Mass shooting victim’s father takes to the stage to carry his son’s legacy forward

By Christina Campodonico

Manny Oliver fused visual art with personal theater to pack an emotional punch at TOMS HQ

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 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 shares; 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 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, and the current news cycle does not offer much hope or any reprieve from the specter of lone shooters wreaking havoc on innocent lives. When “thoughts and prayers” seem to be the only remedy proffered after a mass shooting, even the most empathetic of sniffles and tears (of which there were many that night) seem like they aren’t enough in the face of grief so devastating and a problem so endemic there seems to be no end in sight. In a nation so deeply divided over the Second Amendment, it’s also difficult to know whether a hardcore NRA supporter would change their views after seeing “Guac,” or even bother attending in the first place.

What is undeniable is the urgency of Oliver’s message and his unflagging commitment to keeping his son’s memory alive. Panting and sweating, only pausing for sips of water, he passionately carries forward the promise of his son’s short life throughout the show.

Near the end of the show, Oliver reveals that his son was already showing an activist streak. About six years before his death, Guac wrote a letter in support of tighter gun controls, and 60 days before his death he tweeted about the tragedy of Sandy Hook and the need for gun reform. (One gets the feeling that if Joaquin had survived, he would have been joining his classmates in organizing the March for Our Lives.) Like a final coda, Oliver proceeds to deposit a handful of long-stemmed sunflowers into the jagged holes in his son’s portrait — a beautiful reminder that even out of the darkest, most tragic depths of the human experience can bloom the seeds of something resembling hope.

Learn more about “Guac: My Son, My Hero” at changetheref.org.

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