Asked to adapt a classic play, this writer rethought her life
By José Solís
In 2018, as part of a master‘s program in playwriting at Hunter College in Manhattan, Mara Vélez Meléndez was given a life-changing assignment: Adapt a classic play. She chose “John Gabriel Borkman,” a rarely revived late Ibsen play about an ambitious banker, and in her reworking, the characters became members of the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, created in 2016 by the U.S. federal government to resolve the island’s debt crisis.
The resulting work, “Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Board Members,” recently opened at Soho Rep in Manhattan. But when Vélez Meléndez, now 29, embarked on the project, she knew little about the board, or “la junta” as it’s known colloquially in her native Puerto Rico, other than that a large percentage of the population was against its unelected power to oversee the island’s budget.
Working against the clock — “I had one week until the deadline,” she recalled — the playwright hit a wall. No amount of research helped her understand who the board members were or why they were appointed by the Obama administration. The board’s mission — to put the island on a path to sustainable economic growth — has led to fiscal austerity and criticism that it has taken away the island’s sovereignty, effectively creating a modern colonialism.
“Puerto Rico es la isla que se repite (is the repeating island),” Vélez Meléndez said, alluding to Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo and his seminal reflection on the interminable colonial impositions laid upon Caribbean islands since Columbus’ arrival.
“We’re always going back to the same thing,” she added.
Intrigued by the lack of information on the board members, Vélez Meléndez wrote a play that employs what she called a queer lens to investigate how “Puerto Rico was turned into a neoliberal playground.” (The play, a coproduction of Soho Rep and the Sol Project, is running through June 19.)
Every trace of Ibsen disappeared in the process. It’s all Vélez Meléndez now. The play takes place in the office reception of “la junta,” a liminal space that conveys the timeless vacuousness of bureaucratic hellscapes. Lolita (Christine Carmela), a trans woman, arrives with one mission: “to decolonize the island of Puerto Rico.”
Throughout the play, Lolita meets various characters, including a Nuyorican receptionist whose gender identity is unresolved and outlandish versions of board members (all played by Samora la Perdida). They not only fail to take Lolita seriously but try to convince her that they know more about her needs than she does.
The playwright realized in trying to decolonize Puerto Rico, she was also learning how to decolonize gender identity, including her own. When she started writing the play, Vélez Meléndez had not yet begun to transition and identified as “cis, queer, question mark,” believing she didn’t have the right label to give herself.
Growing up in Puerto Rico, she had learned that being queer meant she had to like men, “but I never wanted to be around them,” she says, laughing. She began writing for pleasure while pursuing a double major in journalism and theater at the University of Puerto Rico.
“I wasn’t dating and really didn’t like sports,” she explained, so she found solace and unexpected joy in the works of Beckett and Ionesco.
This in turn led to an interest in modern theater, including works like “An Octoroon” by a future Hunter professor, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. One of her mentors, Puerto Rican playwright and performer Sylvia Bofill, suggested she should write her own plays.
Upon moving to New York City for grad school in 2017, Vélez Meléndez found that gay and transgender people were everywhere.
“There were trans girls on the subway, lesbian couples holding hands in the street. Everything felt like a possibility,” she said. Soon, she added, she found a safe space among fellow theater-makers and new friends who allowed her to experiment with her gender expression in ways that would have seemed forbidden in Puerto Rico. Once she sat down to write, her sister had begun transitioning, and Vélez Meléndez wanted to include a trans character as an homage.
Originally, it wasn’t Lolita who was trans but the receptionist character. Lolita is inspired by real-life Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, who, in 1954, led an attack in the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in the wounding of several members of Congress. Writing scenes in which Lolita talks to the receptionist about decolonization made the playwright feel horrible.
“It’s the TERF-iest I’ve ever been with myself,” she explained, using an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” a term used to describe feminists who are transphobic. “Here I was telling this trans character they have to decolonize themselves when they had done it years ago.”
Dissatisfied with the draft she presented at Hunter, Vélez Meléndez said she was shocked by the encouragement she received from her classmates and professor. Jacobs-Jenkins then introduced her to director David Mendizábal, overseeing the Soho Rep production, who helped the play take a turn by asking, “what if it was Lolita who was trans instead?”
Suddenly, as Vélez Meléndez was able to identify more with her lead character and her pleas, the play took on a life of its own.
“It was a beautiful journey to witness,” Mendizábal said. “The truth of these two characters emerged on the page as she was emerging more and more in real life.” It was around this time that Soho Rep first showed interest in producing the play, but then the pandemic happened.
This forced period of isolation allowed the young playwright to open up her spectrum of presentation. She started wearing more dresses and skirts, and fully shaved her facial hair for the first time since high school, and when she tried on a crop top, she realized she looked like the kind of girls she crushed on.
“Seeing myself in one of those women I was attracted to I knew that I could love myself,” she said.
One day at the post office, when a clerk referred to her as “ma’am,” everything clicked.
“It kept clicking through the play,” she explained, recalling the effect this had on Lolita’s agency as well. Last July, she came out to her partner by saying, “I’m not trying to copy my sister, but I think this is happening.”
“This was a case where the play was just writing itself. I was writing it, writing me, writing itself,” she added.
With the newfound confidence she discovered during her transition, as well as the joy and elation of making her off-Broadway debut, Vélez Meléndez is looking forward to spending her summer working on a batch of new plays.
“I’m going to write about my experience as a trans girl from the diaspora,” she explained. “I’m a political writer whose plays aren’t about politics.”
Although she didn’t uncover much about how the oversight board works, writing “Notes on a Killing” allowed Vélez Meléndez to realize “there are many things we need to decolonize within ourselves before we actually get to start the country we dreamed of.” That in itself feels like the ultimate kind of political awakening, a revolution in the making.