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A Father Stages the Unthinkable: Losing a Son in a School Shooting

Manuel Oliver had arrived at the point of his one-man show where it was time to re-enact the murder of his son, Joaquin, who was one of 17 people killed in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in 2018.

He donned a paper mask of the face of Joaquin, who was a 17-year-old senior when he was killed. He grabbed a hammer and turned to a life-size portrait of Joaquin and methodically banged it four times — once for each bullet that had struck him — creating a jagged hole. Then Oliver crumpled to the ground, as if lifeless.

The searing re-enactment of the shooting was part of “Guac: The One Man Show,” a show about Joaquin that Oliver has been performing around the nation, and that he brought this month to the Theater Row Studio Theater in Manhattan. About 50 people watched as Oliver opened the play with a question: “When you lose a son, what do you do?”

In the show “Guac,” Oliver paints on a life-size portrait of Joaquin.Credit…Ron Donofrio

For Oliver, part of the answer came in the form of 90 minutes in which he tried to sketch the life of Joaquin: a Venezuelan American boy who was known to his friends as Guac and who loved bacon, buttery popcorn, Guns N’ Roses and the Miami Heat. It was a haunting portrait of a life, and of the abruptness with which it was cut short on Valentine’s Day of 2018 — the moment, as Oliver put it, “that cuts your life in two.”

“It makes me feel very connected to my son,” Oliver, 55, said in an interview last week before his latest performance. “I’m a father. I’m Joaquin’s dad. Fathers, that’s what we do. We sit around the table, and we talk about our kids. I want to feel that I also have that right. How am I using that right? Through theater.”

“Guac,” which was co-written by Oliver and James Clements and directed by Michael Cotey, is co-produced by ENOUGH! Plays to End Gun Violence and ChangeTheRef, an anti-gun violence advocacy group founded by Oliver and his wife, Patricia.

Since Joaquin was killed Oliver, a painter, has used art and activism to push for stronger gun regulation. He created a mural about the demand for change that went viral online, unfurled a picture of his son atop a 150-foot-high crane near the White House, traveled to the sites of other school shootings around the country in a retrofitted school bus and filed a claim against the U.S. government in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

A few years ago Oliver, who had never acted before, came up with the idea of creating a play after realizing that theater could be an effective way to raise awareness about gun violence.

“When you’re working in these areas of activism and looking for justice, you do have the chance to go to rallies and talk to people and they give you five to 10 minutes,” he said. “They may or may not be paying attention. There’s always another speaker after you. So I thought what if I have a full 100 percent attention for an hour about Joaquin’s life? How do I make that happen?”

Oliver, center, with his wife, Patricia, and David Hogg, a Parkland survivor, at the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence in Washington in 2022. Credit…Saul Loeb/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The first performance was in July 2019 at the Los Angeles headquarters of Toms Shoes, a company that was sympathetic to Oliver’s cause, and he later performed it in New York, Orlando, New Orleans, Dallas and other cities until the pandemic brought the tour to a halt. His first post-pandemic performance was in Chicago this summer, and he returned to New York on Nov. 3 and Nov. 11 as part of the United Solo Theater Festival. He hopes to perform it again in New York in 2024, and to bring the show to Europe.

The play began with special memories Oliver shared about Joaquin, which he called “magic moments”: He spoke about going to a rock concert together, or about the time a 7-year-old Joaquin accidentally wore his sister’s pants to school.

The audience included several people who have survived a mass shooting or who are activists for stricter gun laws. Diego Pfeiffer, who attended the Saturday performance, is a 23-year-old actor who survived the Parkland shooting. He called the show a form of “loving suffering” for Oliver.

After the moment when he took a hammer to his son’s portrait, Oliver painted on it. On Saturday, with “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd playing, Oliver painted dark blue wings over Joaquin’s shoulders and drew a message in black on his son’s white shirt: “I wish I was here.”

“Hope evolves,” Oliver said in the show, tears in his eyes, recalling the frantic moments he and his wife searched for their son, calling repeatedly with no answer. “I was hoping that you left the phone behind. I was hoping that you dropped the phone. I was hoping you were injured but not that bad. And I ended up hoping that it was not painful but fast.”

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