Teo Castellanos' final words fired out at the audience like a cheer through a bullhorn, and the lights came up. I found myself not only standing and clapping, but also awkwardly fighting back tears I couldn't explain. "Tears of overwhelm," I decided later, was the best way to describe them, as melodramatic as that may sound.
I had just witnessed NE 2nd Avenue
, a kind of "This Is Your Life," or more accurately "This Is Your Miami Life," all channeled through the impossibly muscled and impossibly pale body of a bald man with a malleable posture and a Rolodex of dialects. And I loved it. Judging from the ready standing ovation and the stunned facial expressions I noticed among the rest of the audience at show's end, I don't think I was the only one who felt this way.
The Adrienne Arsht Center
is presenting a (too short) three-day run of Castellanos' Fringe First Award-winning one-man show in celebration of its tenth anniversary. The play ushers viewers through a gallery of Miami stereotypes, then takes them down below the surface, uncovering the pain, the dimension, and the humanity of each. The shifts are punctuated by minor costume changes (shoes and hats only -- he maintains a uniform of unremarkable shorts and a T-shirt throughout) and expertly timed music that reflects a spectrum of genres and eras, often foreshadowing a character to come or the skin the actor is shedding.
Deft lighting makes Castellanos the only visible form in the room at times, cuing the audience when the jovial Cuban fruit peddler is about to get serious, for example. The actor's body appears to have the potential energy of a tennis ball at the top of the Empire State building; during some transitions, he dances across the stage, springing high off the ground with contagious bursts of energy, and yet no visible signs of effort. His vigor doesn't diminish even after an hour of energetic solo performance.
The actor morphs completely in gait, posture, and accent from one player to the next. Some of the characters are directly connected, and Castellanos' unseen, ghost-like co-star -- a clueless, sunburned tourist -- either resides in or passes through each act.
Within moments of the play's beginning, it occurred to me that I was once that sore-thumb, sun-burnt newcomer. I arrived in Miami in 2005, and the first thing I did was get robbed. A stupid, small-town Pennsylvania girl who had never been to the city before, I pulled into a gas station at 125th Street and NW 7th Avenue and left my car running as I ducked into the bathroom. The big, gold-toothed dudes at whom I'd smiled when I pulled in were nowhere to be seen when I emerged. And neither was my purse, which I'd left on the passenger seat.
Since then, I've learned to better guard my possessions, and my European hide has slowly developed a sort of immunity to sunburn. People no longer ask me where I'm from on a daily basis. I became initiated as a Miamian as I came to know the city's almost comically diverse people, by teaching in a Haitian neighborhood in North Miami, tutoring Cuban Jewish students from Hillel, interviewing vagrant artists, accompanying my homo homeboys at Twist
, and succeeding (through broken Spanish and lots of improvised sign language) in the purchase of a sandwich at a deli in Hialeah, for example. Castellanos' show reminded me of all this, and it's this realization that triggered such a strong emotional response for me. That and the fact that I'd just witnessed an all-around incredible performance. I mean, the man is shockingly talented.
First, Castellanos conveyed a garrulous Haitian jitney driver, sucking his teeth in disapproval of America's strict laws, loose morals, and ridicule of his people. As I listened to this character's frustration at not being able to legally beat his family members without fear of legal repercussions, I was reminded of dozens of conversations with my former students' Haitian parents, many of whom were also graduates of the old school of family discipline.
With a change of sockless leather shoes for white sneaks with floppy neon green tongues, and the swap of a short-brimmed hat for a red do-rag, Castellanos became a shit-talking Puerto Rican drug dealer slinging weed in Wynwood. The writing here highlights Miami's economically polarized yet geographically proximal demographics, where the ghetto is often a stone's throw from the McMansions, or in this case from furniture stores peddling fourteen thousand dollar couches.
Castellanos' work also conveys something only those who have dabbled outside their depth in this city can grasp; the overt friendliness of our city's street people that often only thinly sheathes the volatility of the desperate and destitute.
Castellanos' portrayal of teenage Lonquisha, with pink fuzzy slippers and a rhinestone-studded head wrap over her apparently itchy weave, started out funny but ended up testing the water tension in my eyeballs once more. While teaching in northwest Dade County, I met girls like Lonquisha, armed with self-esteem and faith imposed by good parents, but forced to walk a tightrope strung inches above all sorts of seriously dangerous temptations every single day.
Still, how could a skinny white Puerto Rican man reciting [an adapted version of] Maya Angelou's "Still I Rise" nearly bring me to tears? Because it wasn't a skinny white man. It was Lonquisha on stage, whose name is derivative of her father Lonnie's, and who knows she's a queen who will rise above, and who will bring her momma and her baby brother with her when she does. Castellanos made me believe this. He really did.
Later we met Tete, Lonquisha's would-be love interest. Torn between the teachings of an educated, morally upright mentor and the peer pressures imposed by his thuggish friends, Tete's a ball of energy and curiosity perched precariously on the fence between fields of study and the prison yard.
We meet a self-proclaimed "entremanure," a Cuban who peddles bags of Spanish limes and other sundries along Biscayne Boulevard. He's all smiles and songs until he imparts an unfathomably painful story of personal loss.
There's our Jamaican friend, whose "tick" island accent Castellanos conveys impressively. We meet a queeny, club-hopping, South Beach gay guy who reminds us that people still die of AIDS; and an aging Cuban Jewish grandfather (the Jamaican guy's father-in-law) who tries to explain to his mixed-race and mixed-creed grandson that abuela does in fact love him, even if she refuses to see him.
By the end of his mind-blowing performance, I wanted to join in Castellanos' curtain-closing battle cry: "THAT'S ... MY ... PEOPLE!"
That's right. I may not have been made in Dade, but I'm a Miamian, and this show made me feel it. And it made me proud.