NEW YORK (AP) — As part of the cast of “Clyde’s,” Reza Salazar does eight performances a week at the Hayes Theater on Broadway alongside award-winning Uzo Aduba and others. It’s an achievement that he does not take for granted: The Peruvian actor began his career out of necessity at a very young age, when he and his mother would dress up as clowns to earn a living.
“I believe that what I did with my mother is still my foundation, the essence of what I continue to do now,” says Salazar. “I always have the clown inside, and it has opened the doors to Broadway, really.”
“Clyde’s,” written by two-time Pulitzer winner Lynn Nottage and directed by Kate Whoriskey, takes place in a sandwich shop whose owner (Aduba) hires ex-convicts to give them a chance to re-enter society. While the insensitive Clyde tries to keep them under her control, forcing them to stick to her old ways and recipes, they dream of creating the perfect sandwich.
Salazar plays Rafael, one of these employees, with Kara Young as his love interest Letitia, Ron Cephas Jones as the inspiring father-figure Montrellous, and Edmund Donovan as the newly hired Jason.
Born in Lima to a Peruvian father and Argentine mother, he was 4 when his parents divorced and his mother took him to Cali, Colombia, on a “vacation” that lasted three and a half years. Thus began an unstable life full of hardship that also led them to Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina before finally arriving, a decade later, in the United States.
“It was the late 80s, early 90s,” says the actor, who as a child says that he had a “very good time” traveling with his mother “like Che Guevara around South America. We didn’t travel by plane, we traveled from town to town in buses. But in Colombia we met with very difficult moments.”
With no money to pay for a nanny, it occurred to his mother to dress up as clowns just to attract attention at a street fair, where she would try to sell some handmade decorations.
“We didn’t have a show or any number, and we didn’t sell anything that day!”, Salazar remembers with a laugh. “We did have an audience that looked at us and laughed … The sale went badly for us, but we did well with the characters. … She named us ‘Hany and Bingo’.
“It’s interesting, I was already working as an actor without knowing that I was an actor, because we were really very poor,” he adds. “When we traveled we rented rooms. I never had a house, we never had a TV. The little television that I could see was when we would work in the streets outside the electronic stores.”
They also worked at children’s parties for kids who were often his age.
Asked if he had any fun working as a clown, Salazar replies that it was a way of being closer to his mother at a difficult moment.
“It was something that at that time I did not analyze as a child, but I think it made me feel safe, it made me feel protected, and in some way, it created stories between us that we have until now, that only she and I have lived.”
His life took a nice turn in Salta, in the north of Argentina, where he says they began a new chapter.
One day they saw a sign outside the Teatro La Fundación, the main theater in the city, offering acting classes for children and adults. At first his mother thought to enroll him because she couldn’t pay for both, but as there was no room, she ended up studying herself, taking him again with her as she had no one to leave him with.
“Rafael Monte, the director of that theater group at the time, says that I would stand from the seats and do everything that the others did without anyone paying much attention, until one day they looked at me and invited me to the stage to take the class with them.”
“That’s when I realized for the first time that what I was doing was something that had respect, and that it was not just something from the street or something where I only made people laugh or amuse them, but that there was an instrument of voice, of movement, there were books, methods, and that these actors in Salta took it very seriously. I didn’t know, I was 8 years old at the time and for the first time I said ‘wow’.”
At 14 they moved to North Carolina, where a Spanish-speaking senior at his high school encouraged him to audition for the drama club play even though he was a freshman and did not speak any English. She translated for him.
The director — with whom he keeps in touch with and even went to see “Clyde’s” recently — was so impressed with him that she gave him the role of the king, adapting it to be mute so Salazar’s dialogue could be interpreted with sign language.
“At the end the entire audience applauded. It was a blast! The local paper came to write about this boy who doesn’t speak English and is the king of the play,” he laughs.
When the time to consider going to college arrived, Salazar, who back then didn’t have the required documents to live in the US, said that this situation would not allow him to apply for a scholarship. So he followed the advice of the drama club director and, at 18, he moved to New York to study acting at the HB Studio.
Here he played music on the Subway and made flower arrangements and other jobs until at 20, with his immigration status solved, he landed a role in an episode of “Law & Order.”
“‘Law and Order’ was something out of this world. I remember that I went to audition and they said, ‘Very well, we want you to come back this afternoon, but can you have more accent? I called my mother on the phone and made her speak English for about an hour before returning.”
Today Salazar’s credits include Broadway’s “Sweat,” also by Nottage, as well as “Richard II,” “Mobile Unit’s The Tempest,” “Oedipus El Rey” and “My Mañana Comes” off-Broadway. He has appeared on TV shows including “Daredevil” and “The Blacklist,” and the movies “The Imperialists Are Still Alive” and “See Girl Run.”
On “Clyde’s,” he plans to stay until the closing day of Jan. 16. The production hasn’t had to cancel any performances due to the pandemic and continues to perform on the planned schedule.
Follow Sigal Ratner-Arias on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner.