Over late-afternoon drinks at a River North watering hole, Desmin Borges recounts getting sacked on his first day of practice as a backup quarterback for the football team at his Houston high school.
“I got up and I was like, I don’t like being hit. So I didn’t play again after that year,” Borges says. “I’m not much of a contact sport kinda guy.”
Rather ironic for an actor who found a career-making role as Macedonio “Mace” Guerra, the small-time professional wrestler who narrates Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity. Borges’s performance—first in a 2009 coproduction between Teatro Vista (where he’s a company member) and Victory Gardens, then in the show’s Off Broadway transfer—has earned him a Jeff Award in Chicago and nominations for Lortel and Drama League awards in New York.
“We grew up with similar cultural influences; we think similarly, we talk similarly. He just gets exactly what I’m trying to say,” Diaz says on the phone from New York, adding that Borges’s expressive eyes and physicality often wordlessly captured Mace’s mindset. “In rehearsal I’d be like, ‘Stop, cut the line, he’s doing it already.’ He’s just so good at connecting with the audience and making them want to go with him.”
The son of a father from Puerto Rico and a mother of Italian and Greek heritage, Borges spent his early childhood surrounded by relatives in Logan Square, where grandparents, aunts and uncles occupied multiple units of a building owned by his mother’s family. Many of his relatives, he says, are musicians and artists, and Borges found an affinity for entertaining early on.
“I went to an all-Spanish preschool when I was four years old. We had a lip-synch competition, and my group won,” the 27-year-old says. “I was lip-synching ‘La Bamba’ as Ritchie Valens, and I got to perform it on Telemundo on the morning news program with my guitar slung across my chest.”
When he was nine, Borges and his parents moved to Houston, where his mother’s sister lived, so that he and his cousin, both only children, could grow up together; he continued performing in school plays. His father died of cancer when Borges was 15; he says it was then that he decided to take acting seriously. Baseball and basketball were soon joined by dance classes and voice lessons on his list of extracurriculars. He returned to Chicago to attend the Theatre School at DePaul University.
Borges is back at Teatro Vista this week, performing opposite his fellow company member Cheryl Lynn Bruce in Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY. Bruce plays an African-American woman suspicious of new neighbor Borges, a young Mexican man who befriends Bruce’s granddaughter.
In an earlier reading, the grandmother and granddaughter were white. “When you talk about a play about borders or race, it’s always ‘white versus what,’ ” Borges notes. “That still happens in our society, but it’s also brown versus brown, black versus brown, purple versus brown.”
While here, Borges is riding out the end of the lease on his Chicago apartment before returning to New York, where he says Chad Deity has opened up doors for him. “I’ve always had this mentality that if the ball’s rolling, you don’t stop the ball,” he says. “The stuff that I was a part of here was breaking ground for me—helping build confidence, stretching me in ways that maybe I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d gone straight to New York or straight to L.A.”
Borges visits Freedom, NY Thursday 12.