Every morning, my curtains rise. I wake up to the light the sun decides to give me that day. Some days are bright and crisp while others, recently, are grey, a little cloudy. I do hope that does not seem glum—it is not, it is just the fall. It is a cool grey. The light is always a bit new and refreshing in those waking moments for me. Then senses of familiarity settle in.
With my head pressed against my darling pillow, without a doubt, there is a second I realize there is a whole day that has started and I am a part of it. I take a breath. I stretch. I release. My hands slowly pry off my comforter that I greatly look forward to seeing later that evening. I enjoy the rest I get. Somehow, I muster the courage to sit up from my horizontal comfort and, suddenly, I raise both my hands to touch my curls. Good morning.
I have always been particularly aware of my hair—we rehearse each morning. For as long as I remember in my youth, my hair was parted on the side and combed over, precisely, with a wooden brush. Every single day. No days off. Not a strand of hair pointing in the wrong direction. By night, our father had my brother and me wearing stocking caps to help hold shape. I can still remember the lines it would leave on my forehead the next day. By morning, my mother dear would take a finger of pomade, rub it in her hands and polish us up for school. I can say, she helped me get ready for the stage.
I never stopped then, as I do now for the split seconds of my mornings, to understand the beginnings of my shape.
It must have been concerning for my parents to see me break the rules in middle school. Life was difficult and I was mad so I spiked every last hair on my head. I cannot remember how the decision came about, but it happened—I made that choice. I would find myself standing before the bathroom mirror with an entire bottle of Mocos de Gorila and it was time to get to work. When I say globs, I mean globs of that sticky paste held every spike in place. They felt like structure and I was addicted to the precision of the process. I remember being a little proud of the work.
It was also under those hot stage lights I noticed the sticky sweat that dripped down from my hair to my neck, to the top of my spine, and down to the small of my back. This was the beginning of a gradual deconstruction of my peaks and valleys.
Some middle school days were more than a struggle. For instance, one dull morning a cold raw hand smacked me square in my face. “Happy Slap a Mexican Day!” they exclaimed as I hit the ground. Me, a half Ecuadorian and half Black boy. I did not know whom they were addressing. What about me came across as clearly Mexican? And why would you raise your hand to a person who might be? I was just waiting for the school day to begin. I picked myself up from the floor. My feelings were hurt, but guess who made it out okay? The spikes. Stiff. Strong. Off I went to drama class.
Funny when I think back to the first real play I performed in drama, a murder mystery. I played this lovely character, Bernard. He was a mime who spoke—truly breaking all of the rules. If you think it could not get any worse this mime sported spiky hair—sharp and crunchy. If that does not paint a picture for you, then, darling, use that imagination. I wonder if my drama teacher let the spikes stay to add to the absurdity of this character. Regardless, I am thankful she let me keep them. For my first play I got to bring a part of me on stage.
It was also under those hot stage lights I noticed the sticky sweat that dripped down from my hair to my neck, to the top of my spine, and down to the small of my back. This was the beginning of a gradual deconstruction of my peaks and valleys. Three years I globbed it on and sweat it off. Three years and then I took on a new part.
High school came rolling on in and, folx, from spikes I went back to the only other crown I had ever worn. The return of the part! It was familiar to me and, honestly, much cheaper to sustain. Let me tell you, all of those bottles and bottles of Mocos were adding up and I am happy I stopped when I did because it probably saved my mother some coin.
Now in high school, when I looked into the mirror I was a little thinner and slightly taller, but still delightfully short. The morning would come and I would fix my hair in a familiar fashion; wetting it slightly, adding a little pomade and combing in my new part. It was similar to my before minus a father and with the occasional “fix your part” from my mother. It became an acquaintance again, tagging and trailing along. I did not want my familiar hair in the way of this newness that I was navigating.
My hair would come with me to my general core classes. People always wanted to touch it. I never did like that. I still don’t, but I’ll take a compliment any day! There was a level of comfort in the way I set my hair in place that morning. If it was settled, then, I believed, there was more room for the rest of me. Whenever it was touched, the structure I last saw in the mirror was at risk. So, I would kindly asked people to not touch my hair. To mess with me, they would.
My part and I would move along through the day excited for the moment finally, to walk down the long inclined ramp to theatre class. There we found our sparkle and our space. There my hair and I learned that our voice was a tool and were introduced to our body as an instrument. There we learned about character and the breath we could give. We won a few awards, a medal here and there, felt a sense of achievement and built some sort of confidence. In high school is when we were introduced to ourselves as developing artists—I knew we had to let it grow.
There was a level of comfort in the way I set my hair in place that morning. If it was settled, then, I believed, there was more room for the rest of me.
I applied for college and before I could register the large-scale decision I was making, I was this Texan boy making way to that sweet little place they call New York. Special thanks to my sister and mother for getting me there—they will be thanked first in the Tony acceptance speech. Suddenly, I was around complete and separate strangers. For once, I was on my own. I was both nervous and thrilled to be there. So, I decided to up my game. My hair helped. You wouldn’t catch me in a room without my hair done, unless it was in my room. Those mornings, I told myself I must look presentable. I told myself that if my hair was done, I was bringing quality in the spaces I stepped into. I carried on the consistencies of my upbringing to the place that would help prepare me for what I believed, and still believe, lies ahead.
As opposed to the introductions high school gave me, college brought about lessons in preparedness. The how to walk into a room, the how to fill the space, the how to support my breath, the how to make an adjustment. Adjustments such as the first large one I made in the first semester of my sophomore year of college. Cast lists went up for department shows and my name, Justin Chevalier, was on the list—offered the part of Tiresias. What an exciting list to see—complete joy and with such a dear, darling director. Rehearsals for our production of Burial at Thebes began.
We strolled along to meetings with the designers about hair and costumes. The designs are marvelous, my costume is divine, and then they show me the concept for my hair. “Are you comfortable cutting your hair?” I was asked. I hope my eyebrows were not lifted above my head into space in that moment as I looked down at these images of humans with buzz cuts, not a single part in sight. I never quite could understand how confronting that could feel until I was faced with it. What was I to say if for some reason I did not feel comfortable with such a change? Does that degrade me as an actor? Now I believed myself to be a trooper—it was a first—so I gave a quivering, yes, and.
When I had my appointment with the mighty kind hairstylist, I invited a few dear friends—comfort to balance my discomfort. Never, oh, never did I ever have to buzz my hair. I never even thought about it. And where would I place my part? Can I comb it? Will I look okay? Is there someone who has done this before? As the story goes with millennials, there were phones with cameras up and ready to capture this pivotal moment. I never felt more present in my life. The stylists were soothing as could be and had quite a good sense of my unease. I told them it was a first. They told me it would look great, turned the clippers on, and buzzed right in. That was the time I cut all my hair off. I cried.
My tears were a release of something I knew so well. I knew it would all grow back—that it would return at some point, sure. But, I had never let go, at that time, of something so close to me. I looked in the mirror at the salon and I did not see me, rather, I saw this new me – an actor ready to play a part. It gave me pause. I then realized I had to walk out of that salon, down the stairs, and into the public that saw me in a different way, not an hour ago.
For my first department show, my new hair helped me fill the space. It was chilling. I will tell you that much. I never had to buzz my hair again, and I learned to work it while it slowly grew back. If that time ever finds me again, I will be more prepared.
The rest of college my side part stuck around. It was adjusted here and there, with clippers cleaning up the sides and edges, for the rest of my time—classic looks for a few classic shows. It reminds me of a funny hair situation in The Cherry Orchard as I played Lopahkin. A beard. Ah! I could not grow one at that time, we can just start there. So each performance night I glued, to my face tiny strands of hair the same color as my own. As it set it became rock solid and despite the delicious period clothing we wore, it was the beard that shaped my character. This rigidness paired with gravitas. That hair gave me strength and it wasn’t even my own. It makes me think of women. Can you imagine, for example, the strength a woman feels when she is laced up and raring to go? Honey!
The stylists were soothing as could be and had quite a good sense of my unease. I told them it was a first. They told me it would look great, turned the clippers on, and buzzed right in. That was the time I cut all my hair off. I cried.
By the time I was a senior, I was stunned by the passage of time. There was a specific type of confidence and resilience I was able to build alongside my educators and my peers. I learned about my absolute passion for movement, and classical text, and art, and every present moment I could capture. Oh, and silence. I learned what hard work felt like in my body. I learned a few of my limits too. I learned what it was like to lose friends, make them, and what it was like to end a relationship. I thought I learned so much then, and I did, and then I entered the “real world.” Me and my side part.
As much as our elders tell us what it’s going to be like as young adults, I believe, that you cannot grasp it until you live it. And even then, it is completely specific to you. I graduated college with a dream and a degree, with not much money, and tons of student loan debt. I, like many, had to put money down on an apartment rental and purchase all of those “firsts”. Then came the side hustles. Those sip and paint and “wine, water, candy” at the theatre jobs. Followed by that first month of rent bill and utilities due. Followed by those hefty student loan payments. The groceries. The toiletries. The occasional, or the frequent, pints of ice cream. All of the added responsibilities. To all of the dream seeking, hard-working hustlers out there, a tip of the hat to you. That was just my first glimpse as an artist in adulthood.
Something got placed on the backburner though. Strange enough, that something was my haircuts—they added up! Growing up my mother brought us to the local salon near my abuelita’s house. I remember the ladies were so kind and sweet and only spoke Spanish. I did not learn Spanish well until my late teens so until then my mother would communicate how to cut our hair. In college, I would describe what it should look like or show pictures of previous cuts. I could have done better paying much more attention.
Flash forward to fresh out of college and a minimal understanding of what I really wanted done to my hair. It began to agitate me. I would walk into my local barbershop in Hamilton Heights and I left different every time. There was nothing more frustrating than walking out with that feeling of my hair being wrong. It wasn’t on the barbers, but on my own indecisiveness and lack of commitment to changing my short wavy hair. I had no other clue on how to cut it. These different forms appeared incomplete, like a character that was never fully sought out. So I decided to save that twenty dollars every three weeks.
Against my mother’s will, I said, “let it grow.” I took that decision with me to my auditions. After a few open calls and a few inches longer, I booked a show where I was cast as Harry Houdini. My hair was gaining length on top—it worked perfectly. I parted these longer thick waves down the middle of my head and gelled the remaining curls off to the sides. The resemblance was quite right. I took that as a positive affirmation and I grounded my choice. Many, many months and a few shows later, I am sitting on the beach in PTown, by myself running lines for my Tennessee Williams Theatre Festival debut with the wind blowing through my curls. I was feeling natural in rehearsals, in performances, in walks through town. My friend, a lovely South Afrcian director of both shows I was in, told me to keep the curls but distinguish the styles in the two different pieces. So I did, and that worked too! That felt natural, too!
I learned what hard work felt like in my body. I learned a few of my limits too. I learned what it was like to lose friends, make them, and what it was like to end a relationship. I thought I learned so much then, and I did, and then I entered the “real world.” Me and my side part.
I returned to NYC in the fall to work on a new musical. The character was a sweet young boy. Cheery, bright and uplifting like the new ringlets that began to form and dangle from my head. Some intertwined, some resting atop each other. They bounced across the stage with me and that felt natural, too.
On a day out to celebrate a goal we met at work, the producer that runs my survival job looks at me and says that my curls are becoming a look and that I should consider getting new headshots.
I think I need new headshots.
Some mornings there’s a soft grey light that wakes me—it shines on my hair. I sit up from my horizontal comfort and, suddenly, I raise both my hands to touch my curls. They’re everywhere—I can tell. They don’t look like what you have just seen. These have not made their appearance yet. I stand. I always make way to the mirror to see what could be nesting or exploding out of my head. I can not seem to help it. I fluff out my curls so they at least hold some shape, usually a nice and large, frizzy ‘fro. I can spend some time playing with my hair. I love my hair like that, but I have yet to wear it out. I will someday.
When I look in the mirror, these days, I see all of my hair and I adore it. It needs a trim, sure, but it is my crowning comfort. I see myself and I feel thankful for what I have, and I think of those who are struggling both alike and differently to find themselves. Those who look in the mirror and think that something is not quite right. Those that have to wake up earlier to do their hair to make it to that audition. Those that have to work hard to get paid to go get their hair. Those that have to stand up for themselves in the workplace to protect their hair. Those that need help with their hair. Those that do not know how to do their hair. Those that have destroyed their hair. Those that have lost their hair.
I think of all the people standing, looking into their mirrors, noticing just how brilliant it all is.