Melissa DuPrey sits across from me, in an updo she swears she never wears, positively radiant even as she discusses one of the most tender topics in America—grief. This contrast in presentation underscores the motivation behind DuPrey’s work on her upcoming solo show, Good Grief, coproduced at Free Street Theater. “It was not going to be Good Grief. It was going to be the story of me and my mother, and exploring mother-daughter relationships. The third installation [in DuPrey’s series of autobiographical solo shows] was always going to be about her. Unfortunately she passed, she was physically and mentally unwell, and suffering.”
Her mother’s death led DuPrey, who grew up in Humboldt Park, to ask “How can I use that messaging and transmute what I had now experienced through three years of trauma, grief, and processing our history into something meaningful that wasn’t just dick jokes, and wasn’t just about me?”
Grief and suffering can have a variety of expressions across cultures, and there are stigmas and differences about how that grief is perceived and processed. The ways in which we are allowed to exhibit and care for our emotions is largely based in a conversation about social access and privilege. According to a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, discrimination has adverse effects on the health of Black and Brown people: side effects of racism can include but are not limited to flooding the body with stress hormones that make the body susceptible to chronic diseases, heart problems, lower birth weights for mothers affected by racism, and lower self-esteem.
“I know multiple people who have lost their parents or multiple people who are still grieving a parent that’s still with us and need to hear a story about being OK with being mad about someone who is not well. And making room for grief in all kinds of forms, because we can definitely grieve people who are still here,” says DuPrey. “Society has no longer made space for grieving people.”
When DuPrey’s mother died three years ago, she sought bereavement counseling. Even with the assistance of insurance, DuPrey was unable to find this help amid a forest of waiting lists and sliding scales. She began to seek healing outside of the medical industrial complex, something the show explores by bringing healing to the performance space. DuPrey decided that this piece could be both a “response to the inaccessibility of mental health resources” and “a love letter, the answer to somebody’s prayer.”
DuPrey’s last two solo projects, SEXomedy and SUSHI-frito, were self-produced—an important and impressive feat for a young Brown woman. SEXomedy, which eventually had an off-Broadway run, offered an alternate lens on womanhood, a space where DuPrey and her audience could dissect gendered norms through comedy. SUSHI-frito addressed DuPrey’s many intersections of identity as an Afro-Latina, and how she navigates the world. “I put adobo on my quinoa,” she says, laughing. Her desire to create work speaking to her own authentic experience and relating directly to community can be traced to her previous work at her artistic home, Free Street Theater, where she’d been general manager and had performed SUSHI-frito.
“It just feels right, as Coya Paz [Free Street’s artistic director] has always been my personal and artistic mentor and then became my professional mentor,” says DuPrey, a former member of Teatro Luna, the all-Latina theater troupe Paz cofounded. “They have always been an organization that has aligned with and been true to their mission, even if it’s for pennies on the dollar. They’re trying to get to a point where economic liberation is also part of the combating of the racial and economic segregation . . . How do we make equitable situations racially, sexually, and economically?” DuPrey notes that presenting a show like Good Grief has a high emotional cost for the performer. A return to Free Street, a familiar space with a history of uplifting community as a producing partner in this work for their 51st season, was only fitting.
“I’m not the only one who has gone through it [grief], but I am the one charged with having a platform to say it,” says DuPrey. “And I want to say the hard things. I have built an entire platform of my solo work on saying the things that have not been said. Whether it is talking about, you know, nipple hair and ass hair, or an abusive mother that I loved dearly and that loved me dearly, I can’t shy away from it now. The more challenging and traumatic the thing is, the more I have to walk through a longer process to articulate it, mold it, and maybe even vessel it through a lens of comedy in order for people to be able to digest it in a safe way.”
DuPrey adds, “I did not want to put an abuse story onstage without people being able to take care of themselves, which is why I incorporated an immersive healing component where you have to walk through a reflective space to get to the play and walk out of the play in a healing process.”
This practical healing component, which brings practitioners to the audience, is a revolutionary aspect of this performance. DuPrey, a Reiki practitioner herself, has intentionally embedded herself in healing circles for the last ten years. At all ten performances of Good Grief there will be between three to five health practitioners on-site, including herbalists, ancestral healers, and Tibetan practitioners of Ayurvedic sound healing able to offer information about the benefits of their healing practices; subsidized or free sessions to audience members via a grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture are also available. DuPrey received the association’s highest-possible monetary award of $5,000 to support the project.
“The community existed before me, but I have cultivated very strong circles of women who are intelligent, fierce, and loving. So when I put out a call to say, ‘Who are my wellness and healing practitioners in the world who would like to work with me on it?,’ I got 70 responses.” At this point, tears spring into DuPrey’s eyes. “And if I ever felt a certain way about my own visibility, the way that I can really capture what I’ve done in Chicago was the fact that after showing up for people for the last ten years, them showing up for me in this way was the most impactful and informative thing of who I am in Chicago and in my communities because they came through.” v