Actress, Comedian, and Activist Melissa DuPrey on Telling Dirty Jokes and Connecting to Audiences

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Chicago native and Boricua, Melissa DuPrey is a multi-hyphenate — an actress, stand-up comedian, playwright, and activist — who has performed across genres and states. DuPrey wrote and performed two critically acclaimed one-woman shows: SEXomedy and SUSHI-Frito. Currently, she is appearing in the new web series, Day Drinking (on Chicago sketch channel Awkward Spaceship), and has several other projects in the works. She took a break from filming an indie movie to chat about what it’s like to indulge her creative side and her “can’t stop, won’t stop” mentality.

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Tell us about your character in Day Drinking. We know she’s a hotel manager and student, but have you worked on a backstory for her?

I have, and there are a lot of my own struggles tied into [the character] Georgina. She is a family-oriented Latina working third shift as a hotel manager trying to put herself through law school to make something of her life. I worked full-time while I went to school and maintained a home. I know what it is to work 20 hour days and feel like you have nothing left to give. Day Drinking is about 5 characters who work the third shift, and find the only bar in the area open early enough to drink. There’s a lot of desperation and exhaustion wrapped around the comedy, so I feel like I bring a true sense of what that feels like for my character.

What’s it like juggling so many passions and projects? Which is the most challenging? Do you have a favorite?

Well, without a doubt, my passion is in acting but I find that stand-up is very thrilling and exciting. Connecting with the audience directly and finding the trust with them through shared experiences is really rewarding. I don’t think I’ve ever left a room after I perform comedy without hugging a majority of the people there, or someone telling me, “Thank you” for speaking about things women, particularly Latina women, don’t usually speak about in public. Being an activist is challenging, especially if you’re an artist. For me, I struggle with how politicized my art should be, if what I am representing on stage is standing for a shared truth, and is it my responsibility to bring current issues that I’m passionate about into the work, and does that hinder or help the narrative? I find being an activist in my personal life is what anchors me and keeps me grounded to my own values and beliefs, but it doesn’t limit my work from being political or feminist. I don’t think I can make valuable or meaningful work without it.

As a Latina, have you found it challenging to find acting or writing work? How has being Latina shaped or informed your work?

We are actually in a very exciting time where there is a thirst, a need rather, for diversity in TV, film, and theatre. Not just in front of the camera and on stage, but in writing and producing. If we are ever going to evolve the Latino narrative, we have to be the ones to create it, so I can’t complain about going into auditions and still reading for a “Maria” role. We have to be the ones to re-define our identity and articulate what our presence means in this country. The shift is happening slowly, but it is happening.

With regard to my work, I feel it is inherently Latina because I am, but that doesn’t always mean my work will be Latino-centric in content. I tell stories about being a woman, but layered on that is the fact that my Latinidad shapes the choices I make as a woman. One of the challenges I most often face is how do I not exclusively cater to a Latino audience while telling Latino stories. I’m all about universality; I want these experiences to transcend race, gender, and age. I’m also often asked why I don’t produce shows about my community in my own community. I workshopped SUSHI-frito in Lincoln Park, but it will premiere in Humboldt Park in the spring of 2015. I’m focusing more on content than who the content is for.

In an interview with Gozamos, you joked that, “I have no talent – all I do other than acting is tell dick jokes.” Are you referring to your willingness to talk about things that might make others uncomfortable? How do you find that courage?

One of the most motivating critiques of my work was by Justin Hayford of the Chicago Reader in saying that I freely speak about the unspeakable in a way that feels safe and relieving. I think that sense of freedom came with feeling like I have nothing to lose. I have survived some pretty traumatizing experiences, as well as common and universal experiences. I am blessed to have the ability to translate them through the lens of comedy. At worst, people will think the content is crass or vulgar, but at best, people have felt a sense of relief and connection with the heavier, more personal subjects. The people that need to hear it are grateful and have no hesitancy in telling me, and that keeps me moving forward. When I feel like I’ve gone too far, I just remember that this is MY style, and it’s one of the reasons I have such a loyal following. You can’t buy or fake that kind of connection, and it means the world to me.

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You did your one-woman show, SEXomedy, in New York this past spring. What was that like? As a stand-up, did you conceive of the show as something you’d take on the road?

I always knew SEXomedy would travel. It needs to. It’s empowering to women and “educational” for men. Because I have had such diverse and multi-generational audiences, I knew I could take a chance with it on the road, and sure enough, it has been well-received in New York and hopefully in other cities. SUSHI-frito is community-specific; it is pretty much anchored in Humboldt Park, so I’d like to continue to develop that show locally.

You’ve described SEXomedy and SUSHI-Frito as the first two parts of a trilogy. Have you started thinking about what your Return of the Jedi would be? What does the final part look like?

Ha! I haven’t even finished Empire Strikes Back! I don’t think anything I do is quite as epic, but the first piece was a manifesto of self-love and acceptance. The second is geared towards community and my romantic life in my adulthood. The third I think will definitely have an eye on the future as far as family is concerned. Either way, I always find a way to tie in my roots. However, there’s always a hairy creature and a sacrificed hand in my shows, so I can see how you could draw those parallels.

What was it like making your debut at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in the world premiere of the play Luna Gale earlier this year?

I have never been so spoiled as an actor, truly. I walked in the rehearsal room the first day and was so nervous, but they have rituals of welcoming that really puts you at ease. It was also relieving that the legendary Robert Falls insisted that we all leave our own practices at the door and start from level 0 together. We all worked through the script together, often line by line, with the playwright in the room. Having Rebecca Gillman in the space with us, and watching the chemistry between her and Falls was a real treat and allowed room for a lot discovery within the play. I was so geeked out by everything Goodman that I accidentally clapped for the lead the very first curtain call during previews, and I cried the final curtain call. When I saw my name on the dressing room, I got really emotional. For three months, I was constantly thinking, “Someone fucked up somewhere” but those folks are really professional and make you feel welcome and worthy.

You have roots in Humboldt Park, which is home to AfriCaribe. What is your involvement with the organization.

I have always been proud of my heritage and sought out ways to stay connected to my culture. Moving back to Chicago after I graduated from the University of Houston in Texas allowed me to reconnect in a really deep way through bomba. AFRICARIBE is a non-for-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of Puerto Rican culture through its folkloric music: bomba y plena. There are several amazing groups in the city that are also keeping bomba alive and thriving, and I have been able to perform with a few of them as a musician and dancer. But lately, it has become more of a way of personal healing and escape for me from my other professional pursuits.

Congratulations on being a part of ABC’s New York Talent Showcase! Can you tell us about the audition process, and also what kind of work you hope to do?

Yes, actually! I was invited to meet with the producers from ABC the week I brought SEXomedy to New York. After meeting with them, they invited me to return to audition for their Diversity Showcase where casting directors and executives from L.A. and New York would be able to cast from a select pool of talent for their upcoming pilot season. I was fortunate to make it to the finals, but I couldn’t have done it without the support of my father who paid for me to travel back and forth several times to New York during the 4 month long process. I’m honored to be in the same showcase as Lupita Nyong’o and Gina Rodriguez, and it is definitely a process! It’s a marathon for actors because you spend all day auditioning scenes with a partner and you maybe have 10 minutes at best to prepare the scene. After about 6 or 7 scenes back-to-back for three weeks, your brain tends to get a little fried. But, it’s all worth it for a chance to be a part of such a critically acclaimed network that is at the forefront of diversity on TV with programming such as Modern Family and their new project that I’m looking forward to, Blackish by Anthony Anderson. I’m very excited by the possibilities.