Playwright Juan C. Sanchez on Connecting Neighborhoods

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We here at Juggerknot know the best stories often hide in the most unexpected places. So when Juan C. Sanchez was named as our resident playwright for the 2018-2019 we were also joyfully shocked to learn our groundbreaking writer penned much of his work aboard a Miami Dade public bus. We caught up with Juan and his notepad on a bus headed from downtown to the MiMo District to discuss how public transit became his most productive workspace and how the city’s bus system connects people and neighborhoods literally and figuratively.

Zachary Fagenson October 2018

In 1961 a man by the name of George made a call to the CIA building on Biscayne Boulevard demanding help to blow up Cuban power plants. At the time he was living in the Gold Dust Motel and dating a waitress who worked at the attached Gold Dust Diner. Decades later that diner was taken over by chef Kris Wessel and for a time was one of the city’s best restaurants boasting legendary oyster pie and barbecue shrimp.

Miami is a place where imaginations run wild. It’s in the architecture, in the cars and the police reports jammed with unbelievable situations. But for Juan C. Sanchez imagination is secondary. It’s the truththat warrants elucidation. Seven decades of it will be bursting out of that same motel on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 77th Street when Miami Motel Stories: MIMO opens Nov. 30.

“These are the story of people’s lives, the story of this neighborhood, and everything comes from something real, something true and historical,” Sanchez said as twilight cast an orange-and-purple glow over the motel. “You do all the historical research, you let it all talk to you and by doing that you tap into something universal.”

Sanchez, a Miami native who twice lived along the boulevard, penned the Little Havana edition of Miami Motel Stories and is the Juggerknot Theater Company’s resident playwright for its 2018-2019 season. As he prepares for MiMo stories to be unleashed on Miami he’s also writing scripts for similar performances in North Beach and Overtown.

While each production parachutes audiences into intimate historical representations of some of Miami’s most iconic neighborhoods, Sanchez quickly learned how to do so differs depending on the part of town. It’s a skill that has developed somewhat organically as he’s gone without a car for more than a decade, relying on Miami-Dade Public Transit to ferry him across the city and back. In doing so the bus emerged as a both a wildly productive and wildly inspirational writing studio. “I was on the bus one day and there was nothing to do, so the next day I brought my notepad and before I knew it I had the outline for a play I’d been meaning to do for years,” Sanchez. He often gets so deep into writing on transit that he misses his stop, about four times a month.

“The buses connect our neighborhoods and one of our missions with these motel stories is to help all the neighborhoods of the city find their way into and discover each other,” Sanchez said.

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Miami-Dade County Department of Transportation and Public Works 

In the case of Little Havana these stories were easily told through the people and characters who helped make Calle Ocho iconic. For MiMo, it’s the long, winding history that has taken the neighborhood from a posh tourist destinations to a decrepit, decaying thoroughfare rife with drug addicts and miscreants. To understand it all Sanchez tapped the expertise of HistoryMiami’s resident historian Dr. Paul George who unspooled the boulevard’s unbelievable past.

“It was the grandway into Miami, and when it was completed in 1928 you had a whole new continuous route that was beautiful and lined with royal palm trees,” George said.

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Its first fall came around the end of World War II as residents left for the newly expanding suburbs to the west.

“It became a street of prostitution and these once great motels became places with rooms for rent by the hour,” George said.

It deteriorated further in the 1970s when Interstate 95 opened, siphoning out the last drops of north-south traffic. The Playboy Club on the east side of the boulevard, once a testament to its allure, closed. The Boulevard Theater, which was once a cultural community hub, became an adult movie theater and later a strip club. In 2014, it was raided after police found it doubling as a buffet of prostitution and cocaine. But over the last two decades the area has seen a resurgence as restaurants have reopened and investors poured money into revitalizing the once downtrodden motels. Part of the east side of the boulevard known as Belle Meade that boasts some of the most expensive homes in the city is also driving the renewal, George said.

It seems almost impossible to distill such an abundance of source material into anything meaningful. This is 70 years of history, and Miami history at that. There are the booms and busts, the waves of immigration, and all of the unpredictable, only-in-Florida stories scattered throughout. The key that Sanchez, director Mia Rovegno and artistic director Tanya Bravo found was to create meaningful, digestible itineraries to retell those stories.

“Everything will be crashing through the lens of the 1950s,” Sanchez said. “At one point you could be dragged into the 2000s but a moment later you’re upstairs in the diner and you’re confronted with a heartbroken waitress from 1961.”

The motel will be split into three separate routes giving audiences the ability to curate their own experience, including different walks through the boulevard’s history accessible through three keys: pink, yellow and blue. Each one will unlock a different collection of tales of the years and lives that have passed through the motel since it opened in 1957.

Miami is always changing and remaking itself. Preservationists are constantly fighting, often unsuccessfully to save historic buildings from lumbering stucco behemoths. People and communities who once defined an area are pushed out or leave as their circumstances change. Though things in Miami are always evolving they are in a way like a hamster wheel, spinning furiously but also rooted in place. Miami Motel stories gives them the ability to look around.

“We are part of one huge amazing community and we should be able to go into each other’s neighborhoods and connect on a human level,” Sanchez said. “There’s nothing we can do to stop change, we can’t stop anybody from tearing down any building and putting something up in its place, but what we can do is go into these places and honor what it was and who was here.”

To Purchase Tickets go to: www.MiamiMotelStories.com

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Posted on November 2, 2018 in Miami Motel Stories™

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