Art Talk with Playwright Migdalia Cruz

By Rebecca Sutton
Woman with long wavy hair and glasses

Playwright Migdalia Cruz. Photo by Deborah Lopez

Throughout her career as a playwright, Migdalia Cruz has written over 60 plays, musicals, and operas, traveled the world, met the Dalai Lama, and earned prestigious awards such as the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays Award, the Helen Merrill Distinguished Playwright Award, and two NEA Playwriting Fellowships. But despite her success, she has always felt it critical to remember that she was once a girl who grew up poor in the Bronx. Her childhood, sometimes laced with neighborhood violence, remains a powerful force in her work, as does her Nuyorican identity.

On November 1st, her play FUR will open at Boundless Theatre Company in New York, with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Set in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, the play focuses on a hirsute woman named Citrona who is rescued from a sideshow only to be held captive by Michael, a pet shop owner, who wants to marry her. When Michael hires a woman named Nena to trap animals to feed Citrona, a love triangle ensues that pushes us to rethink our understanding of love, freedom, and desire. Ahead of the opening, we spoke with Cruz by phone about the production, how her background has shaped her work, and why she thinks theater is nothing short of magical.

NEA: Did you grow up in an artistic family?

MIGDALIA CRUZ: It depends on how you define artistic. I found out when I was about 26 that my father wrote poetry, which I never knew, but he was not college educated. He went up to the 11th grade in high school and my mom went up to sixth grade in Puerto Rico. So I came from humble beginnings and a working-class family. I think I was sort of the black sheep of the family, an oddity among my three sisters. So no I did not [grow up in an artistic family]. Or yes I did, depending on how you define art. I feel like what I got from them was this appreciation of my Puerto Rican culture, of my ancestors, and my history and who I am. All of that is certainly an important part of my art.

NEA: Can you talk more about how that appreciation for culture has shaped your work?

CRUZ: I was born in the Bronx of Puerto Rican parents; I consider myself Nuyorican. I always felt like I was my own kind of citizen—a person who lives between worlds, between the mainland and the island. And what does that mean for me and my writing? I think it’s always meant that I write about the search for home. That seems to be an important theme in my work. My life goal is to find out where I truly belong.

For FUR, I think it’s about my feelings of loneliness and otherness in society in general. I wrote the play as a post-apocalyptic play. I set it in the desert because I don’t have good feelings about the desert. It’s just one of those places that I associate with tragedy; that barren landscape is something that frightens me and something that for me heralds the apocalypse. So with FUR, Citrona, who is the main character, is searching for freedom in this play. And in her case, it's literal freedom, and what does it mean to be free to choose who you love, to choose where you love, to choose where your home is, and to choose to survive?

NEA: What are you most excited about for the upcoming production of FUR at Boundless?

CRUZ: This is going to sound crazy but I’m excited about the props. Gregorio Barreto is an extraordinary prop master. In the play, there’s a man who inherits a pet shop in the middle is apocalypse, and who decides to bring animals to his shop to feed his new wife. We show her eating live animals—or what we want [the audience] to presume is live. That’s a very difficult thing to do onstage because theater is so close to you. It’s not like in film where you can do that kind of special effect successfully. So it's rare that you get really good props that look realistic and that the actors can eat without gagging onstage. It's kind of extraordinary. So I’m excited about that. I'm excited about Sarita Fellows’s exquisite costumes. The dank and delightful basement set designed by Regina García which strongly suggests the extinction of love. And the sound design by Nathan Leigh will take us somewhere mysterious and filled with longing. I’m excited about the whole design. The lighting designer (who’s also the artistic director of Boundless) María-Cristina Fusté will use fluorescents and special lighting to suggest a basement lit with the graininess of a world trapped in a sandstorm.

This is a play that’s been done several times in other places, and it's always interesting to see how they solve all these challenges of design. The play is about love. It's not about the set. It's not about the lights. It’s not about the costumes. But all these elements somehow have to bring you into a place that is filled with loneliness and despair and heartbreak. So all those elements together have to make the audience feel immersed. I'm excited about that. I'm also excited to see it in New York. I’ve never had a production [of FUR] open in New York and it’s my hometown.

NEA: I'm assuming as a playwright, you have a vision of something in your head as you're writing. But you’ve mentioned how you’ve seen certain shows, like FUR, translated over and over in different ways. What is that like?

CRUZ: It's inspiring to see how you inspire other people, or how someone can take some stage direction that you wrote and make something beautiful and alive out of it. For me, it makes it worthwhile to be a playwright.

Once you get into production with collaborators, you find yourself in the middle of what is magical about theater. There is magic in what is real on the stage. I think my work is poetic realism. What I mean by that is that my characters have an entitlement to poetry and they speak poetry in a real place and they come from a real place. It's not an invented place. It's not a place where the walls begin to bleed. If someone bleeds, it’s because they've been bitten. So combining that with strong design elements creates a landscape from the viscera of my characters.

I had this play done in Greece and in Greek. In that production, they put my play in their own context. For them, my play was about the dissolution of culture in American society. I found it fascinating. The person who did the lights for that particular production was a film lighting designer. So the space was atmospheric and interesting and it felt like you were in a horror movie. I think it was fascinating to see how my Greek director and designers took on two different cultures, not only America, but Puerto Rico. It was remarkable that nothing ever seemed out of place in that production. I loved it.

NEA: You brought up the magic of theater. Can you tell me more about what makes theater magical to you?

CRUZ: When theater is done well, it is magical because it’s making alive things that aren’t alive. It’s bringing you characters that perhaps aren’t real. It’s bringing you into places perhaps you've never been. All of that is magic. In the best-case scenario, it’s bringing you on a trip in your head, someplace where you get totally involved, but also a place where you see yourself. It bridges someplace specifically new with someplace personal and internal, making the experience real and relatable. To me that’s magic because it makes the person in the audience feel like they're part of the production, and they experience the characters’ love and pain and joy. It's something that they go home and think about. Maybe it’s not easy to swallow and not easily understandable, but you have to think about it and discuss it and then digest it for yourself to find true understanding. To me, the experience of magic is when you go to the theater and you feel like you’ve been taken someplace and it’s a place that’s real and a place that makes you feel something important and human inside.

NEA: How did you initially come to dramatic writing?

CRUZ: I wrote my first play when I was six in the Bronx at P.S. 58 It was a play about the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, that was in the middle of the civil rights movement so that's what we saw on television. The play was about these Klansmen that are about to lynch an African-American man, and they have him, and they're about to kill him. He asks for one last favor, which is to smoke a last cigarette. So he gets a cigarette and as he’s supposedly lighting the cigarette, he burns the Klu Klux Klansmen because—this was a puppet show—and the Klansmen were all made out of Kleenex tissues. So they went up in smoke when he got his last cigarette. Clearly, I had an active imagination. Then, when I was about eight, my best friend was raped and murdered and thrown off the roof of our building in the Bronx. I decided I needed to start writing things down because I needed to remember. There were people I needed to remember, and I needed to express the voices and ideas of people who are no longer able to express things for themselves. What is justice in the world? What are the things that children fear? How do we mourn our families or our friends or our neighborhoods? What are we doing to make things better and to express a sense of mourning? I told you I write about the search for home. My other theme, which I think is my main theme, is mourning. All of my plays have a sense of mourning, or finding a way to remember or honor an event or person that is either from my past or from my imagined future that includes how we use our memories and our ancestors.

Later, I got two degrees in playwriting. But I think when I really learned to write was when I met María Irene Fornés who taught me at INTAR. She's a master playwright and she was my mentor for many years at INTAR. Through her, I learned how to use my memories and how to address all of these issues I had with my neighborhood and with where I came from. She helped me to acknowledge that I already had all the ammunition I needed to be a writer. All I had to do was sit down with pen and paper and remember.

It's important to keep looking back, even as you continue to move forward, and even as your world gets bigger as you get older. I've been to all kinds of places that are not the Bronx. I’ve been to Cambodia. I’ve been to India. I met the Dalai Lama. I've been around the world, and I feel all my travels and my experiences inform what I write. But I have to remind myself that I came from somewhere. This thing—whatever I am—is always going to be a part of my writing.

NEA: I know that as a child, you experienced a number of other violent, traumatic episodes, and lost another close friend later on. Does writing bring you a sense of catharsis? Or does it help you make sense of everything you’ve been through?

CRUZ: I wouldn't say I'm my own social worker or my own psychologist. But I do think that when I write, it helps me to not feel so alone. It helps me to understand that there is a whole world, a whole community behind me, a whole group of ancestors behind me who have passed on and are at my feet, but also in front of me and around me. This community is why I can keep writing. I don't feel like, “Oh, I feel so much better today. I wrote about that horrible thing.” I feel when I write something and I've done a good job recounting it that I’ve put a voice back on Earth, or into the air that needed to be spoken, so it can be heard. I think that’s one of the things that happens when you grow up poor: you always feel unheard. You always feel like you're the second choice for every event, like no one cares about what you do or who you are or if you live or die. So one of the things about being an artist, I think not just in writing, is that you put these images back into the space that says you’re here. That's really important, and it's empowering for me more than cathartic. I feel empowered by writing the things that I write.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

CRUZ: It varies for each play. I'm very smell-centric, so smells evoke a memory for me, and that usually evokes character. So for FUR, the first thing I smelled was the smell of excrement in a play that was also about love. I thought, “What’s that doing there?” I didn't understand why that smell was there. I followed it to what I thought was an animal. Then I followed that to what was actually a woman hidden inside the animal.

I think that's how I work in all my plays. FUR was specific to that horrible smell, but it was also not so horrible when you think about how familiar that smell is, and how that is a smell of being an animal which we humans are. And a smell that we all try to cover up and what does that all mean?

From there I usually write monologues. For FUR, I think the first thing I wrote was a monologue for Citrona which starts with, “People say you can’t get used to some things but you do, like the smell of your own [excrement].” She talks about how that [smell] is familiar and that feeling is comforting to her. But I think it's also a smell that protects her from other people. That's what animals do. They cover themselves in other animals’ excrement to keep other animals from attacking them. Or how homeless people keep their layers of filth on so that they won't be sexually attacked by other people—the dirtier you are the less likely you are to be attractive or to be assaulted. There's a psychological thing about how we protect ourselves with being soiled. What does that mean that we need to do that? And what does that mean when one has to survive in order to do that?

FUR took me the longest of any of my plays to write, and it’s one of my shortest plays. I think that's because it was such a deeply personal and painful journey that it came from my viscera. I had to explore what it means to be heartbroken. These are not easy things to talk about or explore. But I thought if you’re going to write it, then you have to write it for real, which means it has to hurt to re-experience it.

NEA: You're incredibly prolific—you’ve written over 60 plays. Do you have favorites or maybe least favorites?

CRUZ: No. I have some kids that are better behaved than others, but they’re all my children. Some of them have some deformities but I love them all equally. And some were more fun to write than others. I always find working in musicals or opera exciting because I think working with music is really fun. I like working with a composer. But I wouldn’t say I like it better because it’s a different thing. It’s more joyful, and also you’re spending more time in a room with other people in the actual conceiving and creating part, as opposed to just the presentation part. As a playwright, you spend a lot of time alone until you get into a rehearsal room with actors and a director and the design team and all that. But until then, you’re kind of on your own creating all of these characters in your head like a crazy person in the middle of the night, drinking bourbon and trying to conjure the spirits past and spirits future into your fingertips.

NEA: I know you teach playwriting and have taught it at a number of different universities. What do you feel is one of the most important lessons you can give your students?

CRUZ: Tell the truth. Tell the truth of what you know, and tell it truthfully. I think often, young writers want to write about ideas. They have a wonderful idea for a play or they have this great plot, but they don't have characters, or they haven’t found their own individual and unique personal voice to tell that story. Because most stories have already been told. Very rarely is there a unique story. But what is unique is the voice of the writer in that story, and how you tell it. What's your point of view when you tell it? If you tell the story of a murder, do you tell it from the point of view of the knife or the murderer or the victim? Why are you telling it? And why is it important that we hear you tell that story, that play, today in your voice. So for me, finding your voice is about how you learn to address your own truth. And the more you know about yourself, the more you’re able to write truthfully.