Latin Authenticity Proves Key in Bay Street Theater’s ‘Anna in the Tropics’ Casting

Serafin Falcon, Iliana Guibert and Christian Barillas of Anna in the Tropics at Bay Street Theater
Serafin Falcon, Iliana Guibert and Christian Barillas
Courtesy Bay Street Theater

Following the successful return to form that was Scooter Pietsch’s Windfall, Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor is prepping the red carpet once again for the debut of their second MainStage 2022 show, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play takes place in 1929 Tampa, Florida and follows a Cuban American family working in a steamy cigar factory while dealing with their personal vices: greed, lust, envy. As they’re struggling with their own issues, they’re confronted with a rush of modernization that could destroy their precious traditions if they don’t come together as a family.

Directed by Marcos Santana, the cast was methodically selected with authenticity in mind, resulting in an all Latin American cast with mostly Cuban American actors. The cast includes Christian Barillas as CheChe, Maria Isabel Bilbao as Marela, Serafin Falcon as Santiago, Iliana Guibert as Ofelia, Guillermo Ivan as Paloma/Eliades, Anthony Michael Martinez as Juan Julian, and Christine Spang as Conchita.

With Anna in the Tropics previews beginning Tuesday, June 28, opening night on Saturday, July 2 and the show running through July 24, we had the opportunity to speak with three of the show’s actors about how this dedication to accurate casting is influencing the authenticity and flavor of this production.

The "Anna in the Tropics" cast: Serafin Falcon, Iliana Guibert, Christian Barillas, Christine Spang, Maria Isabel Bilbao, Anthony Michael Martinez and Guillermo Ivan
The “Anna in the Tropics” cast: Serafin Falcon, Iliana Guibert, Christian Barillas, Christine Spang, Maria Isabel Bilbao, Anthony Michael Martinez and Guillermo IvanCourtesy Bay Street Theater

Cast Members Discuss “Anna in the Tropics”

As a Cuban American actor, do you feel a stronger connection to your Anna in the Tropics character compared to non-Cuban Latin American roles you’ve played?

Iliana Guibert: I do, I have to be honest, I do. There are nuances and things in the language that are so specific and beautifully done. So yes, I definitely feel more of a connection because of that.

Do you feel that connection has helped you tap into the character and portray her in a more authentic way?

Iliana Guibert: It has, and just the fact that there’s so much Cuban flavor, not just Latin flavor but specifically Cuban flavor in this cast, I feel like I’m going to walk out of here even more Cuban than when I walked in.

Christian, do you feel a stronger connection to your Anna in the Tropics character compared to other Latin American roles you’ve played?

Christian Barillas: For me, that applies a little bit differently, because I’m from Guatemala, and what’s interesting about my character is that we don’t really know where he’s from. He’s specifically an outsider to the world, so I find that what I’m experiencing is that some of the sensibilities or the music in my language is slightly different — actually, the Spanish is certainly radically different from everybody else in the cast — so I’m guessing that the character is going to read as being from elsewhere.

Iliana Guibert: We actually say it. My character has a line where she says that he’s really from a town up north, meaning that he’s not Cuban. He might be Cuban because his father was, but we don’t know where the mother is from. We’re assuming that the mother’s American because he’s from up north meaning like Trenton.

Interesting. Christian, do you think the show production has drawn out the nuances and differences between your Guatemalan culture and Cuban culture?

Christian Barillas: Not particularly. I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to grasp that, and certainly in rehearsals we’re still finding our language as an ensemble. At the moment, I find that using my own Spanish is going to be useful, because it doesn’t sound like theirs. At the beginning of the process I was leaning toward using theirs as a way to have the character assimilate into their world, but I think actually drawing the difference is more useful for the storytelling. Most of the play is largely in English, but it’s peppered with Spanish words here and there, and certainly the way that I pronounce them is different from the way that they do.

Serafin, do you feel a stronger connection to your Anna in the Tropics character compared to prior roles?

Serafin Falcon: Absolutely. For one thing, this is a very personal piece to me, because my grandmother and all her siblings were cigar rollers in Cuba, going back a couple of generations. I never experienced that, because I was born and raised in Miami.

As an actor, seldomly do I ever get to audition for a Latino role that is Cuban or even Cuban American. I’m very, what they call in the industry, ethnically ambiguous, so I’m often read for roles that aren’t even Latino and are from other countries or ethnically ambiguous.

It is more than a personal honor … to be able to play (a character) in that time in my grandparents’ Cuba, which I never got to experience but grew up with it infused in me from her stories and from the day-to-day of growing up. It’s very special because even though, like Christian said, there are only some words sprinkled in Spanish, Nilo Cruz has this way of writing where the musicality and rhythm of it — even though it’s all in English, you do a double take at times thinking, “Wait, did I just hear that in Spanish or in English?” And it’s because of the way he puts those words together.

Marcos Santana directing Christine Spang, Maria Isabel Bilbao and Guillermo Ivan in "Anna in the Tropics"
Marcos Santana directing Christine Spang, Maria Isabel Bilbao and Guillermo IvanCourtesy Bay Street Theater

Wow, it sounds like this experience will give you a lot to talk about and explore with your family.

Serafin Falcon: Definitely. And I did this play over 10 years ago, but I played another character. Now at my age, I’m playing the patriarch; it’s on a very personal level as far as my ancestors. It’s very interesting what I’m feeling, what’s coming through and what I’m discovering.

How do you feel that working with an all Latin American cast and director influences this production?  

Iliana Guibert: I think part of it is the spice that it adds to it — that flavor that can sometimes be missing. I’m not saying someone who’s not Latin can’t do this play, because as actors, it’s our job to bring things to life, but this just gives it an added flavor. I think it’s a bonus to be able to have a cast that is an all-Latin cast.

When we went to the first rehearsal and had our meet-and-greet where we were all introducing ourselves, all of a sudden it was like, “Wait a minute, you’re Cuban? Oh my god, that’s unbelievable! Wait, YOU’RE Cuban?” And when we learned four of us are Cuban, we were shocked, because that never happens. Never does that happen. It was a delightful surprise. We were in awe and thrilled.

Christian Barillas: And obviously that was intentional from our director whose background is Puerto Rican. But I will add that certainly Nilo Cruz, as one of the Latin playwrights of this country, creating work for Latin actors, it’s certainly important to honor the intention of not only him but other writers like him, and by having all of us in this cast, it gives us incredible cultural shortcuts where there is understanding that can be achieved really quickly in conversation with the director about the inherent values that we all share as Latin Americans.

Serafin Falcon: I think I’ve seen in everyone’s eye at some point where something — especially during the first week when we were doing table work and talking about the story, and our amazing dramaturge brought in this wealth of information from the time — where I know I was able to connect dots and realize, “Oh, that’s why it was done this way. That’s why it’s called what it’s called.” Even Marella and Conchita, our daughters who are younger, were connecting dots: “Oh, my grandmother. Oh, my mother.” That’s beautiful. That’s not something that happens very often when I’m on set, on a production
or onstage.

Would you like to share any closing thoughts as you look ahead to opening night?

Iliana Guibert: I can speak for only myself, but I am on cloud nine to be working with this team, to be bringing this to Bay Street. I’ve gone to productions at Bay Street — they do beautiful work — but to see this on the stage is so special, it really is.

Christian Barillas: It’s also just an incredibly written play that hasn’t been, to my knowledge, performed in this part of the country in quite a while. And so to have this opportunity to revisit it again after all the acclaim it had when it first came out 20 years ago is an incredible opportunity and honor.

Serafin Falcon: I’m at a loss for words. This whole experience has been beyond my wildest dreams. From the cast of professionals that I’m working with and have been feeling extremely comfortable with since day one to the experience — it’s my first time working in New York, I lived in LA for many years — and going out to Bay Street and how at home they’ve made us feel and continue to make us feel with every step of the process. I shed a tear of joy and gratitude every morning, pretty much.

Iliana Guibert: Just think, all this that we’re telling you, and we haven’t even opened the show yet. We’re just getting warmed up. That’s how you know you’ve got something special.

To purchase a MainStage subscription or tickets to Anna in the Tropics, call the Bay Street Theater Box Office at 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.

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