Refuge or Rejection? The ‘1000 Miles’ Experience

Every day that goes by confirms we are now living in a dystopian future projected by sci-fi writers of the past. George Orwell’s iconic 1984 appears to resonate in our year of 2024 the most. The job of the book’s protagonist is to erase and rewrite history – daily. He works for the “Ministry of Truth” where facts are basically made up and no one can escape “Big Brother” surveillance. Everyone’s interior living and outdoor space is surrounded by screens that both see them and constantly broadcast fake news while regularly scheduled rallies rev up emotions for revenge upon the day’s perceived enemy. Sound familiar?

Will we ever learn from history’s mistakes? Doesn’t seem so as our ever-more-divided nation awaits a rematch of 2020’s presidential election that likely wouldn’t pass muster as believable were it pitched for a movie or novel. And once again, topping the divisiveness list, are our feelings toward asylum seekers, protecting our borders from desperate refugees, and whether or not our country still holds compassion for “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.”

With daily news updates on the plight of migrants, it’s no wonder that award-winning Cuban-American playwright Vanessa Garcia is back in action on the topic. She began her play’s journey in 2015/16, and actually hoped its subject matter would become irrelevant. But that was not to be. After several years of workshop readings at various South Florida theater venues that support new work (including one at New City Players [NCP] just two months ago) – she was still busily revising her interactive drama about the plight of refugees who risk everything for a better future till the very last minute. Having attended her most recent reading of 1000 MILES at NCP, I know for a fact that various intrinsic and external changes were added for greater character development but also, most importantly and welcome in these trying times, the ending was rewritten to convey a more salutary message of hope. 

Best of all – what every theatrical piece strives for, but what is most desirable in this one – the world premiere of Garcia’s 1000 Miles, presented by New City Players and Abre Camino Collective, makes every member of the audience actively invested in what happens onstage: mentally, emotionally, even physically. 

Tick Tock Shop owner Peter (Rayner Gabriel) and new hire Solis (Charisma Jolly)
celebrate their sudden business success in the world premiere of 1000 MILES by
Vanessa Garcia, presented by New City Players and Abre Camino Collective at Island
City Stage. Photo by Ryan Arnst.

The drama begins with the shock of being met outside the theater by dangerous-looking (echoes of Darth Vader) caped border guards, who wear lit pendants (the only source of light) and check your credentials for processing (admission). You might be handed a manila envelope with your name, ID number and a bright red REFUGEE stick-on badge that you’re instructed to wear at all times. It’s stamped with your PAROLE time – the amount of time you have left to remain safely within The City’s walls. I started out with 3 days, but was then stamped 8 DAYS LEFT by an intimidating City Guard (Cloudy Nonome) before being allowed to proceed. My designated TL (Threat Level) was 3.

My lucky daughter is handed a packet with a black-and-gold PASSPORT to The City, marked “Born in 1000 Miles Across the Sea. Naturalized Citizen of The City.” Their slogan is “We are each other’s keeper” adding “liberty and justice for all who fall under her mantle or wish to seek her light.”

We both receive a small, lantern-shaped necklace to hang around our necks – like those worn by the guards. But the distinction in treatment is immediate. For example, a “refugee” like myself must use the outside restroom, and my papers are once again scrutinized upon entry, whereas the “naturalized citizen” is allowed instant access to the theater and their private facilities.

The play centers around what appears to be a Muslim refugee (Solis starts out wearing a shimmery headscarf, though no country of origin or religion is named). She’d made the perilous 1000-mile journey across the sea in hopes of obtaining sanctuary in The City. But when we meet her, she has only a few days left to find work before being sent back to the dangerous place from whence she came. 

Solis holds a unique skill as a “watch whisperer,” capable of repairing all manner of broken mechanical clocks and timepieces. (Apparently, many City residents revere this link toward human craftsmanship and their ancestors.) 

Solis is a spunky young lady and we can tell from subsequent dance moves and rare joyous moments, also a sweet, kind, and delightful human being. But because of the trauma of witnessing the death of all her family members (save one older sister who’d escaped to The City many years back and might still be alive) and being raped by her human smugglers, she suffers from severe PTSD. Whenever there’s a bomb blast or the sound of gun fire – we do hear mention of terrorist groups wishing to destroy The City’s peace – she becomes immobilized. When she finally gets a job at an old-fashioned watch repair shop that’s on the verge of going out of business, she is emotionally unable to make outside deliveries. But the store’s owner is happy to do so in her place, for her expertise has instantly revived his business.

Charisma Jolly gives an absolutely mesmerizing performance as young, traumatized but determined refugee Solis whose story lies at the center of the play. About to graduate FIU with a BFA in Theater Performance and BA in Psychology, Jolly personally identifies with her character, and feels her story will especially resonate with immigrants and children of immigrants. It is bound to have a visceral effect on everyone who witnesses the trials and tribulations of her migrant experience. 

Her savior (who gives her a job, a place to stay, friendship and eventually more) is Peter, inheritor and caretaker of his parents’ watch repair service. The Tick Tock Shop is a quaint, clock-filled store with a steampunk vibe. It’s fronted by a grandfather clock that also serves as a hiding place for contraband booze. Local actor and musician Rayner Gabriel evokes just the right amount of grumpiness and compassion as born-and-bred Citizen of The City, Peter. He too bears the cross of having lost both his parents when they idealistically attempted to “tear down that wall” and were shot in the process. He and Solis are two wounded souls who ultimately save one another, bringing joy and hope to their lives.

1000 Miles is also a tale of two sisters who love each other unconditionally, and two brothers who can’t see eye to eye. Busy Cuban-American actor of stage-and-screen Daniel Llaca (who plays Peter’s brother Mark) could be easy to hate as the officious government agent who wishes to tear down their family legacy to make way for extra “safety” surveillance to insure security against “outsiders.” He may appear paranoid, but then we do hear frequent bomb blasts. Yet he’s the one who becomes a ticking time bomb in a desperate yet misguided attempt to save the woman he loves who’d been tasked with raising both him and his younger brother, Peter, when they were kids, after their parents’ death.

But Mark is of age now and professes his love for attractive, “older woman” bar owner Maria, played beautifully by local favorite Arlette del Toro. Maria has a kind heart but also a practical head and whether or not she feels the same way, resolves to keep her love for Mark as an adopted son, and nothing more. She’s also very kind to her bartender, Viola, who’d arrived as a refugee but had been in her employ for over a decade.  

It’s easy to fall in love with bi-lingual star of stage and screen (and popular South Florida thespian) Dayana Morales in her role as Viola, a beautiful, vivacious and efficient bartender who seems at home in The City. Yet it’s illuminating to learn that despite being a naturalized citizen, she feels she’s still seen as an “outsider” and even, at one point, decides to return to her home country where she would be fully accepted. As time passes, she might have forgotten all the dangers and why she’d left in the first place. I’m sure many immigrants will relate with this tendency to romanticize memories of the home they’d left behind. 

Concerned store owner Peter (Rayner Gabriel) discovers refugee Solis (Charisma Jolly)
huddled under her scarf and practically catatonic from PTSD memories brought on by
bomb blasts in The City. Photo by Alison Leaf.

We quickly become fully absorbed in the dramatic plot line of 1000 Miles, as it’s packed with revelations and surprising twists and turns. I’ll leave you to discover these for yourself,  along with deep insights into both sides of the immigration argument – from locals who are afraid of “the other” and wish to preserve their way of life free of outside influence, to those who emigrate and not only create better lives for themselves, but through their wider knowledge of the world and strength of purpose improve everyone they come in contact with, including their surroundings.

Before the play begins, we’re instructed on how to “shine a light” by switching the on/off button on the flip side of our lantern necklace. We can do so when we personally wish to illuminate a point made by one of the actors, though many musical prompts arrive at just the right place to “shine a light” on a particular speaker. I kept wondering if – even subconsciously – those who’d been given passports are more sympathetic to The City’s restrictive immigration policies while those designated as refugees feel more deeply for their plight. Might be an idea for a post-play talkback, perhaps facilitated by cast member/psychology major, Charisma Jolly, who plays Solis. 

Director Elizabeth Price is to be commended for all her creative and professional efforts in nurturing the successful debut of this unique world premiere which she humbly describes as “a leap into the unknown.” I’m thrilled that she fell in love with the play’s characters because, as an audience, we all do, and they stay with us long after the performance. My daughter actually had questions about the life and motives behind Peter and Mark’s parents’ fatal act of defiance which she feels were too briefly noted. She’d love to see a sequel. As would I.

But for now, we can all appreciate the inhabitants of a parallel universe Price describes as having “The sheer hope, the grit, the love, the grief propelling them on, the fire in each of them to keep going, to build their lives, to risk love, and to feed the fire in their own and each other’s souls.”

Playwright Vanessa Garcia reflects on the rise of tyranny around the world and “its insidious effects upon us… that infiltrates our social media and minds … bit by bit, over time, without us even realizing it.” Why we need to listen to each other deeply, to “never skim the story … and must not repost, like or shoot if we do not know the whole story.” Her message will become crystal clear as you watch the play unfold.

1000 Miles is also a visual treat. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such expert stage design craftsmanship without relying on digital projections. I applaud scenic designer Shannon Veguilla for her three-sectioned stage – from all the quaint glamour, stage right, of Peter’s Tick Tock shop, to the cold, barren stacks of refugee cots, center, and a realistic small bar (complete with broken neon sign), stage left. Striking lighting design by Annabel Herrera and sound design by Tyler Johnson Grimes reflect all the terror of unexpected explosions, and the impulsive joy of musical connections. Credit also goes to props and set dressing designer Jameelah Bailey, costume designer Casey Sacco, fight choreographer Rachel Smoker Cox, and scenic painter Jade Mesa.

It’s not every day one gets to attend a provocative and moving, experimental world premiere that fully engages the heart and mind about one of today’s biggest hot-button topics. Happily, there’s no need to drive too many miles for Vanessa Garcia’s 1000 MILES, a co-production of New City Players and Abre Camino Collective. Playing now through March 24 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy, Wilton Manors 33304. Tickets at Or call 954-358-3671.

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