‘I’m Joaquin’s dad’

Father of murdered Parkland student brings live show to MSU’s Latinx Film Festival


How do you keep on being a parent after your son has been murdered?

“Guac: The One-Man Show” is Manuel Oliver’s answer to that and other unthinkable questions.

Oliver’s son, Joaquin, was one of 17 people killed in a 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Joaquin, a Venezuelan American boy who loved basketball, wrote poetry and was nicknamed “Guac” by his family and friends, was 17 years old and finishing his senior year.

Oliver’s live performance combines theater, monologue, loving reminiscence and passionate advocacy for an end to the nation’s epidemic of gun violence.

Before creating “Guac,” Oliver called attention to the nation’s epidemic of gun violence through public murals and other art installations.
Before creating “Guac,” Oliver called attention to the nation’s epidemic of gun violence through public murals and other art installations.

Oliver is a “featured invited guest” at the 2024 Michigan State University Latinx Film Festival. He will present his one-man show 7:30 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 17) at Stage One at Sycamore Creek Eastwood.

The show taps into a powerful tradition that stretches from the funny, angry monologues of Richard Pryor and Spalding Gray all the way back to the tragedies of ancient Greece.

In a key moment, Oliver strikes a life-size portrait of Joaquin four times with a hammer, representing the four bullets that struck his son, and falls to the ground, wearing a paper mask of Joaquin’s face.

But Oliver said the show is about life, not death.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” he said. “It’s Joaquin’s life. I do talk about the way he was murdered, but it’s more about the way he lived. A lot of the time, you’re going to have fun. You’re going to laugh, and that’s important.”

Why does he put himself through the trauma?

“I’m a father,” he said. “I’m Joaquin’s dad. If my son were still alive, I would be doing things for him. I would be supporting him in college to do what I can for him to have a better future. That hasn’t changed. My role in life as a father is still there. I’m just finding new ways of parenting.”

Oliver said doing the show helps him stay connected with Joaquin. He recalls “magic moments” they had together, from serious talks to silly jokes to sharing favorite foods.

Although Oliver had never appeared on stage before doing the show, he found it a “natural” progression in his life as an artist.

After the Parkland shooting, Oliver took up the mantle of “graphic activist,” creating murals and other graphic statements against gun violence. He started getting invitations to address rallies and larger groups, but the limitations frustrated him.

“I was only allowed to speak for five minutes, 10 minutes or so,” he said. “People are talking while I’m speaking. They’re not paying attention.  I thought, ‘What if I have a play? What if I have total control of the audience for an hour or more and get my message to them that way?’ I love theater and movies, and I thought it would be interesting to try that.”

Oliver’s first director, James Clements, helped him frame the story. He later honed the show with artistic advice from “Hamilton” star Leslie Odom Jr. and songwriter-producer Benj Pasek of “Dear Evan Hansen” and “The Greatest Showman.”

“What you’ll see in Lansing is a more condensed script with a more precise order of ideas,” Oliver said. The director now is Michael Cotey, innovative co-founder of Milwaukee’s Youngblood Theatre Co.

Oliver’s school-bus-yellow version of “Non-Violence,” a famous sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reuterswärd at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, will be on display this weekend at Casa de Rosado Galeria and Cultural Center. Oliver and his wife, Patricia, will be at a reception there 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday (Feb. 17).
Oliver’s school-bus-yellow version of “Non-Violence,” a famous sculpture by Karl Fredrik Reuterswärd at the United Nations headquarters in New …

“He’s amazing,” Oliver said. “He’s in charge of organizing this, given the theater vibe. I’m not an actor. I don’t like memorizing a script. I just know it.”

Scott Boehm, founder and director of the MSU Latinx Film Festival, knew that this year’s event would begin two days after the first anniversary of the Feb. 13, 2023, shooting at MSU that left three students dead. He felt that the festival’s growing presence in the community called for meaningful recognition, not just a peremptory nod.

Boehm, a filmmaker and assistant professor of 20th- and 21st-century Spanish culture, is working on a feature-length documentary about the national epidemic of gun violence in the United States, “Our Knotted Gun.”

Three of the film’s principal stories center on MSU-affiliated people.

Marco Díaz-Muñoz, an assistant professor at MSU and a subject of Boehm’s documentary, was wrapping up a two-hour class on Cuban history and culture when the gunman entered his classroom and opened fire, killing two students and injuring several others.

For Boehm, it hit close to home that a colleague was in the line of fire, in a building where he often taught classes.

“We’re in the same department,” Boehm said. “When the shooting happened, I was very affected by it, mostly as the parent of two young children.”

Díaz-Muñoz grew up in Costa Rica, a peaceful country where the standing military was abolished in 1948 and gun possession is strictly regulated. Talking with Díaz-Muñoz, Boehm saw the pervasive gun culture and relaxed gun laws of the United States through fresh eyes.

“His perspective resonated with me,” Boehm said. “I found it compelling, a necessary point of view we don’t often hear.”

One of the films scheduled to be shown at the Latinx Film Festival is “Oscar Arias: Without a Shot Fired,” a documentary on the former Costa Rican president’s quixotic efforts to persuade world leaders to follow his country’s example. Díaz-Muñoz will introduce the film, and Boehm has asked Arias himself to provide a video message to accompany the screening.

Mutual interest in a famous sculpture brought Boehm and Oliver together. The name of Boehm’s film was inspired by “Non-Violence,” also known as the “Knotted Gun,” a giant revolver with its barrel tied in a knot. The sculpture, created by Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd as a tribute to the late John Lennon, now stands next to the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

Boehm got permission to use the image in his film from the Non-Violence Project Foundation, the official custodian of the sculpture. Since then, he has stayed in contact with the organization, which is among the sponsors of MSU’s Latinx Film Festival.

Boehm crossed paths with Oliver in summer 2023, when Oliver and his wife, Patricia, were doing a school-bus tour of more than two dozen school shooting sites. After visiting Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, Oliver stopped at the United Nations to create his own variant of “Knotted Gun.” Boehm and his crew filmed the event in Times Square over the summer.

Oliver’s school-bus-yellow version of “Knotted Gun,” emblazoned with the names of schools where shootings have taken place, will be transported from Times Square to Casa de Rosado Galeria and Cultural Center in Lansing to coincide with the Oliver’s performance of “Guac.” He and his wife will meet informally with festivalgoers 1 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Casa de Rosado.

After the Lansing performance, Oliver goes back on the road to open New York City’s United Solo Theatre Festival in March. He plans to tour the nation this summer and take the show to Europe.

“A lot of people outside the United States don’t understand what’s going on here,” he said. “They cannot comprehend how we are unable to fix this problem. I can see this play at a theater festival in London, generating a lot of comment.”

The statistics on gun violence in America are staggering. Oliver pointed out that since his son was murdered, more than 270,000 people have died from gun violence in the United States.

“It’s part of our daily social environment in the United States,” Oliver said. “I wouldn’t say we’re OK with it, but we don’t seem that concerned. Other nations would be on red alert with one kid being shot in his school.”

But when it comes to persuasive power and emotional impact, it is hard to top a true story that’s told from the heart. Oliver believes “Guac: The One-Man Show” has the potential to seep through the brittle rhetoric and political gridlock in Washington and nurture fresh seeds of action to stop gun violence.

“I’m not going to tell you I’m going to fix this problem, but I’m going to create a lot of awareness,” he said. “That’s my role here. I need to sound the alarm. I need to drive around the country like a circus and bring it to towns and neighborhoods that have been forgotten. It’s incredible how we’ve been ignoring these victims.”

For now, he sees no endgame.

If the show is a new way of parenting, as Oliver described it, the corollary is that you never stop being a parent.

“I think we’re going to do this until our last days, Patricia and myself,” he said. “I don’t have anything better to do than trying to save lives.”

It’s not the life he expected, but he’s taken it up without complaint.

“We’re not the victims here,” he said. “The victim in our case was Joaquin. I believe there was a lot of fear and pain. Every time I think about that … hopefully we’re part of the beginning of the change that will come.”


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

Connect with us