Father’s play fights gun violence
Tribute to son killed in Parkland shooting comes to Orlando
The 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland made a playwright and performer out of Manuel Oliver.
It wasn’t a role he wanted. But after his son, Joaquin, was killed in the attack that left 17 dead, Oliver and his wife, Patricia, knew they had to do something.
“We don’t have many options as parents,” he said. “We decided that art might be a good response, an authentic response.”
It was a field Oliver was familiar with; he was a painter and a
creative director. But theater was something else.
“There’s a lot of things you have no idea you’re capable of doing,” Oliver said.
The result of Oliver’s determination to keep his son’s spirit alive — and change things for the better — is the play “Guac: My Son, My Hero.” The one-man performance piece, which aims to combat gun violence, comes to Orlando’s House of Blues on Sunday.
“Guac” was Joaquin’s nickname. The Olivers emigrated from Venezuela in 2002 — seeking a safer life — and settled in South Florida. Their world was shattered on Feb. 14, 2018, when a lone gunman committed the deadliest high-school shooting in U.S. history.
“What I remember is being very angry, sad and confused,” Oliver said. “You have no direction, you have no idea what to do next.”
Despite their grief, the Olivers soon settled on what to do next: They founded Change the Ref, an advocacy organization that fights against gun violence and the influence of the National Rifle Association on political leaders. They attended rallies. Oliver painted anti-violence murals that received national attention.
“There was no time to waste to start becoming part of the solution,” Oliver said.
Along with documentary films and art exhibitions, a play presented new opportunities to bring his message to more people.
“What if we bring this on stage?” he recalled thinking. “We would have time to make our points. Maybe we could make a difference.”
It’s not uncommon for artists to channel personal stories into works of theater, often in hopes of educating others or instigating change. Locally, Valencia College has produced original plays about the Trayvon Martin shooting and what it means to be transgender. Each year, the Orlando Fringe Festival features a multitude of first-person
“I have my son with me all the time. This gives me a chance to still be a father.” Manuel Oliver, on his play “Guac: My Son, My Hero.”
storytelling shows, about everything from living with alcoholism to coming out to beating cancer.
Oliver knew he didn’t have the background to create a show, so he sought out those who did. Among those who got involved: theater writer-director James Clements; “Hamilton” and “Smash” actor Leslie Odom Jr.; “Once on This Island” producer Yael Silver; and Benj Pasek, songwriter for Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen,” as well as the movies “La La Land” and “The Greatest Showman.”
“Guac: My Son, My Hero” mixes elements of traditional solo theater with live painting and video. It features music from the Ramones
to Jay-Z. There are reflective moments and serious moments: “Its most impactful scene is unquestionably the one in which Oliver, wearing a mask of Joaquin’s face, re-enacts the Parkland shooting through the eyes of his son,” wrote Richard Luscomb for Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
“This not ‘The Lion King.’ This is not ‘Annie,’” Oliver said. “This is real life.”
“Guac: My Son, My Hero” is purposefully politically nonpartisan.
“This is not red or blue. I don’t think a killer asks before shooting, ‘Are you a Democrat or a Republican?’” Oliver said. “This is political action by inviting people to vote.”
On its tour, the show has played in cities affected by gun violence, such as Orlando, as well as in regions generally thought of as more gun-friendly — in Kentucky and Texas.
Audiences respond to the story, wherever he performs, because they can sense the realness, Oliver said.
“When you’re an actor, which I’m not, you have to memorize a lot of words to create an emotional situation,” he said. “This is just my life.”
And the show serves one other important function: Its many lighter moments let the audience meet Joaquin.
“Joaquin was a very funny guy, and the play tries to emulate that: Making people feel happy and involved,” Oliver said. “I have my son with me all the time. This gives me a chance to still be a father.”
Manuel Oliver paints during performances of “Guac: My Son, My Hero,” a one-man show that aims to combat gun violence.
Manuel Oliver’s play, “Guac: My Son, My Hero,” sets out to combat gun violence, while honoring Oliver’s son, Joaquin.