Students experience 'Anna in the Tropics' after school district reverses ban
It seems almost every day there’s another story about censorship in Florida’s public schools. But what about something being uncensored?
Miami-Dade County high schoolers are once again able to see performances of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Anna in the Tropics.” At first, district officials in Miami-Dade County Public Schools barred students from attending the play on school field trips but later reversed the decision amid public outcry.
On a recent Wednesday morning, kids from a dozen different high schools streamed off their buses and into the Colony Theater on Miami Beach to see “Anna in the Tropics” — many of them dressed in suits and ties, heels and dresses — as if they were going to a Broadway show.
“I was reading the playbill just now, ” Ernesto Hernandez said, giggling. He’s in the drama club at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High.
“I'm excited! Because I want to make sure I don't know anything. So when I see something, I'm surprised,” he said.
This was a performance Ernesto and his classmates almost didn’t get to see.
Earlier this school year, MDCPS officials decided students shouldn’t be able to go to the play on official field trips, due to concerns that some of the sexual content in the show isn’t age appropriate.
“When the news came to me that they were censoring the piece, it just broke my heart,” said Nilo Cruz, the show’s playwright and director.
“I became very depressed, because, I mean … this is where I live,” Cruz said on WLRN’s Sundial. “I grew up in Miami. I went to Miami Senior High … and Shenandoah … that's where I discovered Shakespeare, and Shakespeare changed my life.”
“Anna in the Tropics” made Cruz the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003.
It tells the story of Cuban cigar workers in Tampa in 1929 whose lives are transformed by Leo Tolstoy’s classic novel “Anna Karenina.” To pass the monotonous hours in the stuffy factory, the workers hire a lector to read to them.
Anna Karenina’s passionate affair with Count Vronsky offers her an escape from an unhappy marriage and shows the cigar workers new ways of living and loving.
The tragic love story makes two of the play’s characters, Conchita and Palomo, rethink their own relationship.
“So what’s going to happen to us, Palomo?” Conchita asks her husband.
“I don’t know! Do you want a divorce? We can travel to Reno and get divorced in six weeks!” he cried. “But your family will be opposed to it, and the same with mine, so divorce is out of the question!”
Conchita winds up cheating on her husband with the lector. In a steamy scene, the audience sees the lovers entwined in a passionate embrace, though the only nudity depicted on stage is the man’s bare chest.
It’s this sexual content that school district officials said wasn’t age-appropriate for high schoolers — at a time when new state laws are significantly restricting what can be taught in Florida classrooms.
“If kids can go to a play and see themselves and find some joy in that, and that they could do something more with their lives than what we’re told … I think, why not?” said Gaylee Garcia, a student at G. Holmes Braddock Senior High, where she's a vice president of the drama club.
Garcia said the ban hit home because her family is Cuban.
“These are our lives. These are our stories. Our families,” she said.
At its core, “Anna in the Tropics” is a story about the power of art to change lives, and that can make it dangerous in the eyes of some, said Michel Hausmann, the artistic director of Miami New Drama, the theater company putting on the show.
“Stories are powerful. And I think that the powers that be, on a certain level, understand the power of stories and understand the power of empathy,” Hausmann said. “That's why they want to censor it.”
Ultimately, Hausmann said the district's superintendent Jose Dotres and the production team forged a compromise. The intimate scenes were toned down and the theater got parents’ permission for students to attend.
“The superintendent was a great person to sit down to have a conversation [with], … somebody who understood the need and importance of art education,” Hausmann said.
At a performance just for high schoolers on Feb. 1, the teenage audience was enraptured, gasping and crying and hanging on every word. Theater staff later said they thought it was the best audience the production had seen so far.
“I'm completely enamored. I'm incandescently happy right now. I am totally taken away with the story,” said Isabella Bravo, a student at Miami Coral Park Senior High School.
“I had to hand out tissues,” said Isabella’s teacher, Leia Cole. “They’re really into it.”
For many of the students, this was the first professional theater production they had ever experienced, created by someone not so different from them.
“They feel like they're limited in their ambitions, because of where they started,” Cole said. “And so it's really nice to point at someone that started in the same place and has come so far. That makes it very real for them.”
For Isabella, “Anna in the Tropics” is proof that a kid from Miami can grow up and live their dreams.
“That could be any of us. Especially since we're theater kids,” Isabella said. “That could be any of us.”
If You Go
What: 20th anniversary production of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Anna in the Tropics”
When: An extended run of performances is scheduled thru Sunday Feb. 12
Where: Colony Theater on Lincoln Road
Tickets and more information at miaminewdrama.org
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