Fa­ther’s play fights gun vi­o­lence

Trib­ute to son killed in Park­land shoot­ing comes to Or­lando

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Matthew J. Palm

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.”

CHANGE THE REF

Manuel Oliver paints dur­ing per­for­mances of “Guac: My Son, My Hero,” a one-man show that aims to com­bat gun vi­o­lence.

CHANGE THE REF

Manuel Oliver’s play, “Guac: My Son, My Hero,” sets out to com­bat gun vi­o­lence, while hon­or­ing Oliver’s son, Joaquin.

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