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A Closer Look: We Built Our Homes Near Kingdoms of Animals and Magic

Playwrights’ Corner

On Tuesday, November 5th, The Lark will hold a public reading of Omar Vélez Meléndez's new play We Built Our Homes Near Kingdoms of Animals and Magic, as part of our Playwrights' Week 2019 festival! The story takes place amidst the vast nothingness of the Sunshine State, where Eric doesn't really do anything in regards to his his imposter syndrome as a first-generation Puerto Rican while Kira, his daughter, desperately needs to deepen the relationship with her past.  To give you a closer look at Omar's process, fellow Playwrights' Week writer Diane Exavier interviewed him about his influences, inspirations, and about spirits, ghosts, and Salsa. Check out what they had to say below, then join us for the reading!

DIANE EXAVIER: Omar! I feel like I’m waving to you from across Caribbean waters. Hello, hello! It’s so exciting to encounter your work. What a time I had reading We Built Our Homes Near Kingdoms of Animals and Magic! Speaking of encounters, I was immediately struck by the introductory playwright’s note that includes the warnings (or invitations): “Don’t follow Aristotle. Don’t follow Stanislavski.” What does this step away from convention/“traditional canon” mean to you? Why start there?

OMAR VÉLEZ MELÉNDEZ: Omg, Dianeeeeeeee <3 Thank you for your kind words. Can’t wait to witness your worlds as well!

I guess I’m trying to steer the play away from what it shouldn’t feel like or rather away from what I believe it wouldn’t work as. Even though my plays will always be love letters to the Puerto Rican and send ups of our history and spirit, We Built Our Homes… should feel particularly ridiculous because the colonial ride that leads to a present-day Puerto Rican has been nothing other than ridiculous and unbelievable. Stepping away from convention allows me to turn up the volume on these situations and heighten them to the point of comedy so as to laugh and not cry…we’ve cried enough.

Don’t get me wrong, I hold Ari and Konstantin’s wisdom close to heart. We all should, and We Built Our Homes… has a lot of it for sure. The play, however, has always asked for a different approach in performance to successfully tap into Puerto Rican demons, put ‘em on stage and eradicate them. It crystallizes these odd scenarios on stage to try and get rid of them in the real world.

My note is also a reminder for those who’d wish to work on this play as well as to theater in general: avoid getting bogged down by implemented systems…feel free to explore the radical and unusual. There’s always more truth in that than we think.

And, let’s be honest: it would be a lot more fun this way, right?

DE: I’m a little obsessed with invitations: how we enter things, what we are being asked or offered. Keeping with the playwright’s note, I was totally here for your call for Salsa and how your invitation is, “Y’all better figure this out, but this music has to be on blast if you’re going to do this play.” With that in mind, what does musicality mean to you in your writing?

OVM: It should come as no surprise that I was listening to Salsa all throughout the genesis of this play. Homesickness and desperation had me listening to Frankie Ruiz and La Sonora Ponceña on repeat, so I had to make sure to include them somehow. In the play, Jan explains how they tried to fit the whole island in their bags. Salsa is certainly included with that, whether it’s with a full band or not.

To me, Salsa is also a world builder of sorts. It’s a lot like EDM in the way that the song keeps going and going to the point where it feels like the song becomes the very air you’re breathing, the ground you’re dancing on. On top of that, Salsa is fast and mostly built by the Puerto Rican diaspora. Therefore, Salsa is seeped into the skin of this play somehow.

I believe it also speaks a lot to that step away from convention I explained in the previous question. The dialogue is lightning fast. It needs to find a homesick, desperate rhythm of its own. In a way, the play and the situations these characters go through feel like a song Puerto Ricans have heard before, but can’t quite figure out which one, to the point where the search becomes hasty.

David Mendizábal, our wonderful director, calls it “sticking the landing.” It’s this feeling of tempo and a 1-2-3-4 of sorts in a way where “sticking the landing” means hitting that 1. So, the play becomes its very own Salsa song.

DE: I have this running theory that there are serious differences between spirits and ghosts. It might actually just come down to semantics; but what is life if not a bunch of consequential semantics? One of the differences between spirits and ghosts, for me, actually comes up in your play. While ghosts haunt (and do lots of other things), spirits jump, which is (spoiler alert) how we meet Eric’s father in the rooster and even later how Eric will want to name the spirits of other people (Kira, Luisa, Jan) when he calls on the rooster. What role do spirits and/or ghosts play in your work?

OVM: Ohmygad, this is a gorgeous question…

Parting from your theory (which I love), I believe this play has both ghosts and spirits. See, Eric and Kira’s imposter syndromes are so volatile that they could easily feel ghosts where spirits reside. The spirits of their ancestors, the spirits of their home country and the spirits of their identity are all ghosts to them.

On the other hand, Luisa and Jan have already turned these ghosts into spirits. Once in the diaspora, they’ll have to be at peace with these spirits in order to keep some sort of cultural sanity throughout displacement.

I also believe that, as writers, we’re constantly creeping in and out of the skin of our ancestors. My writing involves a lot of tapping into those spirits I’ve made peace with, as well as confronting the ghosts of my history that are scary to internalize.

Among a lot of things, We Built Our Homes… is also about how we spiritualize and internalize what we once thought to haunt us.

DE: I love thinking about who a writer has on their mind or on their tongue as they are working through their own drafts, material, questions. What other writers, artists, poets, musicians have been on your mind as you’ve worked on this play?

OVM: I’m an avid, almost violent researcher when it comes to my plays, for sure.

Samuel Beckett and René Marqués are always whispering to me from behind. Ana Lydia Vega’s colloquialisms, Rosario Ferré’s magic and Manuel Ramos Otero’s fearlessness are also somewhere in there alongside La India’s vocal chords and La El Gran Combo’s earworms.

Everybody check these names out if you haven’t!

However, this play also gave me the chance to revisit a lot of Puerto Rican nonfiction favorites by historians such as Fernando Picó and Jorge Duany. A lot of simulation/theme park theory by Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco went into this as well.

DE: There is so much deep and desperate talk of building and rebuilding and constructing home in your play—making homes in the shadows of roller coasters, holding down homes in the middle of storms… Omar, how do we make homes when we’re neck deep in empire? How do we do it?!

OVM: Diane I don’t knoooooooooooooow

*sigh…literally, the longest of sighs*

It’s so frustrating. I don’t believe I’ve made a home, at least not really. Even with the privilege of a (non-solicited and forced) USA passport, I’ve never been able to call the USA home with a straight face. This country is systematically designed to let immigrants build a home for it to be tore down in the blink of an eye by the ever looming hand of Imperialism.

However, this empire cannot and will not stop us from creating our corners of home.

As long as there are borders, immigrants will always build their own tiny empires that are reminiscent of home. Me and my partner (also Boricua) constantly catch ourselves saying “aquí” when referencing Puerto Rico from our cozy apartment in Brooklyn. We’ve unconsciously curated our apartment to be the best version of home it can be for us.

Hanging a flag over your bed, telling Alexa to play coquís at night, drinking this coffee and not that coffee, the Snapchat world map (which I’ve used more than actual Snapchat by this point) are all micro-dioramas or micro-simulations that take us back, if just for half a second. My play hugs that notion…hugs it a bit hard maybe.

And these tiny empires, these kingdoms will always be more majestic. They will defeat whatever monsters wait for us in the outside world.