“These walls do talk.”
That's Monica Lynne Herrera, a Hialeah-born, Miami-raised actor who’s performing in Miami Motel Stories, a real-time immersive theater experience opening October 26 at Little Havana’s newly restored 1920 Tower Hotel. The Juggerknot Theater Company production is the first of its kind in Miami, turning hotel rooms into intimate spaces that bring the city's deep-rooted history to life.
Herrera wears two hats for the production: She's also the marketing director, managing public relations initiatives via JLPR, a company founded by her sister JennyLee Molina. JLPR also promotes 305 Cafecito, Miami’s official coffee hour. Earlier this year, as the production was taking shape, Herrera morphed into the role of "305 Cafecito Girl," who hawks Miami’s famous beverage on the first floor of the Tower Hotel, where audiences can roam and interact with performers.
“The first floor is a wide shot, like walking in the streets of Little Havana. It’s the heartbeat,” Herrera says. “305 Cafecito Girl is the neighborhood gossip.”
The second floor is more of a “closeup,” taking audiences back in time to witness the lives of those who stayed at the Tower from the 1930s to the present. Herrera, who spent some time poring over photography archives with playwright Juan C. Sanchez at the museum HistoryMiami, says his lines are steeped in the history of the area. “The process is amazing,” she says. “It’s subtle. He’s not smacking you in the face with facts. It’s all there, but it doesn’t feel like a history lesson.”
When Herrera filled in during rehearsal for an actor who had to drop out of the production, director Tamilla Woodard offered her, along with fellow thespian Carmen Peláez, a different role. The two play Cuban exile sisters in their 30s, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, on the the eve of the 1968 Republican National Convention, which took place at the Miami Beach Convention Center, where Richard Nixon became the presidential nominee. (Actor Marcela Paguaga now plays the role of the 305 Cafecito Girl.)
“We’re on contrasting sides,” Herrera says. “I’m defending reasons why Richard Nixon is going to be good for Miami. We have different views, but we both grieve for Cuba. It’s very parallel to what’s happening in Miami and the U.S. today.
“It’s also very personal to me, to learn the history of where I come from,” she adds.
The scene itself is also personal. Only two audience members at a time can see the duo perform the ten-minute segment. “The audience members can sit on the bed, touch the photographs on the set, immerse themselves in the room,” she says. “There’s no proscenium. They’re like a fly on the wall.”
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Although her lines don’t touch upon the black resistance protests of the 1968 RNC, other scenes in Miami Motel Stories connect to the era of segregation when black performers could stay only in "Black Town" (today’s Overtown). “The original owner of Ball & Chain also owned the Tower Hotel,” she says. “He would illegally host black performers at the hotel, including Billie Holiday, who was a frequent visitor in the '50s. One of the themes in the production is racial tension in Little Havana during the jazz era.”
Herrera, who has studied acting since childhood and has a wide range of experience, from Shakespeare to circus arts, says she’s thrilled to work with a “courageous” cast. “They give a lot in rehearsal — very brave choices for very intense themes in each play.
“Miami Motel Stories is really changing what a play is expected to be,” she adds. “We’re telling stories in the space they were created.”
Miami Motel Stories. Thursday through Sunday, October 26 through November 12, at the Tower Hotel, 1450 SW Seventh St., Miami. Tickets cost $25 to $40 via tickets.completeticketsolutions.com/MMS/Online.