Longform

Teo Castellanos' Life Is in his Plays

Page 5 of 5

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."

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John Dorschner