As Victor Almanzar is preparing for his Broadway debut, he remembers that he didn’t originally get into theater because of scripts or spotlights. “I fell in love with the people more than the art or acting at the time,” he said, recalling a high school improvement program he participated. “It was a safe place for me to hang out and explore different themes… so that was my first gig, acting to create shows based on our lived experiences.”
Almanzar plays Oswaldo in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” a play that earned its author, Stephen Adly Guirgis, a 2015 Pulitzer-prize in drama. The script follows the story of a former NYPD officer, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences,” “Dune”), who lives with his son, Junior, who was recently released from prison. Since it was first performed in 2014, the production has maintained most of its main cast except for the role of Junior, now played by Common, the Emmy-, Oscar- and Tony-winning hip hop the artist behind the 2005 album “Be,” who makes his Broadway debut alongside Almanzar. “First it was Ray Anthony Thomas… then it was Ron Cephas-Jones…and now it’s Common in Broadway production,” he said. “Every Junior we have had has been perfect for that time, so Common coming in—it’s been the same way.”
Though Common is relatively new to the cast (having joined in September), the road to opening night has been a long journey for Almanzar. Out of high school, Almanzar did a stint in the marines before eventually attending college and returning to theater. While studying for his master’s degree at Pace University, Almanzar met Guirgis, the playwright who penned “Between Riverside and Crazy,” make himself available to be part of readings for his scripts. “(Guirgis) was the only playwright that I connected to on a level where I understand the people he was writing about, the world he was writing about,” Almanzar said. “To me those plays were a real representation of what New York or what society was to me at the time.”
Works like “Our Lady of 121 st Street” and “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” helped Almanzar fall in love with theater beyond the collaboration with other actors during his undergrad classes. His readiness to make himself available to Guirgis is how Almanzar ended up reading for Oswaldo and subsequently playing the character in the initial performance of the play at the Linda Gross Theater in 2014. “It was an amazing thing because that was the first time that I’d ever done anything professional as far as getting paid as an actor, and then it goes and wins the Pulitzer Prize for drama,” Almanzar said. “It felt like I was part of something big.” If time is any indication, the moment has been a big one. Almanzar has spent the last six years playing the character of Oswaldo, a friend of Junior’s striving for sobriety. It’s a character he’s gotten to spend time with and help shape.
As the show opens on Broadway, Almanzar hopes that he and his cast mates can bring Guirgis’ script to life in a way that reflects the brilliance he sees in it. “I’m hoping to give people my heart, my soul. I’m hoping people receive the play for what it is and understand the play in a broad way… and understand that people are complicated,” Almanzar said. “If you want something that pulls on all of your heart strings, this is the play.”
This Broadway run of the show is scheduled to start Dec. 19, with performances through Feb. 12 in Hayes Theatre, located at 240 West 44 th St. in New York City. Plays in the final two weeks of that run, from Jan. 31 onward, will be sold tickets for streamed performances.