Invited to adapt a classic play, this writer has rethought her life

Growing up in Puerto Rico, she learned that being queer meant she had to like men, “but I never wanted to be with them,” she laughs. She began writing for fun while pursuing a double major in journalism and theater at the University of Puerto Rico. “I wasn’t dating and I 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 theatre, including works like “An Octoroon” by his future teacher Hunter Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. One of his mentors, Puerto Rican playwright and performer Sylvia Bofill, suggested that he write his own plays.

Moving to New York for college in 2017, Vélez Meléndez discovered that gay and transgender people were everywhere. “There were trans girls on the subway, lesbian couples holding hands on the street, anything seemed possible,” she said. Soon, she added, she found a safe space among other theater makers and new friends who allowed her to experiment with her gender expression in ways that would have seemed off-limits in Puerto Rico. Once she sat down to write, her sister had started transitioning, and Vélez Meléndez wanted to include a trans character as a tribute.

Originally, it was not Lolita who was trans but the receptionist character. Lolita is inspired by real Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, who in 1954 led an attack on the United States Capitol, which injured several members of Congress. Writing scenes in which Lolita talks to the receptionist about decolonization made the playwright horrible.

“This is the TERF-iest I’ve ever been with myself,” she explained, using an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” a term used to describe transphobic feminists. “Here I was telling this trans character that he needed to decolonize when he did years ago.”

Dissatisfied with the project she presented to Hunter, Vélez Meléndez said she was shocked by the encouragement she received from her classmates and teacher. Jacobs-Jenkins then introduced her to director David Mendizábal, overseeing production at Soho Rep, who helped the play take a turn by asking, “What if it was Lolita who was trans instead?”