Cuba has long been the nexus of colliding worlds, from the European conquest of the Americas to the Cold War. And fraught, fateful sea voyages to or from the crocodile-shaped island have figured largely in its history, from Hernán Cortés to Elián González.
In his sinuous new play Sotto Voce, Nilo Cruz (Anna in the Tropics, Two Sisters and a Piano) mines a lesser known real-life boat ride from 1939: the passage of the MS St. Louis from Germany to Cuba. Its passengers—937 Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution—were turned away not only by the Cuban government, but by the U.S. and Canada. Most of the remnants ended up back in Europe, and nearly a third perished in the Holocaust.
Cruz’s play, which runs at New York City’s Theater for the New City through March 9 (before showing at Miami-Dade County Auditorium March 20–23), takes a twice-removed “memory play” approach to this heavy material.
The Cuban-American playwright knew he didn’t want to set his play on the ship—the book and film The Voyage of the Damned already went there. He wanted to create a thorny, lyrical, occasionally steamy cross-generational courtship between Saquiel—a young Cuban Jew whose grandfather waited in Havana in vain for his sister, a St. Louis passenger—and Bemadette, a German novelist who in 1939 watched her Jewish lover board the St. Louis in Hamburg, never to see him again.
Liberty is on his mind these days, as Cruz feels his native Cuba “is loosening up—they’re headed in that direction. Though there’s fear of change—of how change is going to affect the country and the people.” They might take a cue from Bemadette, a German name that means “having the courage of a bear.”