The politics of migration has been a lifelong concern for playwright Nilo Cruz. He was born in Cuba in 1960, and his father was jailed for attempting to emigrate when Cruz was very young. When he was 10, the family successfully left Cuba, arriving in Miami in 1970 and settling in Little Havana.
His 2003 play, “Anna and the Tropics,” explored the cigar-making tradition of Cubans living in Florida in the late 1880s. Cruz, a Cuban-American, won a Pulitzer Prize for the play, the first Latin playwright to win the award.
Beginning this week, Portland Stage Company mounts his 2014 play, “Sotto Voce,” based on the story of the 1939 voyage of the St. Louis passenger ship, carrying 937 German-Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany to Cuba. Cuba turned the ship away, as did the United States and Canada. The St. Louis returned to Europe, and 254 of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps.
“More than anything, I find that this point in history keeps repeating itself,” Cruz said by phone from Miami. “It is happening right now in Europe, with so many asylum seekers that are being turned away and some that are not really welcomed. And of course, there have been issues in our own country, with our presidential candidate who has talked about the deportation of immigrants.”
Cruz uses the story of the St. Louis as a launching point for “Sotto Voce,” which is Italian for “under the voice.” The play isn’t about the tragedy. It’s about a love story that grew out of the tragedy.
Cruz calls “Sotto Voce” an imagined dream play, with three characters at its center. Bemadette is a quiet, German-born novelist in New York, whose long-ago Jewish lover was a passenger on the St. Louis. Saquiel is a young Jewish writer from Cuba, whose great aunt also was a passenger on the St. Louis. Lucila is the maid who cares for Bemadette.
The play imagines a relationship between Bemadette, played by Carmen Roman, and Saquiel, played by James Cusati-Moyer. They never meet, but establish a relationship by phone and email.
The play blossoms in the lyrical, romantic beauty of the language, said director Liz Diamond. “I’ve always been attracted to theatrical poetry, and Nilo is a consummate theatrical poet,” she said. “He’s extremely musical. Nilo is gifted with the ability to not censor himself when he writes. This play is filled with wonderfully surprising turns of the phrase.”
Cruz will attend the performance at 2 p.m. on Nov. 13, then participate in “The Poet and the Playwright,” a post-show conversation with poet Richard Blanco. Both men share Cuban roots and write about identity through their Cuban-American experience. Blanco, who lives in Maine, will read his poems, and the two men will discuss commonalities in life and writing.
They’ve met once and have talked briefly on the phone about the program, Cruz said.
“We both grew up here in Miami, but I did not meet him when I was a child in the city,” Cruz said. “It’s exciting to be on a panel with a fellow Cuban who has had so much recognition in the past few years. I look forward to sharing a moment with him on stage.”
There have been two productions of “Sotto Voce,” with very different actresses playing the role of Bemadette. Cruz, who directed the first production in 2014, was entranced by the audition of Roman, which he watched on video. “I kept revisiting that audition. I thought it was so beautiful, her interpretation of the work. There is something about Carmen Roman, the way she captures the liveliness of Bemadette, but also the mystery behind that character as well,” he said.
It’s a challenging role, in part because of the nature of “Sotto Voce” as a dream play, or memory play. Bemadette is 80 – but a very young 80 – and she harbors a story inside her that comes out as the play unfolds.
Reticent at first, she opens up to Saquiel, but only on her terms. Bemadette imagines Saquiel as her long-ago lover, while Saquiel seeks her out for insights into her writing.
The plays flows from her memories of the 1930s to their present-day relationship.
Cruz did not intend to write a memory play. He began “Sotto Voce” as a play about the St. Louis, set in the 1930s. But that story only hinted at the possibility of something larger, he said.
“I am very mindful of entering a play and using history as a way of drawing an audience in,” he said. “These moments of history are intriguing to me. It’s important to revisit history to see what happened in the past and somehow for us not to repeat the same mistake.”
That this play happens to open in Portland during a political season, when the topic of immigration is central to the discussion, makes “Sotto Voce” all the more timely, Diamond said.
She hopes people will come to the theater to heal from the wounds of a divisive moment in our history.
“Theater is a town meeting of the soul and an opportunity to contemplate together how we live and how we want to live,” she said.
WHERE: Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland
WHEN: Final preview 7:30 p.m. Thursday, opens Friday and runs through Nov. 20; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
TICKETS & INFO: $32 to $48, 774-0465 or portlandstage.org