In 1939, Cuba’s Batista government, in collaboration with the government of the United States, delayed a ship called the SS St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish-German refugees, in the Havana harbor. Despite assurances that they would be granted asylum, the refugees were told that they could not enter Cuba without a visa. Twenty-two were eventually allowed to come ashore. The rest were sent back to Germany, where they were interned at Mechelen and put to death.
This shameful event in the history of American-Cuban relations provides the back-story for “Sotto Voce,” the new play written and directed by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz, now running at Theater for the New City. The play follows a young Cuban-Jewish student, an aspiring writer named Saquiel Rafaeli (Andhy Mendez), who has come to New York City to track down the acclaimed German novelist Bemadette Kahn (Franca Sofia Barchiesi) after discovering that she was once the lover Ariel Strauss, one of the passengers on the SS St. Louis. After gradually earning her trust, and seducing her sassy but sentimental illegal immigrant housekeeper Lucila Pulpo (played by Arielle Jacobs, whose model good looks belie the play’s descriptions of her as plain and possibly overweight), he unlocks Bemadette’s repressed memories the war and the role her family played in Strauss’s death.