Introduction to Josh Inocéncio’s Ofélio

[print edition page number: 387]
Josh Inocéncio’s one-act play Ofélio draws on Shakespeare’s Hamlet to tell the story of a queer Latino undergraduate who visits a medical clinic after having been sexually assaulted by his instructor, a white male graduate student. Before any dialogue is spoken, the doctor pulls a “little purple flower” from the mouth of Ofélio, the eponymous protagonist, thus affirming his connection to Ophelia, who is often associated with the flowers she wears and distributes. Ofélio reflects the concerns of Inocéncio’s larger body of theatrical work, which addresses the intersections of his queer and ethnic identities.[1] In a 2016 essay titled “Mixing the Culture Pot: Growing Up Gay and Austro-Mexican in Houston,” Inocéncio explains the importance of reclaiming stories from the traditions of his ancestors in Austria and Mexico:

[T]hese cultures and their myths — from countries much older than the United States — also shepherded my sexual orientation as a gay man. While living away from Houston in the swampy Florida flatlands during graduate school, I learned to embrace my sexuality as a cultural core that bound together my ethnicities.[2]

These intersections of ethnicity and sexuality are especially apparent in Ofélio, where Inocéncio calls attention to the sexual violence faced by Shakespeare’s heroine and also addresses the racism and homophobia that threaten the lives of LGBTQIA2+ people of color.

Ofélio premiered at the Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston in 2017 as part of a sexual violence prevention campaign organized by the T.R.U.T.H. Project, whose mission is to “educate and mobilize LGBTQ communities of color and their allies through social arts that promote mental, emotional and sexual [388] health.”[3] Embracing this community-oriented ethos, Inocéncio grounds Ofélio firmly in the experiences of queer communities of color in Houston neighborhoods such as Montrose and the East End, thus demonstrating his commitment to a “more localized theatre that cultivates sustainable living opportunities for homegrown playwrights and other theatre artists.”[4] As he notes, “There’s no reason why Houston and other cities can’t be theatre hubs like NYC or Chicago.”[5]

In the play, Inocéncio transforms Ophelia’s victimization into a story of embattled survivorship. Resisting the whiteness of both mainstream queer politics and Shakespeare performance, Inocéncio takes possession of Hamlet by placing it within the community-oriented frameworks of Chicanx theater and within the tradition of Chicanx healing stories. As Adrianna M. Santos contends, such stories “articulate subjectivities beyond victimization” for survivors of interpersonal violence and structural oppression, and they emphasize “collective struggle and storytelling as radical acts of cultural survival.”[6] Inocéncio participates in this tradition in Ofélio, suggesting that queer people of color can appropriate — and speak back to — Shakespeare in the interests of personal survival and collective liberation, as he brings Mexican frameworks to bear on Ophelia’s story in order to recast queer sexuality in a positive light.

In Ofélio, the protagonist is violated both by the white queer graduate assistant, representative of academic institutions, and by the medical establishment, which is shaped by both whiteness and heteronormativity. By aligning Hamlet and the graduate instructor, Inocéncio forces audiences to reckon with the fact that sexual violence — not rape, but Hamlet’s mistreatment of Ophelia and deeply misogynist diatribes — lies at the heart of a play that is often considered the premier work of Western literature. The doctor’s inability to understand Ofélio’s needs as a queer Latino re-traumatizes him and intensifies his sense of violation. Inocéncio thus critiques the sexual and racial politics of Hamlet while also drawing on the play to imagine new modes of queer Latinx survivorship.

Like many queer and feminist revisions of Ophelia’s story, Inocéncio returns to the moment of Ophelia’s death and reworks Gertrude’s idealized portrait of it.[7] As Gertrude explains to her fellow members of the court: [389]

There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoary leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name
But our cold maids do dead men’s fingers call them.
There on the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.4.165–82)

In Gertrude’s rendering, Ophelia is elegantly framed, objectified, and removed from the patriarchal dynamics that led to her “muddy death,” with her placid “mermaid-like” body surrounded by flowers. Inocéncio’s Ofélio rejects this image of the cleansing death in which the white woman is purified and instead interrogates the sexual and racial politics influencing both Gertrude’s elegy and the many artistic renderings based on it.

Rather than idealizing and restoring the purity of the assault victim, Inocéncio presents Ofélio as intensely embodied and refuses to participate in discourses of purification. Ofélio’s “naked body” is dug “in deep,” mired in mud that is both elemental and metaphoric, reflecting the related degradations of sexual assault and white supremacist heteropatriarchy. Inocéncio insists, however, that Ofélio (and perhaps Ophelia as well) need not be sanitized, disembodied, or whitewashed in order to have value. In contrast to dominant associations of mud with filth, Ofélio draws on Indigenous healing traditions to recast it as a kind of balm, healing him from the “brush fire” of sexual assault:

i coat myself in
i cool myself with
the earth’s
soil. [390]

my armor against the
elements so that he
me anymore.

Ofélio imagines the mud as soothing, providing him with cooling armor against the ravaging fire. Like Ophelia, Ofélio is closely associated with nature; however, he infuses Hamlet’s Western paradigm with a more Mesoamerican understanding of nature as salutary. Channeling the wisdom of curanderismo, Ofélio transforms himself into what Gertrude describes in her speech as “a creature native and endued / Unto that element,” though, in his case, that element is mud, not water. This is not an ethereal, white Ophelia but rather one who is embodied and integrated with the earth, drawing wisdom from Indigenous roots.

The play’s ending gestures toward the arduous journey Ofélio must undertake to heal from sexual assault and navigate a racist, heterosexist world. Ofélio does not imagine that he can return to a virginal purified state or that he can fully escape from trauma and oppression. Instead, he wonders:

maybe if i inhale only
water and mud
i can grow more

maybe the other faggots won’t
choke on the
as easily as me.

Ofélio’s resistance is painful, but it also contains seeds of hope and the potential for rebirth. Ofélio’s flower, his sense of self, is not reducible to Ophelia’s early modern virginity, and he has not been irrevocably “deflowered.” Although mud and water never cease to be suffocating, and may even ultimately kill Ofélio, they are nonetheless generative, potentially facilitating the growth of more flowers and permitting beautiful queer lives to flourish.

— Katherine Gillen, Adrianna M. Santos, and Kathryn Vomero Santos

  1. For an overview of Inocéncio’s work, see Trevor Boffone, “Queering Machismo from Michoacán to Montrose: Purple Eyes by Josh Inocéncio,” Howl Round, July 14, 2016,
  2. Josh Inocéncio, “Mixing the Culture Pot: Growing Up Gay and Austro-Mexican in Houston,” OutSmart Magazine, September 1, 2016,
  3. The T.R.U.T.H Project. Telling Real Unapologetic Truth Through Healing, (T.R.U.T.H.), Inc. Project. Accessed June 16, 2022,
  4. Adam Szymkowicz, “I Interview Playwrights Part 931: Joshua Inocéncio,” April 30, 2017,
  5. Szymkowicz, “I Interview Playwrights Part 931: Joshua Inocéncio.”
  6. Adrianna M. Santos, “Surviving the Alamo, Violence Vengeance, and Women’s Solidarity in Emma Pérez’s Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory,” The Journal of Latina Critical Feminism 2, no. 1 (2019): 38.
  7. For feminist and queer appropriations of Ophelia, see Kaara L. Peterson and Deanne Williams, eds., The Afterlife of Ophelia (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).