Teo Castellanos' Life Is in his Plays

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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."

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John Dorschner