Wednesday, March 21, 2012

NE 2nd Avenue

Maybe it’s all cosmically related. I’ve been reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the umpteenth time. Shortly after Martin Luther King Day and just on the crest of Black History Month, one of those magical moments occurred. In To Kill a Mockingbird, young Scout Finch thinks of her father and says, “Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.” Atticus suggests, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

For three nights, January 19, 20, and 21, Puerto Rican born, Miami bred Teo Castellanos celebrated the 10th anniversary of his stunning, prize-winning one-man show, NE 2nd Avenue. In it, he walks in the shoes of 8 characters – literally. Pumping Take It to the House and Trick Daddy, Castellanos dances, prances, and romances characters and audience alike, channeling characters embodying the jitney route from downtown through Little Haiti. He uncovers his city – our city – from inside the skin of 8 characters, changing shoes as he changes characters, coaxing tics and nuance throughout. It’s all quite uncanny. He spares no one linguistically – this is not a play for Rick Santorum. Yet it is fast, sweet, funny, sentimental, and brash at the same time – within the span of one character sometimes. It is also often moving. This is the Miami we live in – our reality – our characters.

One deals drugs in his namesake Wynwood and another is a kindly Jamaican. The jitney captain is a story telling Haitian; a hilarious African-American mother hangs laundry. The show is sealed with a riveting Jewish Cuban Israeli Lebanese story. Are these based on real people and their real Miami existence? Forget the portrayals for a second; Castellano attacks the writing like a drone.

In another life, Teo Castellanos must have been a bus driver. How else could someone so effectively observe, perceive, distinguish, differentiate, appreciate, and turn into such disparate characters found – well on this long stretch of street rarely populated by artists save for those devotees of what we call the four elements, rapping, spray-painting, breakdancing, and DJ ing. In The Music Man, it is said best about Harold Hill – you gotta know the territory.

I was in a seat at the Gables Stage a decade ago when Castellanos first performed it. I knew the streets, but not Miami’s streets. I know them much better now, in many ways, thanks to Castellano. (Disclosure time: he and I are good friends. I love the guy!) On Miami’s streets, he has been a younger teacher to me. In these ways, he has been a local treasure and mentor to many. Ask brilliant young Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose electrifying The Brother’s Size cast Castellano, or DJ Spam, who dropped the soundtrack for Castellanos’ Fat Boy, or Matthew Hill, wicked drummer in Scratch & Burn.

In NE 2nd Avenue, Teo Castellanos reveals a beautiful mind, climbing in the skin of others, and walking in their shoes. We in the audience are along for the ride – in our city – Castellanos’ Miami.

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