Theater / Film
Expect the Unexpected with Lucky Bruno and his new show ‘Black Popcorn’
Luckner Bruno as Cab Calloway at the Eden Roc Hotel in 2023. His original creation, “Black Popcorn,” is at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Miami for two performances on Saturday, Sept. 16 and Sunday, Sept. 17. (Photo courtesy of Les Annees Folles by French and Famous)
Miami-bred Luckner “Lucky” Bruno is a big man and larger-than-life character who’s always been at his best confounding expectations, usually in dazzling ways. Dancing exuberantly on stilts while extravagantly costumed as Marie Antoinette or Celia Cruz. Moving with a bold, liquid grace startling in such an unabashedly round and substantial figure. Switching effortlessly from belting Cab Calloway tunes in glitzy corporate cabarets to commanding, charismatic actor in Miami Motel Stories to entrancing countless children as teacher and performer.
“Me and physics have a healthy disagreement,” says Bruno. “I fought this for a long time. But it is about falling into the magic of what happens onstage, and you transcend. I found things I could do that other people can’t. I can breakdance on three-foot stilts. I can sing opera on silks 30 feet in the air because I have a huge lung capacity.
“If someone says ‘we want Lucky’ and Lucky’s not available, they can’t say they want someone like Lucky. Cause there’s no one else like him.”
Certainly, no one else could have created “Black Popcorn,” a wild amalgamation of live singing, brash social satire, dance from Afro-Cuban to classical ballet, circus acrobatics, poetic theatrical fantasy, raw comedy and more that is Bruno’s most ambitious project yet. But the show, which runs Saturday, Sept. 16 and Sunday, Sept. 17 at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Liberty City, aims to do much more than entertain and startle.
“Black Popcorn” celebrates Black musical giants like Robert Johnson and Tina Turner and the powerful legacy of Black music. It is also a fierce indictment of racism, the co-optation of Black culture, and a passionate tribute to Black resilience and empowerment at a fraught moment for both in Florida.
“Black people took the trauma of what was done to them and used music to filter that,” says Bruno. “Black stories are not only being denied and devalued, they’re being demonized. Another love of mine is history. And history says when there’s a denial of one people and pushing the triumph of one class over another, the next chapter is horrific.”
Bruno’s dizzying range was on display at a recent “Black Popcorn” rehearsal at the theater. He led several of the nine performers in a song to the Afro-Cuban Santeria deity Yemaya, which shifts to a rapid-fire rap solo, music he composed with Vinny Hamilton. He partnered his little sister Keiana Bruno, 16, in a ballet solo, coaxing and praising her. He directed Mikhael Mendoza, playing Blues legend Robert Johnson facing off with the Devil, played by a smarmily malevolent Zack Marquez on springy jump stilts.
Vanya Allen, an accomplished singer, actress and dancer, belts the gospel-rock Tina Turner classic “Nutbush City Limits” upside down, splayed in a giant hoop wheeled by two other performers.
“I never imagined I’d be doing half the things I’m doing in this production,” Allen says during a break. She spent months in a tiny park with Bruno coaching her in aerial silks, learning to gracefully pretzel her body around long hanging banners. (Allen documented the process on her Instagram, writing in May “Lucky saying, “You can let go.” And me thinking, “Ain’t no damn way.’”)
“It’s a lot of fun once you get past ‘I could break things’,” she says.
Allen’s faith in Bruno stems from 2017, when both performed in the first, Little Havana iteration of the immersive, site-specific theater project Miami Motel Stories, with Allen as Billie Holiday and Bruno as a mystical Afro-Cuban guide leading the audience through a rundown hotel. “He created this magical environment where people instantly believed and trusted him,” Allen says. “It is his sense of command and magic. He tells you something, you’re gonna believe it.”
“I’ve been trying to cast her forever,” says Bruno. “The stars finally aligned and now she’s eating it up. It’s like go mama, go!”
He fills his younger sister Keiana — a dance student at New World School of the Arts — performing solos in “Popcorn,” with the same kind of faith. “I saw him as brave,” she says. “I feel really honored he trusts me enough to put me in a spotlight.”
Bruno, 45, grew up in Miami Shores with a Haitian father and an African-American mother. Overflowing with energy, he and his younger sister Latrice used to put on shows for their parents. He spent years studying Tae Kwon Do, earning a black belt, and sang with a children’s choir, Children of the World, which performed for President Ronald Reagan’s National Prayer Breakfast in 1986. “All of us ethnic children in our ethnic garb,” remembers Bruno, who wore a straw hat and strummed madly on a straw guitar embroidered with the word “Haiti.”
“He was always full of ideas, always wanted to be the leader,” says Latrice Bruno, 43, an actress/dancer/singer and teaching artist, who is also in “Black Popcorn.” “He created a space for himself that gives him the freedom to use everything he’s passionate about.”
Bruno began finding that freedom in high school, getting up before dawn to take a bus to G. Holmes Braddock Senior on the western edge of Miami-Dade, as the county worked to desegregate schools with magnet programs. There he fell in love with the affirmation and liberation of performing. “Growing up chubby, Black, teased – and now being able to be what I want, I was like ‘Yes,’ ” he says. “It was the freedom of being who you are behind the mask. It doesn’t matter how big you are if you can make it intriguing and magical.”
Graduating with a BFA in musical theater at the University of Miami in 1999, he was the first man in his family to complete both high school and college. He added circus skills working with Fantasy Theater Factory (FTF), the longtime children’s theater group presenting “Popcorn,” and Caravan Stage Company, which stages shows on a tall sailing ship, performing on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. He learned clowning, applying the same exacting approach he uses in every aspect of his art. “Comedy timing for clowns is like music,” he says. “You can hear when something is not funny.”
Bruno found a home for his unique mix of talents in the 2000s on Miami Beach with Circ X, a groundbreaking troupe using a provocative mix of cabaret, vaudeville, acrobatics, and surreal costuming for shows at clubs, corporate parties and events. Founded and directed by Diana Lozano, Circ X has been a profitable side gig for multitudes of Miami artists, including choreographer Rosie Herrera and playwright Rudi Goblen. Bruno and Natasha Tsakos, the brilliant multi-media performance artist, were longtime Circ X regulars and partners, continually inventing numbers that played her fierce, elfin presence against his powerful, comic one.
“Anything you gave him he could do – and he works fast,” says Lozano, who plays a cartoonish but viciously racist villain in “Black Popcorn.” Rehearsing, Bruno urged Lozano to make her character more extreme. “The bigger you are, the more grotesque, the funnier it’ll be,” he tells her. They share an instinctive understanding from years of collaboration, as well as a love of using comedy and satire to subvert theatrical and political expectations.
“Lucky really has a talent for making work that’s entertaining but subversive,” says Lozano. “I’m passionate about doing theater that provokes you and makes you think. That’s why I love this piece.”
But Bruno’s performances on the Beach also brought him a bitter experience with racism. In 2012, he was in costume and unloading his props for a regular gig at the Clevelander Hotel on Ocean Drive when someone called police complaining about a scary masked Black man. Bruno recalled how five cops suddenly descended, punching and handcuffing him, as he protested loudly, gathering a crowd before they released him, he says.
The experience gave him what he calls “Miami Beach PTSD,” and led him to stop performing on there for a decade. It also intensified his passion at injustice and racism; subjects on which he comments frequently on social media and in his art.
“As a Black artist with funding, I feel it is beyond paramount to say something,” says Bruno.
Bruno’s enthusiastically unbounded personality – coupled with his natural authority and deep knowledge of theatrical craft – have made him a popular teacher for children’s theater programs for more than 20 years, notably with FTF and Miami Theater Center, and, more recently, at New World School of the Arts and The Mandelstam School.
“Whenever I see the babies at MTC or New World it fills my heart,” says Bruno. “I love the aha moment, when the kid or adult gets it. When you see commonality and connection. When everyone in the room sees everyone else in the room.”
He’s created two children’s shows using entertaining spectacle imbued with serious messages. “The Legend of the Pink Elephant” for MTC in 2016 was inspired by his own experience with bullying and finding his place as an artist. It tells of a bright-colored, outcast baby pachyderm. Magical creatures teach him to value his uniqueness, and he returns to save the herd. “Pink Elephant” played for two runs at MTC with packed houses of Miami-Dade students, traveled to the Atlanta Fringe Festival, and became a children’s book.
In 2022, he followed with “Heroes in My House,” a Black History children’s show featuring figures such as Haitian-American Miami leader Viter Juste and Queer Black disco icon Sylvester. Produced and presented by FTF, “Heroes” played to 15,000 students at schools in Miami-Dade and Florida in 2022, and continues to tour with FTF.
In some ways “Black Popcorn” is an adult version of “Heroes.” With, Bruno explains, “more magic, more sugar. Just talking about history has become political, has caused a divide. So as an artist, you have to say something, because doing what you’ve always done is not possible anymore.”
Not that Bruno has ever made theater the way it’s always been done.
“Do something,” he says, “and be spectacular about it.”
WHAT: Luckner Bruno’s “Black Popcorn”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16 and 2 p.m., Sunday Sept. 17
WHERE: Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW 7th Ave., Miami
INFORMATION: 305-284-8872 or sandrellriverstheater.com
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