Mass shooting victim’s father takes to the stage to carry his son’s legacy forward
Story by Christina Campodonico | Photos courtesy of LJ Public Relations
On Feb. 14, 2018, artist Manny Oliver dropped off his son Joaquin at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School with a bundle of brilliant yellow sunflower poseys that the 17-year-old wanted to give his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day.
He asked Joaquin — affectionately nicknamed “Guac” — to call once he’d delivered the bouquet, but never received that call. Hours later Oliver learned that Guac had been caught in the crosshairs of a former classmate’s violent attack on the school with an AR-15 assault rifle, a casualty of one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
Oliver retells this heartbreaking story in “Guac: My Son, My Hero,” a one-man show the artist-turned-activist premiered in July at the TOMS Shoes headquarters in Del Rey. The highly personal work of theater is an extension of the Oliver family’s nonprofit Change the Ref, which lobbies for gun reform through art activations and aims to take “Guac” on tour through key swing states during the 2020 presidential election.
Part memoir, part TED talk and part ode to his slain son, Oliver developed “Guac” with the help of “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr., “Dear Evan Hansen” songwriter Benj Pasek and co-writer/director James Clements. Throughout the piece, Oliver reminds us that the personal is political. Utilizing home video and family photos, he weaves anecdotes about his son and the Oliver family’s immigrant journey from Venezuela to Florida with his own transformation into an activist following Guac’s murder.
Oliver repeatedly says that he lost his best friend, that his heart was “stolen.” In a moment of impassioned anger, he takes a hammer to his son’s portrait — a prop he’s created for the show that echoes other art pieces he’s done for Change the Ref — and strikes it again and again, evoking the boom and pierce of bullet holes. Later he sprays red paint around his son’s chest, which dribbles like blood from a wound. This raw and heart-wrenching display of rage and vulnerability feels like witnessing a private moment of art therapy, but also like seeing a bold, public display of protest art.
In this way, Oliver also reminds us that the issue of gun violence is far bigger than any one father’s grief. Every 15 minutes during the show a bell rings, which Oliver explains is a symbol for the fact that every 15 minutes someone dies of gun violence in the U.S. That horrendous statistic not only rears its ugly head with every ominous ring, but resonates long after the show when place names like Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton join the tragic roster of communities ravaged by rogue gunmen with deadly missions.
The loss of a child or a loved one to such extreme gun violence is unimaginable for most — even as recent mass shootings have made that seemingly remote possibility somewhat more tangible — but at key moments, Oliver invites audiences to step into his experience of that fateful day.
At one point, he asks audience members to take out their phones and call someone that they love. As you wait for your loved one to pick up, you may begin to feel the anxiety that Oliver felt as he waited for his son to call him and his worry warped into a strange sense of “hope.” At first, you hope “he dropped his phone,” Oliver recounts in another part of the play; then you “hope your kid is injured in a hospital”; then, finally, that “he didn’t suffer … that it was fast.” In short order you figure out that no one should ever have to feel or think like this, especially a parent, and yet in the U.S. such crises persist.
Back to the phone call — with your phone pressed to your ear, you think, “Will they pick up? Are they okay?” And then relief, when the familiar voice finally answers. In this context, I was overwhelmed to hear my mother — a school teacher who’s undergone active shooter lockdown training —say, “hello” back.
Oliver never received such assurance, but he’s dead set on never letting his son’s legacy perish.
Learn more about “Guac: My Son, My Hero” at changetheref.org.