duras’

essay on the devasting effects of "political loss," from


of self" to "loss of one’s faculty for hatred as much as one’s

faculty for loving." These are sentiments he understands only

too well.

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Cruz’ Cuban Roots

"How people escape from their oppression is a recurring theme

in my plays," says Cruz, who draws keenly from his own experience.

His family came penniless from Cuba to Miami’s "Little Havana"

when Nilo was 10. His father found work in a shoe store and his mother

in a purse factory. Cuba and its people, nevertheless, remain firmly

implanted in Cruz’s heart. "Cuba is so full of drama, there are

endless things to write about," says Cruz. He also considers the

present situation of his sister who still lives in Cuba and is only

permitted to leave if her husband, who is of military age, remains


It was five years ago that Paran first came across a play by Cruz

called "Night Train to Bolina." She says it was "the


that was linked with the deprivation of its characters, two children

who love each in a war-torn Latin-American country," and "the

depth of feeling and intimacy that wasn’t about a physical


that arrested her. On the strength of that play, Paran commissioned

Cruz to write a one-act play for the debut 1995 season of McCarter’s

Second Stage Onstage Festival. Cruz so impressed McCarter with his

short play, "Madrigal," that he was asked to expand it,


on the spot, into a full-length play. The result, "A Park In Our

House," was born at McCarter and later produced at the New York

Theater Workshop.

In 1996 Cruz wrote a 30-minute work called "Two Sisters and a

Piano" for another McCarter series devoted to radio plays.


enamored of the radio-style, Cruz, encouraged by Paran, would once

again see a short play of his more fully realized in an expanded


form. I asked Cruz if he found it difficult to expand a play written

in a short form or for a different medium. "No, because even


the style of `A Park In Our House’ was very fragmented and `Two


more linear, I just let the additional writing find its own form.

I’m a more character-driven than a plot-oriented writer. My language

is very lyrical and I try to find poetry in all my characters."

That’s not an unreasonable quest coming from the young man who has

taught playwriting at Brown University, where he also earned his MFA.

Latin American literature has enjoyed international renown through

such masters of Magic Realism as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Carlos

Fuentes. Now, it seems, Hispanic playwrights are expected to emulate

this style. Cruz says that while he doesn’t shy away from the term

"magic realism," he prefers to understand it as "realism

that is magical."

With another commission from McCarter in hand, Paran

remained Cruz’s primary dramaturg through two years of readings of

"Two Sisters" that included the New York Theater Workshop

Lab, South Coast Rep., New York’s Public Theater, and finally the

1998 Sundance Theater Lab. Cruz admits that the many readings and

workshops were overwhelming at times because "each theater wants

you to re-write your play the way they see it. I had to be like a

horse with blinders in order to continue seeing my own vision."

While Paran acknowledges the inherent dangers in getting too much

input from too many sources, she feels that Cruz reacted in a positive

way. For Cruz, the benefit of seeing the various drafts of his play

done over and over with professional actors is not to be minimized.

Because a play has to be heard and seen, Cruz says, "it was the

actors, the musicality they find in the language, and the succeeding

communion that in the long run was the most important part of the


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Paran the Dramaturg

Paran and Cruz acknowledge that they developed a compatible way of

working together. "He likes to talk things out with me," said

Paran. Through this process Paran feels that she has helped Cruz fully

realize the play he had in mind. Nevertheless, Cruz maintains how

important it is to have enough room for the play to write itself.

Even as the trust and the input of a dramaturg are necessary during

the initial readings, a workshop production eventually becomes


Although McCarter’s artistic director Emily Mann had spent the


summer at the Sundance Festival as a sort of roaming mentor, she was

pleased when McCarter got approval from the theater lab at the


Festival to develop both Mann’s play "Meshugah" and Cruz’s

"Two Sisters" there. The goal at Sundance, now directed and

newly re-organized by former La Jolla Playhouse dramaturg Robert


is to offer a creative environment for a productive collaboration

between playwright and director. And unlike other play development

groups, it is the director, not the playwright, who applies to


Despite the fact that Cruz did not approach Sundance through a


his project was accepted. Brian Kulick, artistic associate of New

York’s Public Theater, a director familiar with a previous Cruz play

produced there, "Dancing On Her Knees," accepted the workshop

production. At the conclusion of what has been described as a


long three weeks," the director has the option to have the play

given either as a sit-down reading, a concert reading, or a staged

reading. This is followed by a round-table discussion between


and participating theater professionals.

Cruz sees the agenda at Sundance as clearly one of process over


In this safe environment, "without critics," Cruz confirms

that the collaboration was successful. Cruz admires Kulick’s work

("A Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds" for the New York


Festival) and he is directing the McCarter production.

The four-character play features Marissa Chibas as Sofia, a role she

played at Sundance; Ivonne Coll, recently seen on Broadway in


of a Death Foretold," as Maria Celia; Bobby Cannavale, who appears

in the Sidney Lumet film "Gloria," as Lieutenant Portunondo;

and Gary Perez, a member of the cast of Cruz’s "A Park in Our

House," as Victor Manuel.

Paran contends there is a tendency for regional theaters to put the

plays of the newer young writers on small second stages for a small

audience. When "Two Sisters and a Piano" plays for an audience

of 1,000 on McCarter’s main stage, it will demonstrate the faith of

a dramaturg, the power of the playwright, and the force of a director.

No one knows the importance of workshops and rewrites better than

Cruz, who will attest that he has come through the process without

a clobbering. There is no order placed for house arrest when Cruz’s

umpteenth draft arrives for Paran’s perusal. It reads "Final


— Simon Saltzman

Two Sisters and a Piano, McCarter Theater, 91


Place, 609-683-8000. $25 to $36. Opening night is Friday, February

19, 8 p.m. To March 7.

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