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#2865: Playwright, actor stars in challenging role (fwd)


Published Sunday, March 12, 2000, in the Miami Herald 
 Playwright, actor stars in challenging role___ BY TANYA WRAGG 

 For the first time in his 13 years as an actor, Teo Castellanos
recently stepped out of his Puerto Rican heritage to play the role of a
fictional Haitian jitney driver living in Miami. His Feb. 23 performance
at the Light Box Theater, 3000 Biscayne Blvd., was one of many presented
at the Here and Now 2000 festival sponsored by the Miami Light Project. 
 ``It was such a wonderful experience,'' said Castellanos, who also
wrote the play in which he stars. All his performances are one-man
shows. ``It felt good to know that the audience was so accepting of the
character.''  ``Jean Baptiste,'' the main character in NE 2nd Ave.,
tells of his struggle to make ends meet while trying to come to terms
with his Haitian heritage.  ``I tried the best I could to embody the
Haitian character,'' he said. ``And, most importantly, I wanted to show
the difference between Haitians and Haitian-Americans. It seems as
though nowadays many young Haitians don't appreciate their culture and
want to be assimilated.'' The piece begins with Baptiste attempting
suicide and ends with his declaration: ``I am not Haitian.'' It is after
the first scene that he begins to tell his life story.  Although NE 2nd
Ave. is his favorite piece, Castellanos said it was ``most definitely''
his hardest. ``Stepping outside of my culture into another I knew little
about was a risk,'' he said, ``but I felt it was a risk I had to take
because it's the only way to grow.'' Castellanos was inspired by fellow
actor Danny Hoch's method of ``taking on characters of other races and
even sexes without elaborate makeup or costumes.'' He turned for help to
Jean Sebon, with whom he had been in a band that played Haitian music in
the late 1980s. Sebon was born and raised in Haiti and now lives in
Miami. ``He became my consultant. He taught me about the Haitian culture
and how to speak Creole. I would tape his voice to study his accent and
learn the rhythms of the language,'' Castellanos said. With Sebon's
help, Castellanos began to research Haitian culture. Sebon
 introduced him to many people and slowly the piece began to develop. It
is then that Castellanos said he fell in love with it. 
 Castellanos received his first commission in 1997 from the Miami Light
Project for a piece called Caserio, named after a Puerto Rican housing
project. In it he relived his experiences as a young adult involved with
drugs, alcohol and petty crimes, he said. Each character was based on
people he knew but he changed the names to protect the ``innocent and
the guilty.'' The piece would become the first in a trilogy based on
Puerto Rican culture. 
 The second work, The People's Church, was about the Young Lords, a
group of men who, Castellanos said, were the Puerto Rican counterparts
of the Black Panthers. War, the third work, told the story of a Puerto
Rican Vietnam veteran. Castellanos said he is very proud of the trilogy
because it made him successful but, afterward, he wanted another
challenge -- NE 2nd Ave. Castellanos said he had mixed feelings at the
beginning about a career in acting. ``When I started to actually study
acting, I didn't know if I could act but there was this inner compass
that told me I should pursue it and I followed,'' he said.
 He obtained an associate's degree in drama from Miami-Dade Community
 College's North Campus in 1991 and a bachelor of fine arts in theater
from Florida Atlantic University in 1994. He graduated from Carol City
High School in 1979.  Before studying theater, his introduction to drama
was through his performance poetry. He performed in small venues such as
the Cameo Theater in South Beach.  ``I always knew that my writing was
decent but it was my presentation of the poetry that was good,'' he
 He said he was 5 years old when he first began to show an interest in
acting. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved to the United States when he was
6. For a year, his family lived in South Beach, Coral Gables and
Hialeah, before settling in Carol City. He now lives in South Miami with
his wife Lorna and daughter Jaquen, 8.  Castellanos teaches at The
Village in North Miami, a theater school for adolescents. Students
perform skits on substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV
prevention. He is also casting for an independent film, Divine
 Intervention, about a gay super hero. He performed The People's Church
and War two at the Theater of the Oppressed in Chicago two weeks ago. He
also will teach at a theater workshop in the Virgin Islands at a date
not yet decided. Although he waited long to pursue a career in acting,
the stage was his destiny, Castellanos said. ``I would love to be happy
with a banking or an accounting job, a 9 to 5 job, because it provides
security. But, that's not how the DNA molecules fell.''