Beatriz Esteban-Messina was with her husband in their car in 2003 when she heard that the play “Anna in the Tropics” was going to be performed in New York City starring Jimmy Smits. She saw the play and thought it was so wonderful that she hoped she would one day be part of it.
Indeed, eight years later, she is directing it.
“Anna in the Tropics” was written by Nilo Cruz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2003 for his work, becoming the first Latino to win the award. The play was also honored with two nominations at the 2004 Tony Awards, for Best Play and Best Featured Actress in a Play (Daphne Rubin-Vega).
She took the actors on a field trip to Rodriguez Puros Cigars in Jersey City.
“Anna in the Tropics” is being presented at the Teaneck New Theater (TNT) in Association with the Hackensack Cultural Arts Center this weekend, finishing up with a show at 3 p.m. today (Sunday, Aug. 28).
Esteban-Messina is directing the play. She defines herself as a Hudson County girl. She grew up speaking Spanish at home and English outside of it. She is also a teacher for the arts, leading drama and Spanish classes at St. Mary’s in Jersey City.
“I always wanted to direct,” she said. “I love theater. It is an outlet.”
Esteban-Messina said Union City is a place to have it all: a great meal for $6, living close to her family, going to the park for Shakespeare and free concerts.
To young aspiring actors and directors, she advises them to “follow their hearts, go to school and make a difference by making good theater.”
Esteban-Messina is not the only local resident involved in the production. William Shapiro plays the character of Cheche, the brother of the factory’s owner. Shapiro said he knew he wanted to be an actor when a school teacher in sixth grade pointed him toward acting as a way to channel his misbehavior.
He was born in Union City to a family of teachers, and now teaches English at Union City High School.
“I can’t see myself leaving Union City” he said. He enjoys walking to work and being with his students. Shapiro is also a soccer coach, and is finishing work toward his master’s degree.
When speaking about juggling his multiple occupations, he said, “When you care about something, you find the time. There were days I couldn’t have enough coffee, but I’m addicted to what I do. I don’t have a job; I have a career.”
A story with universal appeal
Esteban-Messina hopes for a large audience to see “Anna in the Tropics,” emphasizing that even though the story is about a Cuban family, it is applicable to any ethnic group dealing with the ups and downs of daily life.
“It’s emotional; it’s sensual; it is about the monotony of life broken,” she said.
Shapiro said, “It has funny moments, mystery. It is a timeless story about a struggle between keeping tradition and the pressure to modernize.”
Both Esteban-Messina and Shapiro refer to her directing style as very organic, being more a guide than a dictator. To prepare for the play, Esteban-Messina wanted the cast to experience what it is to roll cigars by hand, so she took the actors on a field trip to Rodriguez Puros Cigars in Jersey City.
The factory workers even gave her wrapper leaves for the actors to use in the play.
When going through her mother’s music, she found some original records from Ernesto Lecuona, a Cuban composer. She used them as the background music for the play, setting an authentic mood to each scene.
For information on “Anna in the Tropics,” call TNT at (201) 692-0200 or visit TNT’s website at: http://www.go-tnt.org/.
Carolina Roberts may be reached at email@example.com.