Since leaving Cuba at age 6, Miami playwright Juan C. Sanchez has lived almost his entire life in Little Havana. It’s what he knows and, naturally, his newest work is set on Southwest Eighth Street.
“I thought it would be kind of neat to see like 70 years of history or more sort of just unfold scene by scene,” says Sanchez, whose Paradise Motel premieres Friday at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores. “That’s why I came up with the idea and said, wait a minute. What if we put them all into one place, a motel? What if that motel represents Miami? What if through that motel I can show the evolution of society?”
Sanchez, whose earlier plays Red Tide and Buck Fever were nominated for Carbonell theater awards, says he “went really big” in conceptualizing the seven “playlets” that comprise Paradise Motel, a fictional landmark on Calle Ocho.
“Society! Whoa! How the neighborhood has changed. I’ve been in Miami all my life. I remember as a kid going to this little barber shop on Flagler or Eighth Street. I can’t remember exactly. And I used to ride the little horsey outside ... for a quarter,” recalls Sanchez, now 45. “Then I remembered going there when I was 18 or 19, walking by the area, and the vibe was really different. It was a little scarier. The people were a little more frightening to me. I didn't know if I was older and was more aware of it or if it was because the people had in fact changed. It got grittier, and it got a little darker.”
Sanchez developed Paradise Motel as a member of the Mangrove Creative Collective (MC2). Miami Theater Center is producing the play as part of its SandBox Series, underwritten with a $100,000 Miami Knight Arts Challenge grant provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
“The mission of the collective is to create theater, film and other projects inspired by Miami stories,” says Sanchez, who won his first playwriting competition in 1986 at Miami Jackson Senior High.
“That was my first play. I was a high school kid, 16, 17,” Sanchez says. “It was a competition administered by the Miami Police Department. It was a crime-prevention play. I had written this play about rape prevention. It was told through three different characters. I found out later from my drama teacher that it was actually a little bit like the movie Rashomon. You get different stories about one event from three different people who witnessed it or lived it: the young woman who had been raped, the brother and the boyfriend of the girl. The rapist was not in the script.”
After high school, Sanchez attended Florida State University and New World School of the Arts. He left without a degree.
“I got a scholarship as an actor to go to college. I was in the theater program as an acting major, which is not what I set out to do in the first place. I just didn’t feel that I was ready. What I should have been was in some sort of playwriting program. I just hadn’t found my niche, and it wasn’t until much later that I discovered I could actually study playwriting,” says Sanchez, who is currently studying radio and television production at Miami Dade College.
Sanchez’s plays have been produced in Miami, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York. Paradise Motel takes place over a 60-year period and is among the playwright’s most personal.
Several playlets have gay themes. One is set in August 1992.
“It is the story of two men. ... I wanted to stay with the idea of a closeted, down-low Latin thug, sort of figuring out that sort of attitude that is really pervasive in the Latin community,” says Sanchez, who is gay and single. “It’s the story of a guy trying to seduce another guy on the night of Hurricane Andrew. They met several hours before. They were both in a club, in a bar hanging out. One thing led to another. They’re sort of escaping and avoiding their homes right now. They can’t or don’t want to end up in their own houses, so they end up doing drugs in this motel room.”
Sanchez says that although times have changed the past two decades, “for many Latin men, there is still a stigma associated with homosexuality.”
“There is still some repression that is very strong,” he says. “That is exactly why I wanted that scene to be about drugs. That is usually when it comes out. When people are under the influence of alcohol, when they throw caution to the wind, they let their guard down and become who they really want to be.”