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In 2004, public high school students in Florida attended a performance of Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer-winning play Anna in the Tropics as a class outing. Which made sense: a story of early-twentieth-century Cuban immigrants in a cigar factory, the only way the play could be any more Florida is if it also had retirees buying alligators at a Publix.
But in 2022, when the opportunity arose for students from the same district to see a new production of that same play, school administrators forbade the trip, declaring the play unsuitable for high school aged viewers and citing sexual content and profanity.
Has the play has somehow gotten dirtier over the past 18 years, like a bottle of wine developing a more obscene bouquet over time?
Or maybe this transition is an index of how much American sensibilities have changed, as parents and school boards become vigilant about protecting high school students from depictions of adult behaviors and ideas – the kind of stuff one encounters in literature.
Appropriately enough, the play itself is about the galvanizing and incendiary effects that literature can have on its audiences. To entertain the cigar factory workers – because this show takes place some time before the invention of ear buds – the staff includes a “lector,” who stands on the factory floor reading books aloud, in this case from Anna Karenina. The passionate behaviors of the characters in Tolstoy’s novel ignite strong feelings and impulses among the cigar rollers, leading to drama and conflict and uncontrollable outbreaks of open-mindedness (which is perhaps why school administrators were so concerned).