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Lifting an Embargo on the Past Writing about his native Cuba did not come easily to playwright Nilo Cruz, but once he started, he quickly found familiar territory.

April 25, 1999|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

COSTA MESA — Talk about timing.

On opening night of "Two Sisters and a Piano," Nilo Cruz was getting ready to leave his apartment to go to the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts in Newark, where his latest work was being staged. The play is a very personal one for the Cuban-born playwright, only the second work he'd ever written about his homeland--its two main characters are based in part on his own sisters. Just as he was about to grab his keys and go, the phone rang.

The voice on the other end of the line had big news: Cruz's younger sister had fled Cuba and was now being detained in the Newark airport. He should be prepared to come get her, Cruz was told, when she was released. The voice did not say how long that would take.

"Can you believe that?" says the writer, shaking his head in wonder as he recalls the moment last month. "She defected. She left from Mexico, to New York, and then to New Jersey. I had no idea. I had gotten a call that she was in Mexico and was about to go to the United States. And then I get this call.

"I couldn't even watch the show because I was outside looking at the monitors, waiting for a call to go pick her up," continues the playwright, who'll be more likely to actually watch the show this time, when "Two Sisters and a Piano" has its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory Theatre on Friday, in a production directed by Loretta Greco.

"Of course, it didn't happen then. They detained her in immigration for 10 hours or something, so it was 7:30 in the morning when I was able to get her from the airport." The significance was not lost on the 38-year-old Cruz, however, who tends to take note of such life-imitating-art moments. "I look for signs," he says during a conversation at South Coast. "I don't mean to sound New Agey, but it's almost like I've become a channeler, to tell the stories. Writing is bigger than life. It's bigger than me, and I have to honor it. I guess I'm very spiritual in that way."

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Naturally, it helps when the material you're working with is already quite personal. "For me, playwriting is like nesting, in the sense that I go back into my own life, into my first 10 years in Cuba, and I kind of visualize the plays," Cruz says.

A charming and engaging raconteur, the playwright becomes particularly animated when talking about writing about Cuba. "I thought it was important for somebody to document what was happening in the country," says the New York-based Cruz, who wrote a number of plays set in unidentifiable Latin American nations, as well as ones about Latinos in the U.S., before focusing on his native land.

"There were playwrights I admire so much--August Wilson, Athol Fugard--who weren't afraid of using [culturally specific linguistic] inflections, and I thought, 'Well, I want to do that.' I want to capture the Cuban rhythms in my writing, and I want to write about the politics of Cuba and what has been happening there.

"Seeing Wilson's and Fugard's work really gave me permission to write about my own people and to embrace inflections and embrace politics."

There was also one other person who gave Cruz the needed push. That was Greco, who was working at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J., in 1994, when she first met Cruz. Charged with putting together a festival of new plays, the director commissioned the playwright to pen a one-act radio drama on the topic of home.

The result was "A Park in Our House," which captures a week in the life of a Cuban family in 1970, the year Cruz and his parents left the island. "It was the first time he had ever written specifically about Cuba," says Greco, who staged the piece at the McCarter in 1994, at New York Theater Workshop in 1995 and for radio station WNYC in New York in 1997.

Greco and her colleagues liked the Cruz piece so much that they asked him to expand it to full-length. "The play was just so poetic, and the politics were there, but they were personal politics," Greco says. "He circumvents that didactic theater we all hate."

The success of "A Park in Our House" led to another McCarter commission, the result of which was "Two Sisters and a Piano." First seen as a one-act at the McCarter in 1996, this play also was expanded to a full-length work, premiering at the McCarter theater this year in February before moving to Newark.

Set in 1991, with the Pan American Games underway in Havana and news of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union just beginning to rock Cuba, "Two Sisters and a Piano" portrays two sisters, a highly successful novelist and a pianist, serving time under house arrest. Letters home from the older sister's husband, who is currently out of the country seeking asylum for the family, have wound up in the hands of the lieutenant who's guarding the women, and he uses these purloined missives to press his own romantic case with one of the sisters.

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