Teo Castellanos' Life Is in his Plays

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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."

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John Dorschner