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For a Jewish Boricua whose great-grandfather spoke Yiddish, theater is almost a birthright

Antonia Cruz-Kent, daughter of celebrated playwright Migdalia Cruz, writes plays that explore her multiple identities

Antonia Cruz-Kent was born into the theater. She grew up the daughter of playwright Migdalia Cruz, whose celebrated work has been staged at such venues as Brooklyn Academy of Music, Playwrights Horizons, and Classic Stage Company. Her babysitters were actors in her mother’s plays.

Cruz-Kent’s great-grandfather founded Joseph Weisberg Insurance. Courtesy of Antonia Cruz-Kent

“I got spoiled in the sense that I got really good children’s book readings from my amazing actor-babysitters,” she told me during a Zoom interview. When she was just 18 months old, she sat in a playpen during auditions for her mother’s play Yellow Eyes, set in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and inspired by Cruz’s relationship with her great-grandfather, who was enslaved in Puerto Rico towards the end of the 19th-century and lived to the age of 112. 

So, it’s no surprise that Cruz-Kent, 25 — who grew up doing community theater, and studying the acting techniques of Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler in New York — was raised with great reverence for legacy and ancestry.  She told me that her great-grandpa Joe (an insurance salesman who, responding to companies’ refusal to sell to Jews, started his own, Joseph Weisberg Insurance) read this very newspaper in Yiddish when he was a young man. 

In one of Cruz-Kent’s latest works, a semi-autobiographical “rumination on grief” called esperaré (“I will wait”), the lead character Toñita/Toni, is visited in a dream by Marian, a transfeminine guardian angel, who once worked alongside her abuelo at a steel factory in the South Bronx. With Marian’s aid, Toñita/Toni dreams her way through the conversations she never had with her abuelo and her Great Uncle Bud (both of whom she lost when she was a child). The conversations help her process the grief she feels in adulthood at never having truly asked her uncle and grandfather about the lives they lived.

The play, which, according to Cruz-Kent, concerns “loving, mourning, and embracing your ancestors as a Jewish Boricua, with family coming from two different, complex worlds,”  made its professional debut in a staged reading in June through IATI Theater’s Cimientos Play Development Program. The East Village-based theater, founded in 1968, cultivates new work in both English and Spanish, and Cimientos is a selective, three-month incubator for as-yet unproduced plays, culminating in an annual weeklong festival of staged readings.

Learning on the fly

While Cruz-Kent and her mother both studied playwriting at Columbia University and their plays have essential ingredients in common, she argues that her approach to storytelling is fundamentally different. 

Cruz-Kent with her mother, playwright Migdalia Cruz. Courtesy of Antonia Cruz-Kent

She says that, because of how Cruz and her father, James Kent — a science writer, whose daughter recalled him having had many fossils around the house when she was growing up — raised her, they share“a darkly poetic view of the world,” in addition to having “the same moral compass,.” But, she added, “we have a different sensibility. We have a different heartbeat. We have a different outlook.”.

Cruz-Kent graduated from Irvington High School in Westchester County a semester early to play Nena in The Conduct of Life, a 1985 play by theatrical titan Maria Irene Fornés (whose own mentorship was transformative for Cruz) at Los Angeles’ HERO Theatre. She didn’t write her first play until her sophomore year of college, at California Institute of the Arts, where she earned a BFA in Acting in 2021. She had long written poetry and short stories, but, she said, “I graduated into a pandemic and I was in a car accident, and I came out of the car accident being like, ‘I want to go to grad school for playwriting.’ My mom was like, ‘You’re crazy! You’ve written one play!’”

She devoted the fall of her senior year to revising EMPTY MOUTH — the one play she had written during her undergraduate studies — which she adapted from poems she’d previously written chronicling “heartbreak, mourning, [and] coming-of-age” — ultimately earning admission to the esteemed program. 

Cruz-Kent acts in a staged reading of her mother’s play ‘Never Moscow.’ Courtesy of Antonia Cruz-Kent

“I kind of learned on the fly,” she said. “I had this one play in my hand!” 

“Right now,” though, she says, “I think my writer cap is on snugly — I look in the mirror, like ‘Antonia Cruz-Kent: playwright,’ like, yeah – that makes sense.” 

Although she maintains deep love for acting and continues to pursue it  — earlier this year, she played Masha Prozorov in a reading of her mother’s new play Never Moscow, which takes inspiration from the life of Anton Chekhov at the time he was writing Three Sisters  — Cruz-Kent says writing for the stage came more naturally than performing. “I think storytelling and writing was more in my bones,” she said. 

She wrapped up her thesis production, Ivera, at Columbia in April, which she is currently developing through the Latinx Playwrights Circle’s 2024 Intensive Mentorship Program. The play, she said, concerns medical racism against Puerto Rican women, “and the complexities of being a mixed race Puerto Rican woman in a hospital in a relationship with a white husband.”

Cruz-Kent’s newest work, Cross y Bandera, which tackles the legacy of US colonialism in Puerto Rico, will receive a reading in October at San Francisco’s La Lengua Theater as part of their Decolonization Stories Festival.

Though Cruz-Kent is still relatively new to playwriting, her rapid success may, in part, be due to the fact that she sees herself as an old soul.

As Toñita/Toni, inspired by the playwright herself, says in esperaré, “I’m only 23, but I’m an old 23. I’m like. 47 and a half, mentally.”

When we wrapped up our conversation, Cruz-Kent described her artistry in relation to that iconic line in the movie The Sixth Sense — “I see dead people.” 

“I feel like I don’t see dead people,  so I write plays about them instead,” she said. 


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