Photo credit: Lori Sapio
Melissa DuPrey is a multi-talented artist born and raised in Chicago’s Humboldt Park. She earned a double Bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston. Melissa returned to Chicago, where she joined the all-Latina theatre company, Teatro Luna. The proud black Puerto Rican artist has been doing solo and self-produced solo shows for a decade on many theater stages in Chicago, including the Goodman, Court, and Steppenwolf. She has also produced plays with predominantly POC theater organizations.
Her television shows credits include “Empire” (FOX), “The Resident” (FOX), “Chicago P.D.” (NBC), and “The Chi” (Showtime). On the big screen, she has appeared in Relative (2022), Long Division (2022), Cherry (2020), Two in the Bush (2017), The Way We Speak (2014), and Bromance (2014). She was featured in the Emmy-nominated web series Brown Girls.
Currently, she can be seen as DR. SARA ORTIZ on “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC). Ironically it was a show that Melissa loved to watch together with her mom.
“BRUHJAJA is a story of healing through ancestral worship. It’s beautiful. The play will be screened at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park. This play is not traditional; you’re going to see a screening of a filmed theatrical experience. You’re going to be involved; inside the world of the play. We’ve closed that fourth wall. It’s a very hybrid experience between theater and film,” said Melissa.
She chatted with PrideIndex about what she did to keep busy during the covid lockdown, how she landed her role of a lifetime on ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, and what it took to bring the BRUHJAJA experience to life.
PrideIndex (PI): Good afternoon Melissa, it is great to have this conversation with you today. How are you?
Melissa DuPrey (MD) I’m doing great. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me to this conversation. It’s exciting times.
PI: Yes, it is. I initially reached out a couple of years ago when you were in Brown Girls, the web series on OTV. HBO or Showtime picked up the series for development, so we agreed not to talk until you were cleared to do so or had another project. I am happy to say you have a new project, so I want to hear all about it. First off, I want to get a little background information on you. And your journey thus far.
MD: Thank you. Brown Girls was exciting. It went to HBO for development, and they really loved it, but they did not go further with it. So you have to keep working and moving. I am a proud black Puerto Rican artist from Humboldt Park, in Chicago. I have been doing solo and self-produced solo shows for about a decade, been on many theater stages in Chicago, including the Goodman, Court, and Steppenwolf. I have also produced plays with predominantly black and brown theater organizations, especially ones committed to social justice. I’m fortunate to have some TV and film credits along the way. That has led me to be on my second season with Grey’s Anatomy playing Dr. Sara Ortiz. I continue to do theater work centered on black and brown narratives. I’m a content creator, some of the projects that are occurring now are leading me into other avenues. The best thing for a multidisciplinary artist is to keep many plates spinning at once.
PI: Did you always know that someday you would become an actor, performer, or producer?
MD: Absolutely. I was drawn to the arts and performance at an early age, primarily acting, storytelling, and creating a story arc with exciting characters. I continued to do it even while focusing academically on my grades and getting into Pre-med in college. After a few semesters as a Pre-med student, I switched majors, and I earned a double bachelors in performance.
PI: The world is blessed that you chose the performing arts rather than the medical arts. That’s not saying that we don’t need more doctors. We’re blessed to have you as you are and —
MD: (cut’s off) Wow, I appreciate that. That’s a good framework. It’s always lovely to hear people give good feedback. Oh my god, I can’t believe you said that. I’m fulfilling my mission.
PI: You have a recurrent role in Grey’s Anatomy but have a show here in Chicago. Where are you living?
MD: I am working in Los Angeles on Grey’s Anatomy. And I’m also involved in other projects on the East Coast. I just shot a pilot in New York. I am a Chicago-based artist on the Best Coast. It is a sign of success to be active in artistic engagements in all three cities.
PI: In 2020, Covid-19 slowed down life as we knew it. Did things slow down for you?
MD: I took advantage of that time to be with my father. I thought it would only be for two weeks, so I thought it would be an excellent time to go by the beach and chill with my dad, drink rum, and smoke cigars. At the time, I was on a train that had no brakes and desired stillness. I have been fortunate, and I have stayed safe. As an artist, it is essential to continue to create. After a while, I started “50 Blind Dates with Melissa DuPrey,” a reality dating show to combat some of the after-effects of social isolation. I went on a blind date via Zoom at 6 pm that my friends set up. I recorded the shows and turned them into a web series.
In October 2020, I auditioned for Grey’s Anatomy and booked the job in two days. It was unheard of. I didn’t get a callback, I didn’t get a director session, and I didn’t get tested. I sent in a tape, and two days later, I booked the work. That’s also just unheard of. I do believe my mother, as an ancestor, did that work for me. Grey’s Anatomy used to be our favorite show. We used to watch Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice together back to back for years. I’m floored at how the turn of events in my life revolved around loss has also been steeped into so much gain, blessing, and harvest. I feel fortunate that I’ve gained so many opportunities in a time where a lot of work has been removed from people.
PI: If you were asked to join the show permanently, would you do it?
MD: Absolutely, without a doubt.
PI: As I read through your bio, I saw that you are a slasher. Actress slash Queen, slash Beautiful Latina, slash talented. Which one do you prefer, being in front of or behind the camera?
MD: There’s no in front or behind the camera. I think that if you’re truly a slash Queen, you’re doing all of it in any capacity. You are wearing all hats. I enjoy self-producing my work. No one else can write your experience as well as you can. Suppose I was looking for work, and I was looking for a character or a job that would speak truth to power on my existence. In that case, nobody’s going to write that as well as I can. I feel the most empowered as an artist when I’ve written, performed, and executed something from start to finish in the way that truth needed to be heard.
PI: Speaking of creating and writing, you have this event coming up here in Chicago.
MD: I’m so excited about it. BRUHJAJA is a near and dear project to my heart. I’m not in it, and it’s not a solo show, stand-up show, or web series. It’s the first full-length play that I’ve written and workshopped over the years. BRUHJAJA is about destigmatizing African ancestral worship. It’s also about the way that we have modified, evolved, commodified religion and spiritual practices. It’s not too uncommon now to see botánica blow-up. We’re not looking at the botánica, the Black and Latino, mom and pop shops. We’re currently looking at these white or non-POC-owned businesses that have co-opted or Columbused African-based ancestor religion and sold it back to us at an up-sale price. We’re looking at when Beyoncé dropped the Lemonade album. She depicts Oshun walking down the street, taking a bat to a car. These orishas can be embodied with superhuman personified characteristics, but is that doing justice to all the orishas? BRUHJAJA seeks to destigmatize ancestor worship and talk about how we as black and brown people have been stripped of our power, and ancestry, and connection to the spiritual realm, by way of white supremacy, oppression, and the slave trade. The Caribbean people have been blessed by having this kind of ancestry. It runs in my veins when I need to dive deep into spiritual practice; it’s about a relationship with your elders. It’s still pretty stigmatized when we think about witchcraft and being a badass good witch, but we don’t know how much power it entails.
I lost my mother five years ago in September. I had a miscarriage and lost my baby four months prior, with no access to counseling or healing. I was going to die. BRUHJAJA is a story of healing through ancestral worship. It’s beautiful. The play will be screened at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture in Humboldt Park. This play is not traditional; you’re going to see a screening of a filmed theatrical experience. You’re going to be involved; inside the world of the play. We’ve closed that fourth wall. It’s a very hybrid experience between theater and film. I have not seen this done before the way that Urban Theatre Company has produced it. It’s also very musical, with spiritual drumming involved and a multiplicity of representation inside—this 90-minute experience will be beautiful. It’s part of the finale of Destinos-4th Chicago International Latino Theater Festival.
PI: How did you come up with that concept of doing this hybrid?
MD: We had slated BRUHJAJA to premiere in 2020, but we took a year-long break due to the Covid-19 outbreak. We discussed adhering to Covid safety standards and knowing that most black and brown communities did not get vaccinations earlier this year. And still that there’s an uprise in the Delta variant, the Urban Theatre Company and I didn’t feel like that kind of traditional conventional theater experience was safe. We created a world in real-time on film to make sure it would be safe and capture some of its magic.
PI: Do you expect to have more projects like this in the future?
MD: I hope so. I feel that this could be a new wave of how we consider theater performances. There’s nothing that’s going to replace live theater; it has an energetic signature, and you really can feed off of the people in the audience. It’s not just one embodied person; it’s several people’s energy in one space. I’m excited about the possibility that all of this is now acceptable, all their options to have a virtual environment, and you can make hybrid live engagements. I think there’s a world of possibility. And what covid has done was split all of our conventions and standards on its head and said, everything is possible.
PI: Someday down the road, you will be one performance away from having an EGOT. What would that final piece be for you to have that EGOT?
MD: (Laughs) It’s rare that I would win an award for anything. I’ve let go of what awards mean, who deems me relevant, and whose lens has to be utilized to be recognized. I don’t move in those capacities. Even just dreaming of winning an Oscar doesn’t allow me to manifest the kinds of versions of success that I want for myself that have nothing to do with awards. Mainly because they just never seemed equitable to me. I feel like there are systems that make awards pit artists against each other and create this air of competition. I feel like systems make awards pit artists against each other and create this air of competition. That’s just not what I make art for. I think the most important part of what I do. If I erased an EGOT goal from my mind, I would rather have my work be taught in universities. I want my work to be part of an American theatrical canon joining the Diaspora of theatrical representation. I would move toward the educational, not so much the celebration of awards and accolades. That’s cool, but what does it serve beyond ego?
PI: What does the future hold for you?
MD: I want to travel and explore the world; I believe there are many more experiences that I have not had that could inform my future art and solo shows. I’m looking forward to dating, eventually. And I have personal goals that don’t tie into my career.
UrbanTheater will present a virtual run of BRUHJAJA in November. Streaming dates and ticket information are to be announced. For more information, visit urbantheaterchicago.org.