Antonio Sacre’s career as a storyteller took off soon after he was tossed out of the Cook County Theatre Department. One of the founding members of the experimental ensemble–they had all met while students at Northwestern University–Sacre appeared in the company’s first show and was at work on the second when he got the bad news.

“The premise of rehearsals at that time was be yourself 100 percent,” he says. “My 100 percent self was as a storyteller, which was not where they were at.” By then the folks in Cook County were making a name for themselves for their witty, nonlinear, intensely visual productions. They had no room for someone caught up in the beauty of the spoken word. “So they kicked me out.”

Sacre was devastated. Theater was the one place where he felt he belonged. When he wasn’t performing, Sacre, who’s half Cuban and half Irish, felt caught between two worlds. His father had been a guerrilla in Castro’s army who, disillusioned with the revolution, fled to the U.S. His mother grew up in Boston in an Irish Catholic family that wore its heritage on its sleeve. “My cousins have shamrock tattoos,” Sacre laughs.

As a preschooler in Maryland, Sacre was bilingual, but he stopped speaking Spanish in elementary school after he moved to Delaware and some kids called him a spic. After that “I definitely considered myself Irish.”

In high school Sacre began to explore his Latino roots. He learned to read and write Spanish, excelled in the Spanish club, and was eventually named Delaware’s Hispanic Youth of the Year. Yet when he went to a dinner to accept his award, he felt out of place. “I showed up in this little hall in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Wilmington I had never been to before, and there was this sea of brown faces and me. Everyone had on these beautiful Latin clothes. You knew they were Latinos. And I had this little corduroy jacket. And I couldn’t do the dancing.”

Sacre discovered theater as a place where he could experiment with different identities. “I thought acting was what I wanted to do with my life.” He majored in theater at Boston College and then received his master’s at Northwestern. Soon after graduating he helped form Cook County.

It was after he was kicked out when he met a teacher at a party who encouraged him to tell stories in the schools because “kids really need a good role model.” Sacre made up brochures and sent them to 500 elementary schools across the country. “I got two jobs, one in September and one in May.”

His first job was a disaster. “I had a ten-minute story, which was a big hit. And the next 30 minutes I basically improvised in front of the kids. Kids started running around, fighting with each other. The principal ended up writing me a letter saying, “Listen, you don’t know your audience. You don’t know what you’re doing.’ I took it as a challenge.”

So for the next few months Sacre went to the branch library in his Logan Square neighborhood and practiced storytelling for free. “I really got a chance to workshop my stories.” Then he set up a free gig in one of the schools in Humboldt Park. “Half the kids spoke very little English and half spoke no Spanish.” He started his story, about Davy Crockett, in English but soon discovered that he was losing the kids who spoke only Spanish. When he began translating the lines into Spanish, the Spanish-speaking kids “were immediately hooked.” To his surprise Sacre also discovered that the English-speaking kids were really getting into hearing the story translated.

Sacre has since made this bilingual approach his trademark. Even when he performs for an audience of mostly English-speaking adults–as he does in the hit late-night show The Hick, the Spic, and the Chick–he sprinkles in Spanish. “Once word got out that I was doing bilingual storytelling, I started getting calls from all over the city and the collar suburbs. . . . I’ve since learned there are few people doing what I do in both Spanish and English.”

Currently he does about 30 shows a month in schools around the country. “And about once a month I do a show where I look out and see all 300 kids and 20 teachers there with me, and all are totally engaged in my story. And it’s an amazing moment.”

The Hick, the Spic, and the Chick runs Fridays and Saturdays at 11 PM through September 7 at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. It also runs from September 5 through 8 at 7 PM at the Around the Coyote festival at the Wicker Park Field House, 1425 N. Damen. Sacre’s recording of his stories, Looking for Papito, is available at record stores or by writing him at P.O. Box 478075, Chicago 60647.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Antonio Sacre by Nathan Mandell.