Miami is a city of 1,001 magical nights. It’s a city where waves are made of both water and people: storms and migrations. Where a single hotel in Little Havana can carry with it the weight of pre-Civil Rights segregation, of Cuba’s Mariel boatlift unloading thousands of refugees onto Miami’s shores, of a whole history of dance, rhythm, and disenfranchisement.
When Juggerknot Theater presents “Miami Motel Stories” at the Tower Hotel in Little Havana on Oct. 26, all these resonances will be in play. As the first in a series of site-specific theatrical productions, funded by the Knight Foundation, which the company will mount over a period of three years, the idea is to infiltrate neighborhoods in Miami that are undergoing commercial development. To theatrically bring the past into the process of rebuilding and resurfacing.
The Tower Hotel is on the cusp of change: It’s about to become the first boutique hotel in Little Havana. Standing on a strip of 7th Street between 14th and 15th avenues, the spot is surrounded by stout, stucco efficiency apartments and the bustle of Spanish speakers, some of whose roots were planted in Miami soil years ago, others who have newly arrived and are still floating above the ground, asking themselves: Is this home?
The Barlington Group owns the building now, and is remolding it into the shape of a chic hotel. But within its walls, there are secrets, and history, and ghosts that playwright Juan Sanchez and director Tamilla Woodard are attempting to conjure.
The building has gone through many iterations. It was a YMCA from 1927 through the early ’30s. It later served as the Riverside Hospital. By the ’50s it had taken on a new life as the Tower Apartments, and finally the Tower Hotel. Through all these incarnations, it took in the likes of Billie Holiday, who played at the nearby Ball & Chain club on 8th Street, a staple of the area. It also took in the sick, the hungry, and the transient.
When Woodard held auditions for the piece, she asked each actor about his or her own connection to Little Havana. She asked them to move through the space, and to tell the story of place—of the walls around them and the people they imagined those walls had sheltered. Sanchez took up the baton from there, bringing words to the people that might have lived and breathed there through the decades: two sisters who discover they have opposing political views during the 1968 Republican Convention; a young Jewish man who tries to start a new life in Miami but is homesick for the home and young wife he left behind; a black jazz musician in the 1950s and the white hotel owner who offers him a room for the night.
Once the stories were set, Sanchez and Woodard went back and forth until they came up with tracks that audiences can follow. Audiences will watch performances within the rooms, but these will be intimate moments; each hotel room, and each story, will be presented to just a fistful of people at a time.
Audience members will have the option to select from different types of tickets: The “Check-in” ticket will allow them access to the first floor, a kind of free-form site specific experience where stories will inhabit rooms among which the theatregoers can roam as they please, experiencing everything asynchronously, at his or her own pace, while sipping a cocktail. Another, the “All Access Check-in,” includes the first floor and adds the second floor, which runs on a scripted track. These more sculpted moments have been designed by Sanchez for the viewer to watch, and, to an extent, participate in as voyeurs. Audience members of this kind of immersive, site-specific theatre, after all, are never passive.
One might argue that this kind of theatre is a byproduct of technology. In a world in which people are increasingly attracted to digital three-dimensional spaces and immersive digital reality, it make less and less sense to sit passively in front of a proscenium. Even our screens have changed: They are no longer the single flat screen of the 20th century, but the all-encompassing, portable ones of the 21st. In a roundabout way, this brings us back to the heart of theatre and human experience. Theatre influences technology; technology talks back to theatre.
“The whole thing about immersion,” says Woodard, “is how do you incite people to see again? Theatre is a safe space to just open yourself 20 percent more.”
It’s no surprise that the developers involved in this project, Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla of the Barlington Group, are themselves of Cuban lineage. They are connected to the fabric of the place, and in rebuilding and bringing this corner of Little Havana to light, they do not intend to gentrify without a sense of responsibility. Instead they want to bring the neighborhood’s history out of shadow. “It’s a personal mission,” Fuller says, “to make sure that we are representing the best in our culture.”
Sanchez, one the best playwrights working in South Florida right now, lives just six blocks from the Tower. He was born and bred in Miami, and his connection to the space and place are everywhere in his writing. But though it’s in his bones, he did his research, digging through Miami archives and interviewing residents of the neighborhood. In fact, the whole idea for Miami Motel Stories sprang from an earlier piece Sanchez wrote, Paradise Motel.
It makes sense that such big, inventive, and gutsy theatrical projects are coming out of Miami. This is a place of tight-knit social and historical fabric—a place where, everywhere you turn, there is a thread to pull, a migration to follow, a past to fill in and unravel. In a political climate where migration matters, where our Dreamers are reaching out for promises and catching nightmares, where climate change flattens and flashes across our landscapes, Miami is a place to watch. It is my home town, and I know it well. I know what springs from here: its pain and its utter joy. I know that in every corner there is voice, identity, searching and hiding. In every corner, there is theatre.
Last year the world was introduced to one of our neighborhoods, Liberty City, through Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins’s film, Moonlight (adapted from McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). This year, and for two years to follow, Juggerknot will continue the work of showing us our neighborhoods, opening our doors to the world, and calling out: Come on in. Dale!
Vanessa Garcia is a playwright, novelist, and journalist. Her novel White Light was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2015.
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