Richard Hamburger

To get closer to their lusty cigar-rolling characters, ‘Anna’ cast visited the real deal

By Tom Sime / The Dallas Morning News

RICHARDSON – At El Mio Cigars, a different sort of acting class is helping the cast members of the Dallas Theater Center’s Anna in the Tropics find their characters.

The drama is set in a Tampa, Fla., cigar factory run by Cuban expatriates in 1929. For much of the play, the characters are hand-rolling fine cigars while a “lector,” or reader, reads aloud to them from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

In a world where cigars are mass-produced by machines, “we wanted to find someone who’s actually Cuban, someone who does the real, traditional type of rolling,” director Richard Hamburger says on the first of two visits to El Mio. He looked in Tampa but found a better source in this Arapaho Road cigar shop, discovered by properties designer Rich Gilles, who says the bare-bones shop looks like the set for a David Mamet play.

Here, next to a glassed-in humidor, José Perez practices his art. The cigar master has been rolling stogies for 61 of his 70 years. As a boy, he trained at the legendary Monte Cristo factory in Cuba, his homeland. He came to the United States in 1980, and to Dallas in 1997.

Playwright Nilo Cruz is also a native of Cuba; his father was a political prisoner under Castro, and the sense of exile is woven throughout Anna in the Tropics.

“Even though it takes place in Tampa, they’re taking Cuba with them – the color, the original passion,” Mr. Hamburger says of the characters. For him, Anna is “about a whole segment of our society that people forget about: artisans who make the things we enjoy.”

The cast and crew are here at El Mio because Mr. Hamburger wants them to know what these workers actually did all day as they took in the words of their lectors.

“I want them to get that routine down so it’s second nature to them,” Mr. Hamburger says.

Mr. Perez is ready to hold court and roll when Mr. Hamburger and Mr. Gilles arrive with the actors and other theater personnel: research assistants, an assistant director, other designers.

Mr. Perez, sporting a guayabera shirt and several gold necklaces, seems to revel in the attention; he often works with an audience at area restaurants.

He holds forth in Spanish, with bilingual cast members tossing out translations. But it’s mostly to watch his limber hands that they’re here. Still, they learn various facts about the care of tobacco: how it must be fumigated for bugs (otherwise worms will eat the cigar from within); how the stem is stripped from the leaf; how one never lights a cigar from a match or candle, because the tobacco will absorb the odor.

Puerto Rican actress Jacqueline Duprey, who plays the heroine Conchita, a cigar roller who has an affair with the lector, was understudy on the Broadway Anna. At Mr. Perez’s wooden rolling station she dives in, knowing what she’s doing, as the others watch, packing in close.

When Ms. Duprey has finished rolling her cigar, she holds it up proudly. “Now smoke it,” Mr. Hamburger urges.

“I want to keep it,” Ms. Duprey says. Mr. Perez gives her a plastic bag, and she slips the cigar inside and admires it. “My baby!”

The actors are asking Mr. Perez about the lectors in Cuba. It turns out that it wasn’t just classic literature the lectors read. In the morning, it was the news; and there were plenty of racy and melodramatic stories. Sometimes, the lector would even read a play and, as with a novel, he would do the different voices of the characters as the workers sat “enraptured.”

“He’d have to be like an actor,” says Mr. Perez. “When a lector is reading, you cannot talk, or you’ll be punished.”

Mr. Hamburger hasn’t decided how much he’ll emphasize cigar- rolling in the play. “I’m not going to be literal,” he says. “I’ll pare away most of it. It’s background. It’s not really what the play is about. ... A lot of the genius of this play is what he’s left out. It’s very not dense. This is about selection. It’s poetic.”

But even if he uses little of what he’s learned here, the director enjoys getting out of his bubble. “This is more than typical” research, he says of the El Mio excursions, with their sense of adventure and discovery, “which is part of the reason I’m loving it. This is what I live for, more than performance.”

© Richard Hamburger, Theater Director      Site design and maintenance by Amy Lacy.