Dreaming Is Free: The Awakening of João Santos

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by Steve Desroches

A Google search brought João Santos to Cape Cod. At just 16 years old, he left his native Brazil and moved to the United States, all alone. He was looking for a new life, wanting to follow a dream of life on the stage. Just a teenager, newly legally emancipated from his parents, he searched for high schools in the U.S. with exceptional theater and music programs, and one of the top results was Barnstable High School. He left Brazil powered by that dream, a vision that guided an uncertain journey as the hopes of many immigrants to the United States can be met with the perils of reality, especially for someone so young. But he had no choice. His dream was so strong it became a singular vision.

Santos grew up in Curitiba, a city of almost two million in the south of the country, with a conservative, evangelical Christian family who attended a church where congregants “jumped around and spoke in tongues and all that.” It made the stifling homophobia of Brazil in general that much worse. And when it came to music, a passion of Santos’, it was strictly for church and nowhere else. The pressure only increased when his parents divorced and he was put in charge of caring for his young brothers. But at 15, his mother remarried, and to thank him for his devotion to his family, she sent him on a month-long trip to New York City. Away from home and its constraints he began to find his own voice.

“I saw the Phantom of the Opera sign somewhere, and I thought that looks like something I want to do,” says Santos. “Even though I didn’t speak a word of English, I cried from beginning to end. I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

Thus, within a year he was on his way to Cape Cod to finish high school, where, unbeknownst to him, there was a large Brazilian population mid-Cape, and just up Route 6 was a town that would forever change his life,
even though New York City seemed to be the obvious destination. With grit and ambition, and an excellent public high school with a stellar English as a second language program, Santos worked a variety of jobs to get through his formal education and get back to New York, which he did shortly after graduating at 18. And not long after, he began auditioning and getting gigs in musical theater, first in a show called The Blank Page and then off-Broadway in the immersive 1930s inspired Curiosities. Things were really taking off. And then two other significant moments in his life happened; he received an invitation to Provincetown and he also found out that he was now in the United States illegally.

 While working within the creative community in New York, Santos met writer William Mann, who owns a home in Provincetown with his husband Dr. Tim Huber. Mann, author of biographies like Hello Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand as well as novels like Where the Boys Are, told Santos that he spent winters in Provincetown writing and that this town on the Cape tip was perfect to create as well as a safe haven for artists and LGBTQ people. The couple offered Santos their basement apartment to come check out the town and work on his goals of writing his own songs and shows. It was a game changer.

“After being in Provincetown, New York just didn’t have the same glimmer,” says Santos. “I couldn’t stop thinking about Provincetown.”

Santos boomeranged back to Provincetown, but was overwhelmed by the perilous briar patch that is the American immigration system. He was performing in Provincetown here and there, but surviving on tips and savings, as working without legal status was difficult. Once again, Mann and Huber helped by connecting Santos to the Urban Justice Center, a nonprofit legal service based in New York specifically aimed to promote progressive causes and to assist poor and minority populations. They took his case pro bono.

 It really was the best of times and the worst of times for Santos. He was in love with Provincetown, its culture and creative opportunities, but afraid of the deportation order with a temporary hold on it. He couldn’t settle in and he couldn’t imagine going back to Brazil, a place he had rapidly moved on from. And then, of course, the pandemic hit, making everything more complicated. That summer of 2020, with entertainment moved outdoors, Santos was invited by none other than John Cameron Mitchell, the creative force behind Hedwig and the Angry Inch, for a duet in the Provincetown Follies at the Crown and Anchor. He couldn’t believe it. And things got more astonishing when his phone rang while waiting for the show to begin. He’d won his case. He was granted permanent residency in the United States. He was home. The promises inscribed on the Statue of Liberty were actually realized in Provincetown, and after years of laboring and anxiety, he felt he could finally rest. For the first time in his life Santos was able to lie down and take a nap. He could sleep. And with that stability he could not only dream, but create.

His journey is put to music in the fantasia cabaret Insomnia, an original show telling his story as a queer immigrant. After opening night, he was pulled aside by a young gay Bulgarian man working in town for the summer who said it was the first time he’s felt seen in his whole life. That’s when Santos says he knew taking that leap at 16, and the ones since, was all worth it.

“The whole reason I moved to the United States was to find my own voice,” says Santos. “And with theater I was saying lines written by somebody else. Writing music let me speak for myself. This was the voice I was looking for. It brought me back to that 16-year-old who moved here full of dreams. That brought me to the boy who was so full of dreams he couldn’t sleep. It’s a dream come true for me. It’s art imitating life rather than life imitating art.”

Insomnia with João Santos runs Sundays now through September 11 at the Crown and Anchor, 247 Commercial St., at 7:30 p.m. Tickets ($35/$45) are available at the box office and online at onlyatthecrown.com. For more information call 508.487.1430.