Teo Castellanos's NE 2nd Avenue returns

Take a Haitian jitney down NE Second Avenue, as I recently did, and you can find the whole of Miami. After you pass the ash-tinted asphalt of 95th Street heading south, cracks and small potholes begin to make the ride uneven. Squat homes, small grocery stores, and colorful shops reveal you're in Little Haiti. Then comes the elegant but diminutive Design District, and eventually you pass under the shadow of I-195 and into the urban core.

During my jitney odyssey last week, the rumbling van transported a napping young African-American college student, two elderly Cuban women, an overweight Hispanic man with a Bluetooth earpiece, and myself. Our driver, Remy, who listened to a barely audible AM Haitian station, was a little startled when I asked how long he'd been shuttling passengers in his small white van. He curled a polite smile and told me: nearly ten years. In that time, he's had to deal with transients who try to haggle down the price of a ride, he's booted unruly and inebriated passengers, and he's had a gun in his face — the would-be robber inexplicably chickened out and fled empty-handed. He's given rides to every kind of Miamian there is. "Rich people," he begins with a heavy Haitian accent, "poor people, students, everybody!"

As he finishes, I hear the two Cuban ladies in the back having a robust conversation about what kind of ingredients to put in a particular dish. "¡Ay, perfecto, perfecto, perfecto!" one of them says, nodding animatedly. This jitney is culture soup, and it has stories to tell.

Teo Castellanos's one-man show, NE 2nd Avenue, is an amalgam of these same cultures told through a jitney ride. The talented actor is celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his play for a short three-day run, beginning this Thursday night, at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

The hourlong show features Castellanos portraying several characters, among them a Rasta man, an African-American woman, a Cuban-Jewish grandfather, a Puerto Rican small-time drug dealer, and a Haitian jitney driver. Their individual stories tell the tale of the real Miami through the eyes of a tourist while sifting through the different cultures, religions, ages, and personalities that make up the Magic City. Social justice and racism are explored, as are political strife and acts of God.

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami, Castellanos earned a bachelor's degree in theater from Florida Atlantic University, which he attended on a full scholarship and where he studied with four-time Tony Award winner Zoe Caldwell. He is also the founder and artistic director of Teo Castellanos D-Projects, a contemporary dance and theater company whose original work fuses world cultures and music. Castellanos mentored theater wunderkind and international playwright in residence at the Royal Shakespeare Company Tarell Alvin McCraney. And he's written several plays in addition to NE 2nd Avenue, including his one-man trilogy, The Projects.

Despite being such a prolific and inexhaustible talent, Castellanos remains a grounded free spirit. He feels trapped behind the wheel of a car, instead riding his bike everywhere he needs to go — including performances. He flashes a modest smile and gazes attentively with eyes that reside behind black horn-rimmed glasses and below a clean-shaven head.

His clothes appear ill-fitting, and the slight hop to his step suggests a man filled with kinetic energy and vigor. "I wanted to represent my city!" he says enthusiastically when asked what inspired NE 2nd Avenue. "The multiple-character solo show was made popular in the 1990s by cats like Eric Bogosian, as well as John Leguizamo, whom I've worked with, and Danny Hoch, who's become a close friend. But they all represented New York. I wanted to do the same and share our diverse cultures with the world."  

NE 2nd Avenue is an ever-evolving passion project for Castellanos. He first performed it for the Miami Light Project as part of the Contemporary Performance Series in 2002. It was then staged at the 2003 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it was awarded Fringe First Award (past recipients include Emma Thompson and Rowan Atkinson). The Scotsman called that production a "perfectly acted window on real people."

Castellanos has since taken it worldwide, from Texas to Germany, often rehearsing on planes and in hotel rooms. Yet nothing frightens him more than performing in front of his hometown crowd. "I usually do a run-through in my hotel and then have an opening the very next night," he says, chuckling. "But I'm taking a little bit more time this time around, because my hometown's audience scares me unlike any other audience in the world."

That's probably because Miami knows these characters better than anyone else. "There's always a person who walks up to me and says, 'Hey, I know that guy!' about a particular character," Castellanos says, even though none of the characters in NE 2nd Avenue is based on any real person.

Yet it's all very real.

"Throughout the years, I've changed things as things in the world change," he says, "or as current events happen." Castellanos has removed characters he thought were outdated to keep with the times. He's mysterious about taking out one named Carmencita. "The issue that her particular monologue addressed is no longer prevalent," he says of the character, declining to reveal any more than that. "I feel it is a wound that is healing in our community and I don't need to pick at the sutures."

He cites the Haiti earthquake of 2010 as probably the biggest change his script has seen. "I had a show a month after that happened, so my Haitian character obviously had to mention it. And he still talks about it because two years later, thousands are still homeless, and that's not headline news right now."

The actual NE Second Avenue has changed aesthetically in the past ten years too. Empty lots filled with shards of broken beer bottles and patches of dried grass have been replaced by high-rises and condos; small shops' walls have been painted with striking murals by local artists; and thrift stores that sell $2 VHS tapes have been replaced by, well, thrift stores that sell $3 DVDs. Places such as Artopia, Gym by Diego Buendia, the S&S Diner, and the 18th Street Café, with its crab sandwich specials, make up the new avenue.

But the people are the same. Real jitney driver Remy and his passengers are a testament to that. He gave me another friendly grin, saying, "OK, OK, my friend!" as I exited his van on NE 16th Street and he drove his passengers into the gray urban canyons of downtown Miami.

"Some of the characters in the play are connected," Castellanos says. "They either know each other as friends or they're related."

But as my real jitney ride down NE Second Avenue and Castellanos's fictitious jitney ride onstage will tell you, we're all related even if we're not blood. We all have a story to tell. NE 2nd Avenue shows us how different yet how similar Miamians are. Each one of us has a story to tell. It's altogether moving, tragic, funny, and real.

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Chris Joseph