Playwright Juan C. Sanchez Tells Miami’s Story, One Motel at a Time

The playwright and his source of inspiration.
The playwright and his source of inspiration. Photo by Pedro Portal, courtesy of Juggerknot Theater Company
It's a Saturday afternoon at the Brickell Metrorail station. The usual weekday rush is absent. Instead, bodies lounge under the elevated tracks on the cool concrete as the October sun beams overhead. Among them sits local playwright Juan C. Sanchez.

Born in Cuba, Sanchez moved to Miami at the innocent age of 5. Although he’s traveled the world and had a few stints living outside the peninsula, he’s a Miamian through and through who currently resides in Little Havana. A full-time writer, Sanchez is the resident playwright for the Juggerknot Theater Company.

Along with the support of the Knight Foundation, Juggerknot is gearing up to stage its second production of its series Miami Motel Stories. In 2017, the company brought a Little Havana motel to life via performers embodying fictional locals from as far back as 1930. This time, they're telling the story of the MiMo District.

So where does Sanchez get his inspiration for the stories he tells? By riding public transportation, of course.

In 2000, he gave up his car for good. He had gotten into a minor accident, and while dealing with the insurance, he resorted to using the bus to get to work. “I had been struggling with writing and finding time, and I just couldn’t finish anything,” he says. “But that first day on that bus, this idea for a new play came, and a week later, I had written 30 pages.”

He figured he’d try his hand at the whole transit thing for a few months, but those months eventually turned into years. “I discovered that something was happening to me from just not being inside of a car... One of the many ways I’m inspired is by being inside a bus, outside the stations, at the bus stops.”
click to enlarge Sanchez getting into the mindset of one of his characters. - PHOTO BY PEDRO PORTAL, COURTESY OF JUGGERKNOT THEATER COMPANY
Sanchez getting into the mindset of one of his characters.
Photo by Pedro Portal, courtesy of Juggerknot Theater Company
Sanchez goes on to describe a brief interaction he had that very morning. As he’s telling this short story about a unique character he met at a bus stop, the writer transforms from storyteller to performer. His hands paint a picture alongside his words. He puffs up his chest to make himself appear larger, and then he quickly folds back into himself.

Those kinds of interactions inspire him, he says. “I look at these people and I’m curious about them, so I then take those characters and I put them in a play,” he adds matter-of-factly. “Watching human behavior is one of the biggest things that inspires me as a playwright, and those moments are accessible to me because I ride public transportation.”

Much like transit is a means of connection, Sanchez sees his Miami Motel Stories project as a way of connecting neighborhoods. “We don’t live in a bubble, and these boundaries that we create are not real. There’s an overlap... part of the mission with Miami Motel Stories is to find ways where we connect the neighborhoods to give us all a sense of greater community... and hopefully that’ll bring us closer to each other in some way.”
click to enlarge Juggerknot Theater Company executive director Tanya Bravo and Sanchez in front of a 1950s bus. - PHOTO BY PEDRO PORTAL, COURTESY OF JUGGERKNOT THEATER COMPANY
Juggerknot Theater Company executive director Tanya Bravo and Sanchez in front of a 1950s bus.
Photo by Pedro Portal, courtesy of Juggerknot Theater Company
He has known the executive director for the Juggerknot Theater Company, Tanya Bravo, for nearly two decades. The theater community in Miami is, after all, small. The pair reconnected in the early 2010s after Bravo was fresh off an immersive theater show in New York City, and Sanchez had just finished writing a play. Paradise Hotel, which was eventually produced at Miami Theater Center in 2014, was set in a fictional hotel and told the history of the building through its guests. After Bravo read it, something clicked within her, and the idea for Miami Motel Stories was solidified.

From that spark, Miami Motel Stories: Little Havana emerged.

“Once Tanya identified an actual hotel on Calle Ocho [for the production], we started the story from scratch," Sanchez says. "We knew we needed to tell the real history of this building and this neighborhood.”

The 2017 production was a success, and after a few months, the Juggerknot crew began searching for the next Miami neighborhood whose story to tell. They settled on the Miami Modern District — "MiMo" for short — taking over the Gold Dust Motel at 7700 Biscayne Blvd. Miami Motel Stories: MiMo opens for a four-week run November 30.

Asked how he, as a Miamian, feels about telling these honest local stories and bringing to life the forgotten histories of these neighborhoods, Sanchez pauses. The prolific writer is at a loss for words. His hand stops in midair, and his eyes glaze over. After a beat, he finds that the only way to answer the question is with a story.

“It’s almost like when someone you know has a child, and you kind of know the child but then you go away for a couple of years. When you come back, the child is 3. And then you go away and come back and they’re 7, and then 10. It’s almost like you know that kid’s history. You’ve witnessed all the sort of moments that create this person," he says.

“It really feels like with the work that I’m doing, I know this place intimately. I’m beginning to see a little more clearly the guts of the city I’m a part of.”

Miami Motel Stories will return in 2019 with productions in North Miami Beach and Overtown. Sanchez will once again pick up his pen and tell these stories.

Miami Motel Stories: MiMo. Opens November 30 and runs Thursdays through Sundays until December 23 at the Gold Dust Motel, 7700 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; Tickets cost $45 to $75.
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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.