Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Nilo Cruz's A Bicycle Country, being performed by New Theatre until this weekend at the Roxy Performing Arts Center, tells the tale of three Cuban exiles and their harrowing and treacherous journeys to Miami from their oppressed island nation.
The play debuted at Florida Stage in 1999, but the subject of freedom at all costs remains resonant. A Bicycle Country delves into familiar themes of oppression, liberty, survival, and hope among the Cuban exile community. Cruz's poetic prose and penchant for telling stories that are drenched in symbolism and fantasy is what sets this play apart from others that have tackled this universal genre.
We spoke with New Theatre Artistic Director Ricky J. Martinez, who stepped away from his usual place in the director's chair to act in this production, about the play, how it remains relevant, and why it's such an important production for this community.
Cultist: How does it feel to be back in front of an audience as opposed to behind the scenes in the director's chair?
Martinez: It feels amazing to be back in front of our audience. It's because of the support of our subscribers and my board that I decided to get back on the boards, and they are incredibly happy. The decision, on my end, was filled with trepidation at first, because acting as a producer and as artistic director, I was wondering if I'd have the time to fully immerse myself in the character and the show. And also try not to be a control freak when it came to the design elements and let myself just be an actor. But, all in all, I'm very glad I made the decision.
How are the process and preparation different for you now as an actor?
The process and preparation are completely different from being only an actor to being the director. As an actor, I only have to focus on one persona and how to facilitate its one point of view -- wants, drive, physicality, history, that sort of thing. But as a director, you have to get in the head space of all the characters, worry about all the design elements, how best to block things, make sure all your actors reach their potential and that of the production, etcetera. Far more complex to be a director in a big picture kind of way!
Evelyn Perez, Charlie Sothers & Ricky J. Martinez (in chair) in A Bicycle Country. Photo by Eileen Suarez
Who do you play in A Bicycle Country?
I play Julio del Valles, a ex-military stroke victim who is in a deep depression. As the play begins, to when the play ends, Julio has an enormous character arch. I'm truly blessed to be able to tackle a man so beautifully engrossed in Cuban roots and, at the same time, so torn with them.
Are there any specific challenges in putting together a Nilo Cruz play?
Nilo's language and characters are delicious! That's my favorite word nowadays, sorry (laughs). His language contains many poetic qualities, emotional subtext, yet are very distinct to the characters and their world. Every playwright has a unique voice and vocabulary; as an actor, it's simply how well you can fit into them like a coat -- or eat them. Delicious!
What made New Theatre choose A Bicycle Country to perform?
As you know, New Theatre has a history with Nilo's plays, commissioning and World Premiering the Pulitzer and Steinberg winner Anna In The Tropics, Hortenisa and The Museum of Dreams, and Beauty of the Father. And we've missed him! We also thought this play would be perfect for me to break my acting hiatus.
How is A Bicycle Country still relevant since its debut in 1999?
Great plays are always relevant, right? I believe it is incredibly healthy to update the new generation of children of immigrants on their families' trek here, while honoring the generation who lived it. As Miamians we are directly connected to and [often] even know someone who risked their life to cross the 90 perilous miles through the Florida Straits to reach us. Though the exodus, [which] was well chronicled in the '90s and simmered down in '94 with the "wet foot, dry foot" policy, of the Balseros has died down from the media, people still attempt to make it here; the stakes have only gotten higher.
Do you think the tone of the play has changed any since its debut?
I think in its simplest form, it's become more cherished as a play. It's a play that speaks about our peoples' history and how much the Cuban community has fought for freedom from oppression.
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How are audiences reacting to it, and how different do you think the reaction is now than when it was back in 1999?
You know this question is actually quite hard for me to answer as an actor, because I'm primarily backstage and only come out at the end. But from the three standing ovations we've received, those who've stayed afterwards and generously embraced me with tears still in their eyes, and the emails and Facebook comments, people have been touched by our work with this production. I don't know how the reaction was at the Florida Stage premier in 1999 because I wasn't able to catch it. But knowing that our sister theatre's productions were always sensational, I could only image how their audience was immersed in catharsis by the end with this play.