Teo Castellanos' Life Is in his Plays

On the second day of eighth grade in 1975, Teo Castellanos, a runty Puerto Rican kid in shiny new Pro-Keds, nervously scanned the hallways of Carol City Junior High between classes, on the lookout for his nemesis. The year before, a much bigger kid had approached from behind in drama class, swung his forearm around Castellanos' neck in a chokehold, and squeezed until he blacked out.

Over the summer, Castellanos had resolved to toughen up. His older brother advised him to fight to the end, no matter what. Castellanos vowed that he would.

Suddenly, in the crowded hallway, Castellanos spotted the nemesis, who immediately yanked his hair.

Castellanos lunged, grabbed his enemy by the shirt, and slammed him against the lockers. He screamed obscenities, ending with, "I'm going to kill you." When he let go, the bully slinked off.

"He never messed with me again," Castellanos remembers, smiling. "That was my first acting job."

Teo Castellanos is now 52 and Miami's quintessential actor/writer/director. Though his body of work is not huge — four full-length productions in the past dozen years — what he has created reveals South Florida's seldom-seen underbelly with uncommon intensity. His plays expose the raw street life of the city — sometimes scary, sometimes funny, often with stylized B-boying and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. His vision tends to attract a young, diverse group. The audience in the last performance of his recent work Third Trinity in Wynwood was packed to overflowing with a strong mix of young Hispanics and blacks who looked like they were on their way to a club.

Beth Boone, artistic and executive director of Miami Light Project, puts it this way: "Teo's plays more than any other's capture an authentic Miami."

Many of the characters in his plays were inspired by Castellanos' real life, itself full of wild adventures, weird jobs, and ethical dilemmas. Though he hasn't yet written the junior-high bully into a play, he has created characters based on himself (a bus driver fooling around with women at the back of the bus, a doper pleading with his pusher for a discount on coke and heroin) and people he's known (a butcher-shop assistant who used bleach to clean up a piece of meat dropped on the floor, a stoned ambulance staffer who forgot to put the gurney in the back before racing off to an emergency).

"I am 305 all day."

Castellanos opened up about his life and work just as the Adrienne Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater is set to present Fat Boy on Thursday through Saturday, December 18 to 20. The play is a cry against greed, with Castellanos' monologues intermingled with break dancing and throbbing music by DJ Le Spam.

Removed from his days as a drug addict and bus driver, Castellanos is not just a theater wunderkind but also an ordained Buddhist dharma teacher, calmed by Zen, with a shaved head. A slender 140 pounds on a five-foot-six frame, he frequently wears a minimalist uniform of white T-shirt and white slacks. With the soft moves of a dancer and a bright smile, he often bikes or skateboards to the Metrorail to get from his South Miami home to downtown. He's proud never to have been seduced by the lights of Broadway.

"I am 305 all day."

Lorna Burke was parked in her Honda Civic on Meridian Avenue on Miami Beach, staring at the entrance of a two-story apartment building. The flight attendant was waiting for her new boyfriend, Teo Castellanos, to come home. She didn't like to cook, but she'd made him some dinner. He was late — very late. She'd been waiting more than two hours. The food was cold.

It was the summer of 1988. Castellanos was 26. He had tried to be honest, telling Lorna that he saw a lot of women. He'd recounted so many tales that at one point she asked: "Are there any women in Miami you didn't sleep with?"

But lately, she'd felt he was getting serious. "I miss you so much," he'd told her when she was traveling. So why was he so late?

"I almost ran him over," she recalls with some relish.

Finally, a car driven by a young woman drove up. Castellanos stepped out. The woman spotted Burke and sped away. Burke slammed on the gas pedal and zoomed straight at Castellanos — hitting the brakes to stop an inch from his knees.

"I almost ran him over," she recalls with some relish. Castellanos pleaded for understanding, offering her a bracelet.

Castellanos now agrees he acted like a jerk. "I think this was my first week of recovery. I was still being my foolish self. I'd double-date myself. Date one girl and then go to the next." Burke and Castellanos have now been married for 23 years.

Castellanos grew up with two older boys he called brothers — cousins his parents adopted after their mother was murdered. His father, he says, was given to heavy doses of verbal abuse and occasionally a belt on the butt. When Castellanos was 5, the family moved from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a home near NW 171st Street and 36th Avenue, a Carol City neighborhood that was about 45 percent black and 45 percent Hispanic.

Teo "was a very bright kid," recalls his older brother, who prefers not to reveal his real name because he was imprisoned for drugs but now runs a business in New Jersey.

After facing down his bully in middle school, Castellanos dropped the drama class and worked on becoming a badass. He was caught shoplifting as a teenager, then busted behind a convenience store with some loose joints. Both crimes led to juvenile counseling.

At 16, he switched to night school so he could work days. One gig: butcher shops. "The stereotype of the butcher putting his finger on the scale and being a cheat?" Castellanos says. "Totally true."

After graduating from high school, he landed a job as a Dade County bus driver. Girls in school had ignored him, but Castellanos found driving a bus could be a turn-on. "You're transporting a few thousand people a day, and some of them are going to be young ladies, and some of them see a blue-collar civil service job as a really good job." That led to occasional shenanigans at the back of the bus. "I wasn't the only one. Let me tell you — those bus drivers are players." In Third Trinity, his character gets a blowjob while smoking a joint in the back after his shift is up.

At nights, booze and pot were generally his drugs of choice, but he found himself sliding more often into coke and heroin. "Cocaine did me in," he laments. Sometimes he was still in a drug haze when he drove the bus, but he says he never had an accident. He did, however, have another run-in with the law. In 1986, when he was 24, hanging out on the beach, he and some buddies got in a shouting match with cops. Castellanos, drunk, yelled, "Fuck you, pig." He says he was charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and inciting a riot, but the charges were thrown out when the cop didn't appear in court. (There is no court record online of the incident.)

Castellanos found driving a bus could be a turn-on.

Amid the partying, Castellanos was a singer and/or percussionist in several bands — the surf-punk outfit the Randies; the ska band King 7 and the SoulSonics, which toured as far as Boston; and Kazak, a Haitian-oriented group — and started reading his social-protest poetry at open-mic nights at Miami Beach's Cameo Theater. Before one performance, he drank a beer a buddy had secretly laced with acid, and he realized a new kind of high in the audience applause. He began trekking to the downtown library to read Ginsberg and Kerouac. That led to a new enthusiasm for classes at Miami Dade College, but he got a C in English and failed another English class. For a while, he says, "I was really discouraged from writing."

In April 1988, on Key Biscayne, he met Lorna Burke, born in Jamaica, raised in Miami, with a bachelor's in speech pathology and two master's degrees, in education and computer education. They danced. "He was so down-to-earth, easygoing," she says. "I didn't have many friends. He was receptive to my advances." He drank on their first date but didn't use drugs in front of her because she was a straight arrow.

In August 1988, after he had been seeing her for several months, he decided he needed to stop the booze and dope. "I don't totally understand resilience," he muses now. "You can take two brothers living in tough circumstances. One can rise above it. The other can totally fall... But there was always a little voice in the back of my head: You're better than this. Until the age of 26, when I looked in a mirror and the voice said you are not better than this. You are this."

He went to a rehab facility and started outpatient counseling. A therapist told him he needed to break completely from his old self — including his rampant womanizing. He resisted that in his first days of therapy, but after the calamity with Burke on Meridian Avenue, he followed the therapist's advice and gave Burke and the other woman copies of the book Women Who Love Too Much, about codependents wasting time trying to fix damaged men. The other woman vanished from his life. Burke did too, for about a week, then came back. "I never read the book," she says.

Castellanos was happy to see her. He wasn't willing to give up women completely. At the rehab facility, "they told me I had to stop dating. I said, 'Hell no!'"

Two years later, in 1990, Castellanos and Lorna decided to have a child. As Castellanos' character, Teo, put it in Third Trinity: "I am going to get married — and I am going to be monogamous."

After dropping his junior high drama class, Castellanos hadn't considered drama again — until he went to rehab. He needed a goal. "Everybody told me I was crazy. Late 20s and I want to study theater."

First step: an acting class. Still driving the bus, he went to Miami Dade College part-time, getting an associate's degree in 1991, then commuting to Boca Raton by Tri-Rail to study drama at Florida Atlantic University. For his final year, he quit the bus job and went full-time, his wife supporting the family as a U.S. Air flight attendant.

Finally, in 1994, after 13 years of study, he had a bachelor's degree, but no one was rushing to hire a 32-year-old with little drama -experience. He became a substitute teacher in public schools while grabbing occasional acting jobs. In one early effort, he portrayed a noisy swan, causing a critic to complain that he "bleats so much that you want to wring his graceful neck."

The year he graduated, he used savings to buy a two-bedroom, one-bath house in South Miami for $93,000. The place was big enough for the couple and their young daughter, but Lorna gave keys to her mother and two bipolar brothers. "I put him through a lot with my family," she says. "My brother came here manic once. The SWAT team was here barely after we moved into the house."

Lorna's strong-willed mother, Juni Burke, was more of a persistent problem. One morning, she arrived at 7:30. Castellanos complained she was always barging in. Juni shot back that half the house belonged to her daughter and she was standing on her daughter's half. He called the cops.

For Castellanos, that was the pits. "My marriage was falling apart. I was seeing a Freudian psychoanalyst, and I was on antidepressants."

Castellanos tried 12-step programs. He went to an Episcopal church Lorna had joined, and he set out to read about other religions, particularly Buddhism. Shortly after the blowup with his mother-in-law and an ensuing argument with his wife — this was about 1995 — he went for a ride. "It was rainy and windy, and I was window-shopping" on Lincoln Road when he bumped into an old acquaintance who had just spent two years in a Zen monastery. Castellanos complained he was bummed out by continuing arguments with his wife. The guy asked, "Is she here right now?"

For Castellanos, this was a "flash of insight" — that Zen teaches about living in the moment, not allowing problems to fester. That incident led to meditating and dropping by Buddhist temples.

Castellanos' work life too began to look up. He landed a full-time job teaching drama to kids at the Village South rehab center on Biscayne Boulevard. It was there, in a sparse room in September 1995, that he auditioned teenagers to build an acting troupe for guerrilla theater productions to promote awareness of AIDS and substance abuse. The most notable kid was a gangly 14-year-old from Liberty City who recited a monologue from a tony Christopher Durang play about a young boy whose mother insists he's a girl.

The kid, Tarell McCraney, was trying to be edgy, but his rendition was tortured, nervous. "Awful," Castellanos thought. But there was something about the kid's earnest approach to drama that reminded Castellanos of his younger self — lost, mentorless, eager. "I took an immediate liking to him."

A drama teacher had recommended McCraney to Castellanos because the kid was in awful straits. His mother had just gone into rehab, and he had moved from South Dade to live with his dad in Liberty City. Among his problems: just staying in school. McCraney agrees now his audition was likely dreadful. "That kind of -writing for a 14-year-old black queer kid from Liberty City... didn't fit me as a person."

Castellanos' mentoring did. He was tough, demanding. "He treated us as young artists," recalls McCraney, whose hard work quickly earned him a promotion to student leader. "Within a year, he was top dog," Castellanos says. Years later, the student's career would almost eclipse the teacher's.

For performances, the troupe gathered at places like Washington Avenue and Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, beginning, for instance, with a mock argument to grab the attention of unsuspecting passersby, then sliding into their message, sometimes jumping on newspaper vending machines to make their case before passing out cards for free AIDS testing or condoms.

On his own, Castellanos kept getting occasional small parts in plays, but it wasn't until 1997 that he discovered a milieu in which he could thrive: a Miami Light Project program called Here and Now that hosted workshops for young talents to develop their works, then perform them onstage. Castellanos created characters from his street days. They were raw, utterly original, says Caren Rabbino, a founding MLP codirector. "Teo was perfect for the program, an artist who had a unique vision."

In one well-received monologue, he portrayed a Haitian-born jitney driver, Jean Baptiste, who puzzled in a heavy accent about his new land and a younger generation that desired dreadlocks and gold teeth and didn't want to be called Haitian. When Boone took over MLP, she encouraged Castellanos to expand the character into a full-length play.

The result was NE 2nd Avenue, named for the street that runs through Little Haiti, the tony Design District, and other disparate areas. The play centers on a white out-of-town tourist who gets on the jitney and asks to go see a Purvis Young art exhibit in the Design District.

"What's that?" asks the driver. He drives through the district every day, but none of his black customers ever wanted to go there — the first of many details in the play that evoke the class segregation in Miami.

Castellanos played all nine characters himself, switching hats and shoes as he jumped characters (and accents) from Jean Baptiste to Lanquisha (a saucy, ambitious black girl) to a Puerto Rican pot seller named Wynwood to a Jamaican Rastafarian who declares, "You got a funny accent, mahn."

The story plays off clashes among racial and ethnic groups and between first- and second-generation immigrants. One example: The jitney driver's son proudly gives him a report card while explaining that "the f stands for fabulous."

The full play debuted in 2002 as a Gables Stage production at the Biltmore Hotel. Crowds and critics were so enthusiastic that the Coconut Grove Playhouse picked it up for a ten-week run in its Encore Room. The Miami Herald's theater critic, Chris Dolen, praised it as "joyous, dangerous, funny, frightening, hopeful, tough. And more."

Edinburgh, Scotland, 2003: Backstage on the second floor of a 73-seat theater, Castellanos was stretching, preparing to present NE 2nd Avenue. He was 41, surviving mostly by teaching, hoping the play would propel him up the ladder. Miami-Dade County had given him $15,000 to take the play to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, billed as "the largest arts festival in the world."

Maybe too large for Castellanos. There were so many plays in the city that month. Two nights in a row, only one or two people had bought tickets; performances had to be canceled. With travel, the production was costing him $19,000. He was hoping to make up the difference with ticket sales, but that hope was seeming ridiculous. After the second cancellation, "I went back to the apartment, crazy depressed. I tell my wife, 'What am I doing here? I'm too old for this.'"

The next day, he spotted a Miami drama teacher who had brought her students, a bunch of black kids from Northwestern High, to the festival. He offered them free tickets.

Two nights in a row, only one or two people had bought tickets; performances had to be canceled.

That night, he gave it his all, with the Miami kids laughing in all the right spots. Also in the audience that night: Mark Brown, critic for the Scotsman newspaper. His review dubbed Castellanos "a tremendous story teller" whose play was "deeply moving and rib-strainingly hilarious."

"I was sold out for the rest of the run" of about two-and-a-half weeks, he recalls. The festival awarded him a Fringe First Award for "innovation and outstanding new stage writing." After its reception at Edinburgh, he toured the play all over — from the Czech Republic to New York.

"That put wind in his sails," says MLP's Boone. He discovered he could survive as a full-time dramatist.

He created his own production company, D Projects. He's the only full-time employee, but he has a group of performers whom he pays as needed.

In 2005, he produced Scratch and Burn, a protest against war, with B-boying (break dancing choreographed by "Speedy Legs" Fernandez) and monologues that picked up quotes from the Bible, the Qur'an, and Tao Te Ching. In one voice-over, a slurring wino says, "Gifts of winter warmth under friendly gestures wipe out folks with little, itsy-bitsy things they call pox. Six million are claimed by purification. African and Maori kings live in D-Projects. Strange fruit hang from Southern trees... Latin American squads work magic tricks that make people disappear. Well, I got a couple of tricks of my own — y'all better hold on to your wallets!"

On a grant, Teo took the play to Beijing, where the Chinese insisted on changes, including the removal of a quote from the Tao Te -Ching: "Why does the leader flit about like a fool?"

In 2011, Castellanos produced Fat Boy — "my Buddhist show," he calls it — inspired by the immense poverty he saw on a trip to India. Again with B-boying and throbbing music that gives it a distinctively Miami tone, the show is a plotless, 65-minute production with monologues decrying cultures "fat with abundance but yet always filled with fear." At one point, Mayko, a Zen devil, talks to the dancers: "I get high on this spliff while you trip on your bling and we all go to hell in a handbasket because little bellies bloat... A piece of me is not at peace, so I go to pieces mistakenly thinking this piecemeal is whole. But fragmentation rules the nations with -indoctrinations, formulations, perceptions, aversions..."

This fall came Third Trinity, his most personal work yet, backed by $45,000 from the Knight Foundation. Playing all 22 characters himself, the central thread is narrated by a dead grandmother, focusing on Castellanos and his two cousins/brothers. The elder brother, named Jesus in the play, is left behind in San Juan when the family moves, at least partly because the father doesn't like his dark skin; Jesus struggles with homelessness for a while, then remakes himself as a radical Puerto Rican nationalist. The other brother, Larry, gets sentenced to prison after following the advice of his uncle: "All you have to do is baby-sit a little pot — five tons." Meanwhile, Teo's character becomes a drug-hazed bus driver.

The outlines of all three brothers' lives are true, though Castellanos compresses the timeline so that near the end, all three are in the hospital at the same time — Jesus dying of cancer, Larry beaten up by inmates, and Teo felled by drugs.

To help him shape the one-act play, Castellanos asked his former student, McCraney, to direct.

McCraney, now with a master's in drama from Yale University, has become a prolific playwright, with his works appearing in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and London. Perhaps his most acclaimed creation is the Brother/Sister Plays, a trilogy set in Louisiana that includes a star athlete, a garage mechanic, and a teenaged boy struggling to deal with his attraction to men. In South Florida, McCraney is perhaps best-known for his direction earlier this year of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, reset to Haiti, using actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Local critics and audiences loved it, though when it moved to New York, a Times critic lamented the production as "squishy, misbegotten" while praising McCraney as "terrifically talented."

Last year, at 32, McCraney's fame soared after he was awarded $625,000 as a MacArthur Fellow — money he intends to use for living expenses as he pursues his passions, such as directing Third Trinity, because he continues to be indebted to Castellanos, calling him "my father in theater" and adding that his time in the Village South troupe "saved me."

On a recent afternoon, over cortaditos at Wynwood Cafe, Castellanos and McCraney talked about surviving as wimpy drama kids in tough neighborhoods. Castellanos recounted how his encounter with the junior high bully shifted him gradually from actor to player. "You grow up playing that role until you are that role. That's how the streets can raise you."

McCraney nodded. "I was bullied all the time. I think you're right. People have the capability to become, in that moment, the hero, the wizard, the shaman — when we're backed up in a corner and most afraid. But if you're made to be that all the time, then you lose your humanity. You don't want to walk around in warrior position all the time."

Castellanos: "It's exhausting."

McCraney: "I get annoyed with myself that I don't go to Liberty City often, but that's why. I can't be all of myself there, even though I would love to work and make it better. I'm sure you feel the same about Carol City."

Castellanos nodded. He continues to dedicate considerable time to teaching kids from poor neighborhoods, but without his old warrior swagger, he doesn't walk the streets of Carol City, fearing he might get mugged like anyone else. "They don't even know me there."

On a recent Monday night in South Miami, Castellanos sat cross-legged on a cushion in a small room off his kitchen. Dressed in the black robe of a dharma teacher, he and three followers faced a wooden Buddha. As he clanged a mallet steadily on a bowl to start the weekly Zen meditation, the group chanted a litany: May I be free from anger, fear, and anxiety...

For the past decade, he has been a follower of Noble Silence, a Cuban-American Zen monk in South Dade. Silence calls Castellanos a "very committed" student, a vegetarian who rises at 5 a.m. to meditate for 40 minutes. Next spring, he and Castellanos are scheduled to fly to New York, where Silence's master will ordain Castellanos as a Zen priest, the next step above dharma teacher in the Vietnamese Lam Te tradition that has been passed from teacher to teacher for more than 40 generations.

It won't likely mean any major changes in his life — he'll continue offering the weekly meditations at his home — but it will serve as a recognition of the devotion he has made to Zen Buddhism.

"It changed him in every way," says MLP's Boone. "He doesn't have the harsh edge now."

One example: Several years ago, when Lorna's mother showed the first symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, they took her in. "It's really pretty shocking," since they'd fought so much years earlier, says daughter Jaquen, 23. "And now he's changing her diapers."

Castellanos: "Zen has definitely calmed me down a whole lot."

Though his politics tend to lean liberal-radical, he is an old-fashioned Hispanic patriarch in some senses. "He's been very, very protective," says Jaquen. He went with her to karate self-defense classes. With the help of scholarships, he put her through St. Philip's Episcopal School in Coral Gables and Palmer Trinity in South Dade, then Columbia University. She's now living in New York.

He's also insisted his income support the family, and his wife can do what she wants with her income. The couple won't say exactly how much they make, but Teo guesses he would have been better off financially if he had remained a bus driver, with its annual raises; Lorna says she earns somewhat more than a schoolteacher.

As soon as Third Trinity closed, Castellanos started working on plans to take it on tour. "He knows how to hustle," says his daughter.

He figures he devotes 15 percent of his time to fundraising, since ticket sales never cover production costs. Teaching — to kids and in prisons — still occupies a quarter of his time.

His lifestyle remains modest. He drives a 2013 Fiat. His house is small but paid for. "I haven't held a day job in 12 years," he says reflectively. "I've gotten my daughter through private school, and I've helped her postgraduation. I've been to 34 countries. I'm nowhere near a household name, yet I've lived the creative life I've wanted to live. This is my success. That's how I define it."

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John Dorschner