By one reckoning, CarlosAlexis Cruz has spent one week of preparation for every minute “Picaro” will be onstage this month at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte.
By another, he has needed nearly a third of his life to find the soul of this world premiere.
He has worked on the hour-long play almost since arriving in 2013 at UNC Charlotte, where he’s assistant professor of physical theatre. The seeds were planted long before, on his first extended trip to mainland America.
He left his native Puerto Rico in the mid-’00s to get an MFA degree in his specialty from Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in northern California. Suddenly, he wasn’t a guy who looked like everyone else he knew. He’d become the guy with a skin one hue darker than much of Humboldt County.
“I grew up Puerto Rican and thought I would be just another citizen here,” he says. “There we see each other much more as a mix of races. Here there is ‘whiteness’ and ‘others.’ I was told, ‘You are brown.’
“When my wife and I went to the bank for a loan – my accent was thicker than it is now – the banker didn’t want to deal with us. I’d be stopped by the police because my lights were ‘too dim,’ and they’d ask for my papers. I was stopped while driving to the airport with a car full of suitcases – because they thought I was (drug) trafficking, I guess. We just had to be resilient.”
Eventually, the writer who wasn’t an immigrant decided to write an immigrant’s story. Long before, he’d worked on a modern version of “Lazarillo de Tormes,” the first Spanish novel and beginning of the “picaresque” genre. (The word refers to episodic stories about a rough, often dishonest but likeable hero.)
Now he came up with the leading character in “Picaro,” a Guatemalan who represents all Central Americans who come to the U.S. border to escape drugs, gangs, violence, corruption. Picaro speaks to us from a detention center, making his case for admission to the U.S. Though it began as a one-man show, he’s gotten too much help to call it that.
Alicia Martínez Álvarez, who runs a theater company in Mexico City, devised masks ranging from a possum (a trickster character) to an all-purpose “evil man” who puts obstacles in Picaro’s way.
The single-named Shamou, director of music for UNCC’s dance department, first helped Cruz design a soundscape and now acts in the piece. Joe Culpepper, who teaches magic history at the National Circus School of Montreal, gave advice. Cruz even got a hand in New York from the world’s most famous classical dancer.
“We had a residency at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and this short guy peeked around a door. I didn’t have my glasses on, so I told Mikhail Baryshnikov, “We need help hanging this background.’ He laughed about it.”
“Picaro” will also get impromptu help each show from theatergoers chosen “because they look like the majority of the audience. They’ll put themselves in the shoes of the character, and they won’t see him as “the other’ any more.”
Cruz has made theater for two decades, notably at the prestigious company Milagro in Oregon. (“It had the most diverse casting I’ve ever seen: black, Latino, transgender, everybody.”) He started his own Pelú Theatre to tell stories through a Latino lens. It takes its name from the slang phrase “La cosa esta pelú,” meaning, “The thing is about to explode.” He’s headquartered at UNCC because his family moved to Miami, and he wanted to live closer to them.
“Picaro” may be the story nearest his heart, not only because it incorporates the circus skills and physical theater he loves but because his own career started with an act of deception.
He set out to study civil engineering, following his father’s footsteps and wishes, at the University of Puerto Rico in his home town of Mayagüez. He saw a play his freshman year and knew better: “Once you find your calling, you pursue it.” He lied to his parents, telling them he was studying journalism (which would have been a respectable white-collar career) and immersed himself in theater.
After graduating, he took up commedia dell’arte in California, got his master’s degree and trained in circus arts and Chinese acrobatics under master coach Lu Yi at San Francisco Circus Center. (Cruz specialized in aerial straps and acrobatic rope.)
At 38, he smiles at his youthful athleticism.
“I’ve used circus skills to transcend the barriers of language, but I’m approaching a crossroads where the body works differently. When I do a backflip, I land harder. You keep your strength but lose your explosiveness: I think I’m running really fast, I look at myself, and I seem to be going in slow motion.”
Certain effects – the big rolling wheel, the aerial stunts — continue to work well. And he did “Archipelago,” a text-heavy project, last September, proving he could memorize a lot of words for the first time in years. “I am inching into it reluctantly, but my body is urging me in that direction,” he says.
His inventiveness hasn’t diminished: Since 2016, he has helmed a contemporary circus project titled “Nouveau Sud” to depict life in Charlotte and the New South.
“It addresses our culturally segregated city and has a message of unity,” he explains. “By the time I leave — if I leave — I would like to leave that circus theater standing. I tell my students, ‘Being an artist is a privilege.’ We are voices for these people who aren’t being heard.”
Want to go?
When: April 27 at 4 p.m., April 28 at 2 and 4 p.m.
Where: ImaginOn, 300 E. Seventh St.
Running time: Roughly 60 minutes.
Details: 704-973-2828 or ctcharlotte.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.