In one of the most shameful episodes in the history of our hemisphere, the S.S. St. Louis, carrying 937 refugees from the Holocaust, was turned away in 1939 from Cuba, the United States and Canada. Now, 75 years later, comes Cuban playwright Nilo Cruz’s “Sotto Voce,” a play in which a young Cuban Jew strikes up a long-distance friendship with a female German novelist whose Jewish lover was a doomed passenger on the ship. It opens this weekend in the East Village. Cruz, who is not Jewish, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for his play, “Anna in the Tropics.”
Directed by Cruz, “Sotto Voce” takes place in 2000. It centers on Saquiel (Andhy Mendez), whose grandfather’s sister was on the ill-fated voyage. Saquiel seeks out the author, Bernadette (Franca Sofia Barchiesi), who has been too traumatized to write about the tragedy. The pair undertakes a long-distance, fantasized affair, in which the young man takes the place of her lost lover. Bernadette finally rediscovers her voice, along with her discarded writings (which she calls her “lost sorrows”), which have been kept by her maid, Lucilla (Arielle Jacobs), an undocumented Colombian immigrant with her own heartbreaking story.
The playwright, whose family was originally pro-Castro, suffered greatly after his father became disenchanted with the Communist regime. When the family tried to escape, his father was imprisoned for two years. Six years later, they finally fled to Miami, where Cruz attended Miami-Dade Community College before going to Brown University for graduate work in theater. Cruz has penned a dozen plays and also written the book for a musical, “Havana,” that was scheduled for performance at the now-bankrupt Pasadena Playhouse.
In an interview, Cruz told The Jewish Week that his latest work is 90-minute “memory play” that also takes place in modern times, and thus raises questions about America’s current immigration policies. The “imaginary rendezvous” between the two main characters, Cruz noted, ultimately enables them to come to terms with the past. By contrast, Cuba has never apologized for its refusal to accept the Jewish refugees, and the United States — which did apologize, in 2009 — still struggles with the record of its failure to save the victims of the Third Reich.
Cruz noted that “both Jews and Cubans know the meaning of exile. Many things were taken from us.” While the drama has been called a “dream play,” Cruz focuses on the idea of memory. Then again, he mused, “Memories and dreams are made of similar substances. But memory persists.”
“Sotto Voce” runs Feb. 15 through March 9 at the Theater for the New City, 155 First Ave. (between Ninth and 10th streets). Performances are Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3. For tickets, $20, call the box office at (212) 254-1109 or visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net.