Miami Beach

‘I’m still Joaquin’s dad’: A Parkland father takes the stage ahead of national tour

For nearly an hour and a half on Friday night, Manuel Oliver will step into his safe zone. It’s a simple black stage with modest lighting, surrounded by a handful of ordinary objects found in most high school classrooms.

The past is too painful to remember, Oliver says. The future is even more so.

Since his son was killed along with 16 others in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in February 2018, using the present to spread his message against gun violence is the only place where his head is clear.

“It’s a way for me to work along with Joaquin. Joaquin has no way to make a statement by himself so he needs me to go ahead and give him a hand,” said Oliver, who has spent the time since his son’s death using every opportunity to talk about his own impact in the aftermath of the Parkland massacre.

On Friday night inside a theater on Lincoln Road in South Beach, Oliver will debut his first play, “GUAC: My Son, My Hero.”

It’s a performance that is as honest as it is openly seeking to push social action on gun reform. The show, debuting at the Colony Theatre, was produced by Tony-winning producer Yael Silver, and directed by James Clements, with advising from Hamilton actor Leslie Odom Jr.

“It’s Manny’s story, it’s all real, it’s all true. He had the story, he and I just sort of shaped it together into a show, but it’s all him,” Clements said. “Their ability to be so giving and go above and beyond in the face of what they have been through, it’s been something really humbling.”

Oliver’s vision for what he calls his “artivism” — activism through artistic expression — has evolved from painting murals of Joaquin’s face in communities around the country to spreading a personal message he has worked to refine ahead of the 2020 elections.

“I think that it’s kind of an out-of-the-box way of activism and it’s very legit. It’s coming from the father of a victim, using my son’s images,” Oliver said in an interview. “So there’s a combination of a lot of tension, and drama and reality in this movement that we have.”

The name of the one-man performance was drawn from Joaquin’s nickname in school. The play combines live painting and projected images and videos, as Oliver takes the audience through the moments of Joaquin’s life and relives some of the headlines of that horrible February day.

“I feel sad that I don’t have my son with me. I feel mad that that happened to my son. I feel very mad that it keeps happening to other kids and I need to be part of a solution, so maybe I can help to stop that from happening,” Oliver said. “This is a social problem and we’re going to fix it in a social way.”

Oliver says the play is not meant to be political. But Oliver, originally from Venezuela, doesn’t shy away from how his fight against gun violence along with his wife Patricia Oliver, has become part of his identity.

In fact, last month, the Olivers were in El Paso for a planned action to celebrate Joaquin’s birthday when a 21-year-old shooter who told police he was targeting “Mexicans” opened fire and killed 22 people at a Walmart in the Texas border city. Oliver said he was asked for a message to families of the victims, who were overwhelmingly Hispanic.

“I think Joaquin sent us to El Paso,” Oliver said. “It’s terrible to be called an ‘expert’ in these tragedies. .... My message was, ‘Go out there today, talk in front of the cameras today, because the cameras will leave after five days and they won’t come back.”

Oliver hopes to bring “GUAC” to theaters around the country, targeting specific swing states and pushing to vote out politicians he says are compromised by their connections to the gun lobby.

Proceeds of the play in Miami Beach will go to the Oliver family’s Change the Ref organization to stop gun violence in the U.S. Tables with March For Our Lives merchandise, and voter registration forms will be outside the theater.

“I believe that once voters understand that this is a problem that can be prevented by electing people who are up to the task, they will be the ones who will ultimately have the power to change it,” Oliver said.

“Joaquin was a very active fighter for justice. ... He’s only 17 years old, so I am responsible for his words and his actions. That’s how we were able to find out that this was a way we could work together.”

If you go

What: “GUAC: My Son, My Hero.”

When: 8 to 10 p.m. Friday

Where: Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Rd. Miami Beach

Tickets: Visit the website for GUAC: My Son, My Hero.

Related stories from Miami Herald