Theater / Film

With Zoetic Stage’s ‘#Graced,’ playwright Vanessa Garcia is soaring

Written By Christine Dolen
May 1, 2023 at 9:06 PM

Kristian Bikic, Sabrín Diehl, Chris Anthony Ferrer and Melissa Almaguer star in the world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s road trip play “#Graced.” (Photo courtesy of Abre Camino Collective.)

These days, playwright Vanessa Garcia’s name is popping up everywhere.

Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables recently announced it would begin its 2023-24 season in November with the Florida premiere of “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” by Garcia and Richard Blanco, the Miamian who read his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.

In June, Miami’s City Theatre will devote its popular Summer Shorts program at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater to eight brand-new short works by a diverse group of playwrights – Joel Castillo, Ariel Cipolla, Chris Anthony Ferrer, Sefanja Richard Galon, Luis Roberto Herrera, Ivan R. Lopez, Phanésia Pharel, Lolita Stewart-White – mentored by Garcia in a two-year project dubbed Homegrown.

Chris Anthony Ferrer and Melissa Almaguer take a break from their road trip in the world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced.” (Photo courtesy of Abre Camino Collective)

In August, “Jenna and the Whale,” a play co-written by Garcia and journalist-author Jake Cline (who were paired creatively by producer Willie Fernandez), will have its world premiere at the Ground Floor Theatre in Austin, Texas.

But first, as anyone who has strolled by the Arsht Center lately and noticed posters touting a play titled “#Graced,” comes a big hometown world premiere for Garcia, the Miami Beach-born daughter of parents who came to South Florida from Cuba as children in the 1960s.

Zoetic Stage’s production of the play aims to take audiences on a strikingly theatrical journey of self-discovery, all within the Carnival Studio Theater space. Previewing May 4 and running May 5-21, “#Graced” makes a cross-country trek, vividly utilizes the thrilling yet treacherous world of social media, and puts together illuminating puzzles for its wandering characters.

This intersection of high-profile projects for Garcia follows her breakthrough success with 2019’s “The Amparo Experience,” a commissioned site-specific immersive play centered on the family behind Havana Club Rum. Directed by Victoria Collado, Garcia’s creative partner in their company the Abre Camino Collective, “Amparo” spoke so powerfully about the Cuban revolution and exile that its extended run in a repurposed home not far from the Arsht Center lasted more than eight months.
Collado, who is codirecting “#Graced” with New York-based Sarah Cameron Hughes, acknowledges that this is an ascendant period in Garcia’s career. But she emphasizes that her friend has spent many years putting in the hard work that has led to this moment.

“She gives me a run for my money when it comes to stamina for work…It’s her time. The world is her oyster,” says Collado. “She’s been at this for over 20 years. People forget that. Nobody sees her get up at 3 a.m. to write so she can turn in a script on time.”

With the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “#Graced” and other projects, playwright Vanessa Garcia is an artist of the moment. (Photo courtesy of Chris Headshots)

Garcia, who turned 44 on the day rehearsals for “#Graced” began, does have a jam-packed life and career just now.

She and her husband Ignacio Crespi are parents to son Taika, 5, and daughter Marina, who turns 3 in mid-May. As a mother, Garcia says, “It’s challenging. I go for all of it. There’s never a dull second. The hardest thing was being away from them for so long in Maine [where “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas” had its February world premiere at Portland Stage].”

In terms of her flourishing career, Garcia is a multidisciplinary artist with a lengthy and impressive list of accomplishments.

She’s a playwright, of course, but also a novelist (her award-winning debut novel “White Light” was named one of National Public Radio’s best books of 2015), a widely published journalist and essayist, a children’s book author (“What the Bread Says”), podcaster (“Never the Empty Nest” with her mother Jackie and sister Nicole), TV writer (for shows including “Sesame Street” and “Caillou”) and visual artist (that’s her painting on the cover of “White Light”).

She has also earned four college degrees, including a master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Miami and a Ph.D. in English with a focus on creative nonfiction from the University of California, Irvine.

But before “Amparo?” Her career as a significant South Florida playwright didn’t look like it was on a fast track to this moment.

Yes, Garcia got readings, workshops and participated in the invaluable Playwright Development Program run by Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affairs. But getting South Florida theaters to produce her plays – the golden ticket for a playwright – seemed largely elusive.

“No one was paying attention or taking risks in theater. But Ricky J. Martinez and Eileen Suarez did when they produced the world premiere of ‘The Cuban Spring’ at New Theatre in 2014,” says Garcia, whose play became a contender for the best new work Carbonell Award.

Working for Bacardi, which now produces Havana Club Rum in Puerto Rico, “was an opening of saying, ‘OK, write your dream script.’ If I had given any theater here the script for ‘The Amparo Experience,’ no way would it have been produced,” she says of the complex multitrack script with scenes that played out simultaneously to different audience groups.

Also notably, it was after a performance that she met poet Blanco in the rum garden at the “Amparo” house, beginning a friendship that over time would lead to their collaboration on “Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas.”

With “#Graced,” Garcia is again making theater in a fresh, thinking-outside-the-box way with text and abundant video.

Melissa Almaguer and Chris Anthony Ferrer hit the road in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced.” (Photo courtesy of Abre Camino Collective)

Since Zoetic Stage was founded in 2010, artistic director Stuart Meltzer has directed every show the company has done, 38 in all. This time, Collado (whom Garcia calls her “ride or die”) and Hughes, who worked with Garcia pre-COVID on what was going to be a showcase version of the play at New York’s WP Theatre Lab, are codirecting.

“They came to me several years ago, but it’s all in the timing,” Meltzer says. “I wanted to expand the scope of Zoetic world premieres with local writers…It gives us the opportunity to have varied new voices involved in the work.”

As for the play itself, Meltzer calls “#Graced” a play of this moment.

“It’s about the evolution of the American Dream and discovering it while traveling through this vast land. It’s not political; it looks at the world from the center. It also asks what does the American Dream mean? We live in a city where so many came for it,” he says. “Vanessa Garcia is in a place where her voice will have ramifications in the theatrical community for years to come…She’s really sharp, really astute.”

Melissa Almaguer plays Catherine in the Zoetic Stage world premiere of “#Graced” at the Arsht Center. (Photo courtesy of Dave McMahan)

Melissa Almaguer, a Cuban-American actor, director, producer and Florida International University alum, has worked at numerous South Florida companies for more than a decade.

She’s making her Zoetic Stage debut in the leading role of Catherine – Cat – a divorced social media influencer who’s making a cross-country trek with her editor and sometime lover Lewis (Chris Anthony Ferrer, actor and Homegrown playwright), whose Argentinian immigrant father’s company Monteverde Moonshine is funding the trip as a brand promotion.

Along the way, they pick up a ready-to-rebel former nun named Rosalie (Dalia Aleman); Blake, a nonbinary teen at the beginning of her gender identity journey (Sabrín Diehl); and meet an Uruguayan sandwich stand owner named Gianni (Kristian Bikic), with whom Cat gets into a major beef. Influencer and media personality Lucy Lopez plays a variety of roles.

“This is a road trip story with a Cuban-American woman in her mid-30s at the center of it. I wouldn’t expect someone like me to be cast in the role,” says Almaguer, though Garcia, Collado and Hughes all sing her praises as an actor whose work is deeply felt and reflective of the character’s complexities.

“When we get to the parts that are about Cuba, I have cried in rehearsal. I credit Vanessa. She writes about it in such a beautiful way. It’s a shared experience, but as kids we didn’t talk about it…I am struck by the poetry of her language and the humanity of her characters. There are layers under layers.”

Dalia Aleman plays a former nun ready for a life change in the world premiere of Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced” at the Arsht Center.

Hughes, an Elevator Repair Service Theater alumna whose focus is on new and devised work (including “collaborative, site-specific and/or genre-expanding projects”), has found both a shared vision and different ways of focusing on the piece in her collaboration with Collado.

“I think of things in a big arc, dramaturgically. Vicky does deep character work and is an incredible choreographer. She brings the amazing perspective of being a Cuban-American from Miami, and I’m bringing the outsider’s eye,” Hughes says.

In taking a hard look at social media’s effect on our lives, “#Graced” raises plenty of questions.

“Some plays say social media is bad. But it is a powerful tool for sharing stories and speaking truth to power. It’s also used for misinformation and misrepresentation in ways big and small,” Hughes says.

“The play asks what it is to be human. Do I also need to be a brand? Do I need to be performing all the time? Vanessa deals with this in a more nuanced way.”

Collado says she has loved the back-and-forth with Hughes, that they share not just similar core values but that they’re having fun bringing “#Graced” to life together. Garcia had a vision of the play premiering at Zoetic, and Collado believes that with this one, the playwright is at the top of her game.

“She’s absolutely theatrical and grounded. The language lives so well inside each character. It’s not just poetry for poetry’s sake,” says Collado, another FIU alumna who moved back home from New York after the success of “Amparo.”

She’s hoping to persuade other theater artists to do the same, hoping they can contribute to Miami’s growth as a place where new work can be launched. Coincidentally, “#Graced” is opening the same weekend as Miami New Drama’s world premiere of “Create Dangerously” by Lileana Blain-Cruz. The former Miamian has based her piece on a 2010 book of essays by celebrated Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat – one of Garcia’s former professors at the University of Miami.

“#Graced” grew from Garcia’s long-ago desire to travel the country discovering what it means to be an American, though she didn’t have the funding to do it. At last, her characters and a succession of audiences are making the trip, thanks to the theatrical magic of a long-gestating world premiere.

WHAT: World premiere of “#Graced” by Vanessa Garcia

WHERE: Zoetic Stage production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami

WHEN: Previews 7:30 p.m. May 4, opens 7:30 p.m. May 5; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 7:30 p.m. May 10, no matinee May 13), through May 21

COST: $55-$60

INFORMATION:  305-949-6722 or arshtcenter.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit source of theater, dance, visual arts, music and performing arts news. 

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