Waiting at Union Station for a train home to New York after teaching his Monday playwriting class, it was just another day for Yale School of Drama professor Nilo Cruz — until his cell phone rang. It was a New York Times reporter asking for an interview with Cruz, the just-announced winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Cruz immediately broke down crying.
A visiting professor at Yale, Cruz became the first Latino in history to win the Pulitzer in the drama category. On Monday, the 18-member board from Columbia University awarded Cruz the Pulitzer for his play “Anna in the Tropics.” Author Samantha Powers ’92 also won for her book “A Problem from Hell” in the general non-fiction category.
The Pulitzer voters bypassed the favorite — three-time winner and a finalist for “The Goat,” Edward Albee — to award the prize to Cruz, a relative unknown.
Cruz spent one year in Florida writing the prize-winning play, which will open this year in Coral Gables, Fla. Next year, it will be performed in Chicago, Princeton, N.J., and Costa Mesa, Calif.
“I’m just thrilled that somebody is recognizing the play,” Cruz said. “I’m delighted, certainly, and I hope that this award makes room for more Latino theater in this country.”
The romantic drama is set in Tampa, Fla., in 1929 and deals with a family of workers in a cigar factory. The factory owner’s daughter has an affair with a lector, a man hired to read to the workers during the day.
One of the books the lector reads is Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” and Cruz said the stage action mirrors the novel. The play centers around the workers’ interpretation of the book and how it changes their lives.
Cruz, 42, has been writing plays for 12 years and all of his scripts include Latino characters. When asked what his favorite play he has written was, Cruz said he could not choose among them.
“They’re like my children,” Cruz said. “How can you like one more than the other?”
Last year, Suzan-Lori Parks, an associate artist at the drama school, won a Pulitzer for her off-Broadway show “Topdog/Underdog,” becoming the first black woman to win a drama Pulitzer.
Drama School Dean James Bundy said he is excited for Cruz, but said Pulitzers for playwrights affiliated with Yale are not uncommon.
“I’m thrilled for him and it’s very exciting for him and all of us who know him at the school,” Bundy said. “Word is spreading like wildfire and everybody is very happy for him. But the most important thing is how proud we are of Nilo’s achievement, which is his own.”
At Yale, Cruz teaches four drama students in an advanced playwriting class that meets for three hours every Monday afternoon.
“I adore my students and they’re wonderful because they experiment and they’re full of tenacity — they’re just wonderful writers,” Cruz said. “I love how intimate the class is.”