He lost his child in a mass shooting. Now he’s telling his story in a solo show at NYC theater festival.


At the beginning of his one-man show, “Guac,” Manuel Oliver, a big, burly man with a bushy grey beard, takes the stage and turns to the audience.

“When you lose a son, what do you do?” he asks.

The question isn’t hypothetical for Oliver, whose son Joaquin, nicknamed “”Guac,” was killed in the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Oliver is performing in New York City’s United Solo Theater Festival from Friday through Sunday. The festival has been running for 16 years at Theatre Row in Midtown and will feature over 50 one-person shows, including “Guac.”

Despite the fact that he has performed his show in theaters across the country, Oliver does not consider himself an actor and had never performed until this show. He made a living as an artist and graphic designer for most of Joaquin’s life. Now, he’s a full-time activist.

Photo by Ron Donofrio / Courtesy of Michael Cotey

“This is not in any way cathartic for me,” Oliver said in an interview from his home in Florida. “This is not in any way something that I do and then I feel better. I feel the same.”

But he said he still feels compelled to tell strangers his story and relive his pain over and over because he wants people to understand the personal consequences of gun violence.

“I’m not an actor, so it’s hard for me,” said Oliver. “I’m glad that somehow Joaquin is giving me that strength.”

“Guac” was presented in New York City in October at United Solo, where audiences named it best production.

The hourlong show recounts Oliver’s journey to Florida from Venezuela with his family, as well as his close relationship with his son.

But much of the show is silly and sweet despite its subject matter. For example, it details how Oliver and Joaquin bonded over their love of movies and rock and roll — particularly Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.”

“He knows how to connect with an audience in a way that most actors have a challenge doing,” said the show’s director Michael Cotey, who is based in Chicago and runs a nonprofit organization that puts on plays by teenagers about gun violence.

Cotey helped shape “Guac,” which has played in a number of cities, including Chicago, Houston and Atlanta.

Cotey said New York City audiences were moved by “Guac” and its story, even though the city has lower rates of gun violence than other places where “Guac” has played.

“With the New York audience, I feel like hearing Manny’s story is about seeing this guy come to this country to experience the American dream and get punished for it,” said Cotey. “That really resonated with our New York audience.”

Manuel Oliver performs in “Guac.”

Photo by Ron Donofrio / Courtesy of Michael Cotey

Cotey said that after the performances in New York last fall, audience members stayed afterward to speak with Manuel Oliver and his wife Patricia, who attends every performance.

Oliver’s storytelling doesn’t pull any punches – as the piece goes on, he unflinchingly describes the moment that a police officer takes him and his wife into a small room and notifies them that Joaquin was among the 17 victims.

“That’s the moment that cuts your life,” Oliver says in the show. “That’s the moment. That voice changes everything.” He then falls to the floor in anguish.

United Solo’s Artistic Director Omar Sangare said he wanted to bring “Guac” back this spring because its theme of gun violence is even more relevant and the show is a call to action. He also echoed the idea that the show is ultimately uplifting despite its subject matter.

“It is not depressing,” said Sangare. “It is motivating. It is not letting us mourn only, but it gives us a light, a purpose and directions to carry the thing called hope.”

Oliver pauses the show at one point so people can take out their cellphones and call a loved one to tell them they are all right and they are loved. It’s something he’ll never get a chance to do again with Joaquin.

And at the end, he asks the audience to celebrate Joaquin by standing up and playing air guitar to “Free Bird.”

“It guarantees [for] me that you’re going to leave the room with a smile,” Oliver explained. “You’re not going to be sad. You’re going to remember Joaquin not as a victim, but as an activist.”

Oliver hopes that after New York audiences see “Guac,” they answer the question he posed at the beginning of the show by becoming activists themselves — perhaps by joining his nonprofit organization ChangeTheRef.org, which aims to fight gun violence through art, education and nonviolent confrontation.

“Guac” runs Friday through Sunday at the United Solo Theatre Festival. Tickets start at around $53.



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