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“Anna in the Tropics” Gives a Unique Perspective on the Lector

The 1920s were a pretty crappy time to be a worker, especially in the U.S. Tons of workers were striking for better wages and conditions, and truly effective child labor laws hadn’t been established until 1938. While cigar factories weren’t exactly the greatest places to work, they had a one-up on many other industries—the lector.

Lectors were hired by cigar makers to read to workers, many of whom were illiterate, while they rolled and packaged cigars. This helped to pass the time, and also gave birth to many popular cigar brands, including Montecristo, which was named after the Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and Sancho Panza, which borrows its name from a character in Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

“Anna in the Tropics” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz, who emigrated from Cuba in 1970. The story takes place in Ybor City, Tampa, and deals with the state of the industry, in which manufacturers who wanted to move towards mechanization, and how that affected manual laborers and lectors, whose jobs were on their way to becoming obsolete.

I’m not what you’d call a theatre buff, but I think it’s pretty cool to know that there’s a play that deals with the role of the lector, who, in my opinion, is one of the coolest parts about the history of cigar making. While people were getting killed in coal mining strikes and losing their limbs in textile mills, lectors were reading books to cigar workers.

As I said, the conditions still probably weren’t ideal, but I think the lector tells us something about cigar manufacturing versus many other industries; manufacturers legitimately cared about their industry. If they didn’t, why would they take the extra measure to make sure their employees were happy enough to perform?

Anyway, “Anna in the Tropics” is playing at the Backroom Theatre at the Expo Center in Long Beach, California. The cost is $20 per ticket, $10 for students, and the play runs Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. through May 14. If you’re anywhere near Long Beach, CA, you should go see it—I would if I could.