Melissa DuPrey is an actor, comedian, producer, musician, and playwright with roots in Chicago and Puerto Rico. Critically acclaimed for her work in theater — including five full-length solo plays that highlight the intersections of diasporic Blackness, queerness, healing, liberation, and sexuality — Duprey now plays the Boriqua BFF opposite Natasha Rothwell in Hulu’s upcoming series “How To Die Alone.”
POPSUGAR caught up with her to discuss her latest character, Tamika, as well as Afro-Latina representation in Hollywood. As she puts it: “The way we tell stories as Latina people, the way that we hold space, the way that we fuse culture and cooking and music, that’s our storytelling.”
POPSUGAR: How do you define your identity?
Melissa DuPrey: I’m Puerto Rican and I’m Black. I was raised by two very loving Puerto Rican parents with deep roots in both Puerto Rico and Chicago. Humboldt Park is where I developed my identity, where I developed my voice, and where I’ve cultivated community for a very long time. I don’t think people know enough about the fabric of our culture as Puerto Ricans in Chicago. We do salsa and Motown. We’re very embedded in the Midwest culture of just being down-to-earth, and we have a very specific blueprint.
“We will continue to exist whether or not you make room for us.”
PS: How much were you exposed to Puerto Rican culture while you were raised in Chicago?
MD: My parents never spoke Spanish at home; my abuela took me to Puerto Rico, and that’s how I learned Spanish. That’s how I learned about Puerto Rican culture. My parents taught me about Chicago. We ate Jimmy’s hotdogs and we went to steppers clubs. They were born on the island, but my dad has a Chicago accent and my mother raised me on Teena Marie and Anita Baker. Being Puerto Rican was the foundation, not the backdrop, but I was raised in a multicultural community. I had a very beautiful upbringing — my parents gave me comedy, wit, and a push for education. They also taught me I am a wealth of possibility.
Image Source: Lori Sapio
PS: How did you get your start in acting?
MD: I was a theater major in college, and I’m a classically trained artist with eight years of Shakespeare under my belt, but there weren’t a lot of spaces for someone with my intersections until I found the all-Latina theater ensemble Teatro Luna. I’ve cultivated community in Chicago for a very long time, and I was encouraged to do solo shows, which I’d never written before. Over time, I developed a 45-minute piece, which became “SEXomedy” — a hypersexual, rumpus, ruckus comedy. My mentor is John Leguizamo; my mentors are people that do standup comedy and theatricality and solo art. So, I took a comedy writing class and a standup class to make it even sharper. I was given an opportunity to perform a set in front of 300 people using an excerpt of my solo show — and it was really funny. That’s how I started making a name for myself.
PS: What have you learned from John Leguizamo and his career?
MD: In the binary conversation around race in America, the Latina conversation does not get centered. John Leguizamo was the first theater person I saw using comedy to flip racial stereotypes on their head. Before I even saw “Freak,” I understood what he was doing on a subconscious level. It was the first time I saw my narrative, infusing soul food and Black music into coming-of-age stories about being young and Latino in the city with immigrant parents. And his show came on after “In Living Color,” so he was a revolutionary at a time when Black programming was really saying something through satire and comedy.
PS: How did you make the leap from theater to television?
MD: I landed a few theater gigs, and that got me representation. I auditioned for pilot season after pilot season and never booked anything, so I stayed in Chicago writing solo shows and performing standup.
Eventually, I booked a one-line, one-day, costarring role on the last season of “Empire.” I’d been trying to get on the show for years. I was like, it’s the last season and my last shot, and I’m just gonna do what I want. So, I said my line and then I ad-libbed a Spanish rant. The director loved it so much that he kept it in my scene with Gabourey Sidibe. Then my one-day role was turned into an eight-episode recurring role. They’d never had an intentionally Afro-Latina character on the show. That was the first time I realized I have the power to change the narrative.
PS: And how did playing an intentionally Afro-Latina character open doors for you?
MD: My mother and I used to watch “Grey’s Anatomy” religiously, but I stopped watching the show when she died. The monologues were so beautifully written, and we got to witness Black and Brown women like Sara Ramirez and Chandra Wilson say these authentic and powerful words. There’s no reason I should have even landed an audition because they only hire LA locals, but I did, and it was a mother-daughter narrative. I auditioned on a Wednesday, booked the role by Friday, and had to be on set by Monday. I drove for two days through the mountains from Chicago to LA, and I felt my mother’s presence with me. She is working hard as an ancestor for me. Playing Dr. Sara Ortiz on “Grey’s Anatomy” for two seasons was huge in the sense of being able to represent for Afro-Latinas, because when we see ourselves on TV, we believe we’ve made it.
“I have to assert my identity as a Black Puerto Rican woman.”
PS: What frustrates you about being Afro-Latina in Hollywood?
MD: In Hollywood, I’m what they call ethnically ambiguous, because they don’t know what they’re looking for. They don’t travel the world. They don’t know that anybody walking around Chicago would look at me and say, that’s a Puerto Rican girl right there. I have a name that people would not peg as Latina, so I have to assert my identity as a Black Puerto Rican woman. And I use my voice in a very particular way.
I’m not white. I’m not Black enough. I’m not a white-presenting Latina, so I don’t even fit in within my own people. There are Black Latinas in this industry doing incredible things, like Zoe Saldaña, Gina Torres, and Ariana DeBose — and more incredible talent coming. We’ve always been here, we’ve always existed, and we will continue to exist whether or not you make room for us.
PS: What excites you about your latest role on “How to Die Alone”?
MD: I got pulled into this new project so beautifully; Natasha handpicked us. She has such an amazingly specific voice to lend around Blackness, being a woman, and being labeled as plus-size. This is her show and she’s saying, “We need you and what you represent,” because she knows that women like me exist.
I’m honored to bring an authentic voice to Tamika. We’re having the same conversations onscreen that you would have with your homegirls. Tamika will say, “Do you know you’re divine? Do you know you’re beautiful? Do you know any man should be on his knees begging to have you?” She’s bigger than life. And it’s described as that Lizzo-style confidence where you exist, not even unapologetically, but gloriously. I’m already seeing how some of the language is changing, how they’re leaning more into using Spanish and being Afro-centric. All my jewelry is Caribbean, and I’m Black in Spanish, you know?
PS: What still needs to change when it comes to Afro-Latina representation in film and TV?
MD: We’re losing beautiful shows, like “Gentefied,” “On My Block,” and “One Day at a Time.” Our shows don’t get the breathing room to do what has never been done before because we’re not brave enough to [embrace] art that defies the status quo. If we’re not centering the counternarrative, we’re never going to revolutionize television and humanize the lived experiences of the global majority. I think about the show “Atlanta,” there was no model for that. There’s no other “Atlanta.”
We have to have patience, we have to have funding, and we have to have people with vision. I think what Natasha is doing is revolutionary. It’s easy for a show to get pigeonholed when a Black woman is at the helm, but this is a genre-bending and narrative-bending show. She is not the first, but she is one of few, and she is doing incredibly creative work in such a gorgeous, beautifully human way.