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Images that smolder

Cigars fire the 'Anna in the Tropics' playwright's imagination, wafting from his family's dreams to factory workers' aspirations.

September 28, 2003|Nilo Cruz | Special to The Times

My fascination with the world of cigars started with cigar boxes and cigar labels. These wooden boxes with intricate pictures of imaginary landscapes, which suggest the possibility of escaping to a magical place through the brevity of a smoke, have always been intriguing to me. Cigar brands have a certain allure, since some of them have been named after the greatest ill-fated love stories ever written; it's as if the smoker is to experience the enraptured heights of romantic passion from a puff of a "Romeo y Julieta" or a "Madame Butterfly."

When I was commissioned to write a play for New Theatre in Miami, I immediately turned to the world of cigars. The first thing I did was to place an old cigar box in front of me to invite the writing into my hands. I stared at the simple box for a long time, paying close attention to all its details. It seemed as if all the ingredients I needed for my play were in this container: love, literature, politics and loss of innocence. Themes I had explored in the past through my plays. And as it always happens, I had to close my eyes so I could dream up the world I was going to write about. The first image that came to me was that of a lector (reader) reading aloud to cigar workers in Tampa, Fla. The second image was of a woman in the same cigar company escaping the monotony of work through the story that was being read. As these images became a little clearer, I started to find my way back in time to the late 1920s, when the world of art played an important role in the tabaquerias (factories) as the lectores read to workers from world literature.

My association with cigars has always been related to escape.

As a child I was given a cigar box for my coloring pencils. The United States embargo on Cuba, the scarcity of food and material goods, forced Cubans to embrace the concept of recycling. Objects were assigned multiple functions and responsibilities. My cigar box with its landscape label of palm trees and women draped in flowing tulle became more than a pencil box. It became my box of dreams, my Houdini box in which I was able to escape everything that was happening around me. In those early years of political unrest and uncertainty, it seemed as though everyone in my house had to have his or her own circus act to escape reality.

Cigar smoke offered my father escape from his disenchantment with the revolution. The smoke rings out of his mouth, which seemed like circus rings to me, were more like smoke signals asking his friends in the States for political asylum. My mother had her own circus act. She used to find escape through prayer and used cigar smoke as a celestial envelope for sending her supplications to the divine. Her altar consisted of Catholic saints and African deities. Instead of using incense, she used to insert the burning end of the cigar into her mouth and exhale her breath through it. The result was a surge of smoke that bathed all her sacred statues in a blue cloud. I believe these mystifying smoke rituals proved to be miraculous when my family was allowed to flee the country in 1970.

Literary reveries are related to cigar smoke because they both have the capacity of escaping the weight of the world and defying the laws of gravity. Cigar workers were able to escape the monotony of manual labor through literary reveries. The art of listening to stories is analogous to the landscape of dreams. The listener collects words and draws pictures in his mind; the dreamer collects subconscious impressions and paints vivid images in his dreams. Literary reveries provide the listener with information about his individual essence. Dreams present the dreamer with a series of images and symbols that mirror his present life or past existence. Metaphors confer upon the listener emotions, which construct parallels that relate to his life. Perhaps these imaginary slights don't offer immediate solutions to life's difficulties, but to pause over a few lines and share human emotion can bring a sense of consolation and can alleviate reality.

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