"My mom taught me how to act,” says writer/actor Carlo D’Amore, whose solo performance piece “No Parole” at Passage Theater’s Solo Flights Festival gives him the showcase for these skills as well as the content based on memories of his life with her. The festival runs through Sunday, March 27. “No Parole” will be performed Saturdays, March 12, 19, and 27.
D’Amore’s family immigrated to the United States from Peru when he was eight years old. His first taste of acting came when his family was having a difficult time getting a visa to enter the United States. Their means to the desired end involved “me as a little kid lying to the consulate in Guatemala City, pretending that I had burned the passport, which would have our legal visa stamped on the back of it.”
Their new life in the United States was a shock to his mother’s system as she had grown up in an affluent family who considered themselves part of the “White Peruvian” caste. As D’Amore puts it, “My mom had delusions of coming from a higher social class and had no intention of living any other way; certainly she did not accept the role of being part of a struggling immigrant family.”
What to do? She was the mother of invention, setting her family on a wild adventure that now proves a treasure trove of stories for “No Parole.” These stories have a split personality as the events that happened were serious and difficult for the family, but because of his mother’s outlandish escapades, also very funny.
As a preview, D’Amore says, “She took it upon herself to live the American dream as she saw it — no matter what it took. She took short cuts.” These began with shoplifting, with her young son as her accomplice and/or lookout. He remembers, “It was fun and exciting. I think she liked being chased.”
From those beginnings, she moved on to forgery, including, when D’Amore was 15, forging a number of ID cards for him attesting that he was 21. “The more she got away with things, the bigger the scams became.” For a price, she would create whole identities for people and daringly steal drugs from drug dealers and sell them. She ended up in prison several times and finally was deported, but of course, snuck back into the country to continue her escapades.
“She spiraled out of control. No one could tell her anything, not my father, not the authorities, nor the outside world that was pounding on her door.” D’Amore, by now a teenager in high school, continued as her “confidante” and helper. “Then I left home,” he says.
“‘No Parole’ is 99 percent true,” he says. “I changed some of the names to protect the guilty.” Obviously, when D’Amore arrived in the San Francisco Bay area, he was now an “experienced” actor, however, with only a little formal acting training in high school. But he says that he was very lucky, and that during his early 20s, he got a lot of work, going from show to show, and studying acting here and there.
D’Amore now lives in New York City. However, when I talked with him by phone, he was in California to attend services for his father, who died recently.
He has been developing “No Parole” for the past six years, beginning with a short version mounted at the Midtown International Theater Festival in New York. Working with director Joseph Megel, he expanded and fine-tuned the piece with workshops at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where Megel is an artist-in-residence at the University of North Carolina, then at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Under Megel’s direction, the play premiered at the San Francisco Playhouse where it was voted one of the Top 10 Plays of the year in the Bay Area. “The play was darker in those incarnations,” says D’Amore. Under the direction of Margarett Perry, the development process continued and, according to D’Amore, the comic elements began to come to the fore, opening in 2008 at the Sacramento Theater Company and again in San Francisco.
There will be additional revisions for the performance at Passage Theater as D’Amore plans to add new material that played out in his life while he was on the west coast for his father’s funeral. “Being there with my entire family was a pretty profound experience.” He is also working on a screenplay version.
“No Parole” has been on the “back burner” for a while as D’Amore has been involved with interactive theater pieces for the last few years. He started the “liveINtheater” Company, which develops mystery stories that take an audience quite literally into the action as they work to solve the crimes. These are based on real cases that happened in New York City. Passage Theater artistic director June Ballinger attended one of these, “The Ryan Case New York,” based on a true unsolved crime from the 1870s. D’Amore describes it as “sort of like time travel in which the audience meets different characters.”
Another mystery story they are preparing concerns the murder of a young girl in 1975 on the lower east side of Manhattan. They also built a different experience called “Harlem Hustle,” in which the audience travels through the history of Harlem. “They meet the guy who came up from the great migration; they meet a GI’s wife waiting for her husband to return at the end of WWII; they walk into a Black Panther Party where they become members. It’s a different way to see theater,” he says.
D’Amore also hopes to take “No Parole” to other places. “I still haven’t had a full New York City run with it, and I’m hoping that will happen.”
Writing and performing “No Parole” has served as a healing device for him. “I’ve come to a place of complete acceptance of my mother. I forgive her for everything that she did and realize that she did the best that she could at that time.”
The turning point in his mother’s life came when she had a stroke. “We called it God giving her a call to slow down, relax — God or whomever, I’m not very religious. As she slowed down, her scams began to fall down all around her. She couldn’t cover things up. The house of cards she had built began to collapse around her.” At this point, D’Amore was living and working in New York so the burden of taking care of their mother fell on his younger brother. He then decided to bring his mother to be with him in New York.
To his dismay, even incapacitated from the stroke, she “pulled a couple of scams on me, and I went ballistic.” At this point, he stops his narrative to me and says, “Hey, I don’t want to give away the whole piece.”
As it turns out, when he was finally able to really talk with his mother and get past her defenses, at which she was so experienced and so adept, he helped her turn her life around. “You think people can’t change. But my mother absolutely changed.”
Through the journey in developing and performing “No Parole,” he says that he’s come to terms with her behavior. “I grew up with her and certainly have a mixed bag of emotions, but I realize that underneath she was an amazing mother. Though these things are socially wrong, she’s my mother. And she was ultimately doing this to provide for us.”
Upon seeing his play, a friend remarked, “You know creative energy and criminal energy are very similar.” With some wistfulness in his voice, he adds, “If my mom had been guided in a different direction, I think she could have become an incredible actress. She could tell us stories, and we’d all cry. For Halloween, she would rat out her hair and terrify all the children in the neighborhood. My mother is definitely the best mother in the world.”
Solo Flights Festival, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Through Sunday, March 27. Visit website for complete programming. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.