By any measure NE 2nd Avenue, written and performed by Teo Castellanos, is a major theatrical event of the season. From the moment you see Steve Lambert's simple set, you know you're in for a story about Miami. Not the usual South Beach/Coconut Grove fantasy but a funkier, low-down version. The bare stage is backed by photos of street scenes: sidewalks, rundown buildings, mean streets baking in the sun -- the Miami the tourists don't see and the locals don't want to see. The poignant, often hilarious piece, a series of character sketches, portrays lives rarely glimpsed on area stages: a Haitian jitney driver, a Puerto Rican dope dealer, a poor African-American woman, a SoBe gay, a second-generation Cuban-American teen raver -- nine lives in all.
Castellanos is a resourceful performer -- lithe, expressive, and intelligent, with a good ear for accents and vocal rhythms. He flings around Kreyol, Cuban Spanish, Puerto Rican Spanish, and various varieties of English with assurance. Several moments are indelible: A Cuban fruit vendor's jaunty charm turns somber when he describes the ordeal of fleeing the island on a raft, only to watch helplessly as his brother drowns in a storm. A Cuban-Jewish oldster describes fighting for Israel and coming upon an acquaintance soldiering for the Arabs. A black street philosopher, his mouth full of metalwork, launches into a strange critique of racism and colonialism. A Jamaican Rasta breaks up a mugging only to be mistakenly arrested for the crime.
Castellanos tends to favor male characters -- seven out of his nine --and with some reason his female creations seem somewhat less textured than the males.
He and director Michael John Garces have devised a simple, effective staging, using hats and shoes to denote characterizations, and an evocative, subtle soundtrack to add some background color. The pair has made use of narrative device to string along their character sketches. Each character either speaks to or notices an unnamed, unseen white man who wanders around NE Second Avenue, out of place like a tourist in a strange land. It's an interesting element in a show about identity and the conflict between the suspicion of outsiders and the need to connect with others, even if they look and sound different.
Castellanos is about as local as an artist can get. He grew up here, trained as an actor at FAU and with local teachers, and repeatedly returned, despite forays to L.A. and New York, to his roots. The production itself is a model of localism. Commissioned by the Miami Light Project, it was first produced for a short run at GableStage and now plays in an extended run at the Coconut Grove Playhouse Encore Room, a dandy example of synergy between area organizations.
Most important, by focusing on lives lived on Miami streets, Castellanos helps transform local mythology. South Florida, so long defined by what it is not (not snowy, not New York, not communist Cuba), is at long last beginning to discover its unique identity. This process -- confusing, breathless, nonlinear -- finds voice in NE 2nd Avenue, which I suspect may serve as a model for future theatrical projects. With so much music, humor, and drama in evidence, other Florida writers are taking inspiration where Castellanos has found it: just up the street.
Another solo project features a local hero, or in this instance, a local heroine. The renowned author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston gets her due in Zora, a biographical play by Laurence Holder. Though born in Alabama, Hurston lived her early and later life in Florida, and most of her writings center on things Floridian. Hurston was a prickly, independent woman whose clean, vivid writing and lively personality have made her beloved by many.
Born into poverty, she managed to gain a superior education -- Howard, Barnard, Columbia -- while carving out a major place for herself at the onset of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and '30s, first as an anthropologist studying regional black culture, then as a writer of fiction. Like William Faulkner, Hurston pioneered regional fiction, focusing on specific Southern cultures and communities. Along with her long-time cohort Langston Hughes, Hurston was at the forefront of the black literary scene in the early 20th Century, and her influence, direct and indirect, on writers to follow -- Hansberry, Ellison, August Wilson -- is profound. But her interest in Southern black culture went in and out of fashion, in both white and black societies. In her later years, she was overlooked and died in obscurity. Years after her death, a number of black authors, Alice Walker notably, recognized the impact she had on American literature and sought to bring her name back to prominence.
Holder's play begins as a weary, mature Hurston returns to her Florida farmhouse, now a ramshackle mess after years of neglect. As she sets about to clean it up, she spins many a tale about her early days at school, her salad days with Hughes in Harlem, her literary successes, and her eventual decline. Holder's script is crisp and evocative, a nicely wrought evocation of an indomitable spirit.
The play also includes some intriguing insights into the ongoing conflicts between various philosophical camps within the black intelligentsia of the time. Hurston was largely apolitical, focusing on black culture and achievement, while sterner, more political writers like Richard Wright focused on racism and oppression. Holder's script does well with these historical details but plays fast and loose with some facts. Hughes is portrayed as solidly heterosexual, and the play posits that his attentions to another woman were the cause of his falling out with Hurston, this despite well-reported evidence that Hughes's sexual preferences were at least as much directed at men as at women.
As Hurston, Carey Hart tends toward a vigorous, broad characterization that seems at odds with the worldly, dignified language -- at times this Zora seems more Moms Mabley than Maya Angelou. Some of these choices may be laid at the feet of director Jerry Maple Jr., whose staging seems overly busy and ingratiating, as if he didn't trust the text or the audience. Maple uses complex, intrusive sound effects and a musical score to accompany the narrative, adding a number of mime and dance interludes. These may be intended to inject life and energy into the production, but most result in just slowing it down. In solo shows simple is usually better: When Hart sits down and tells Hurston's tale, the character is clear, the scene is evoked, and the connection with the audience is direct.