For Rose Theater teaching artist and actor Brissa Naily Lopez, 24, theater is a powerful tool for personal empowerment. Just as she’s found a home there to heal herself, she wants others to do the same.
This daughter of immigrant parents grew up in Gainesville, Georgia with a hunger to perform.
«I was going to be the next Selena,» Lopez said. «I was always singing.»
Once introduced to theater in middle school, it became her new passion. By high school she knew she wanted to study it in college.
«Performing is something I hold very dear to my heart and love.»
Growing up in an abusive home, theater offered escape.
«Theater became an outlet for me to become someone else,» Lopez said, «and to not have to deal with what was happening in my home.»
Her mother endured early trauma coming to America from Mexico. She had Brissa at a young age. Then Brissa’s father ended up in prison.
«My mom took things out on me that happened to her,» Lopez said.
Verbal put-downs triggered an eating disorder Lopez still deals with today.
The sanctuary and release of theater, plus the protective embrace of grandparents, became her salvation. It wasn’t until a college class required her to make theater out of her personal experiences that she shared her story outside her family.
«I was really secretive about what was happening at home.»
It was at Brenau University in Gainesville where she got hooked on theater for young audiences She completed internships at children’s theater companies in Lexington, Kentucky and Seattle, Washington before landing at The Rose last August.
«I find performing for children much more fulfilling than performing other theater because of that connection with students.»
Surrounded by all white actors and teachers growing up, she feels obligated to expose Latinx kids to someone in theater who looks like them.
«I realize how much of an impact it is to have a Latinx theater teacher and artist for young people to look up to. They realize they can do it, too. Teaching gives me an opportunity to be that representative I didn’t have. It allows me to give back to my own community.»
It all came to light when teaching an after-school class to undocumented students at a Boys and Girls Club.
«There were 100 kids suddenly really interested in the art and looking up to me for theater advice. It made me realize I was becoming that thing I needed. In my home, theater wasn’t something advocated. My parents wanted me to be a doctor or engineer – not a starving artist.»
By the time she was teaching and bringing students to see her perform, she recognized many of her pupils came from the same place she did.
«It was the first time they ever saw a brown person on stage. That was a catalyst for me. It defined me as a theater artist and made me realize exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.»
Her commitment wavered only once. She said the nation’s anti-immigration climate made her feel like she «wasn’t doing enough to help the cause» from the sidelines of academia and theater.
«There came a point when performing wasn’t fulfilling anymore. It just felt like a job,» she said. «Right after graduation I went to work as a paralegal at an immigration law firm. I thought maybe I should be an immigration lawyer. But I found it emotionally draining to see people coming to our office and we could do absolutely nothing for them because of the laws in place.
«That brought me to being a theater artist. I realized the reason these laws are in place is because the general public doesn’t understand or know our story. In order for the public to know it, they have to see it, and theater is a wonderful way to tell these fresh stories. If we start telling these stories when children are young, that’s where change is going to happen.»
The Rose was «attractive» for its national reputation and the freedom it offered to not only teach but act.
Next school year she’s partnering with Collective for Youth on bilingual classes to engage youth and parents on making theater from their own stories and concerns.
Lopez also writes theater. Not surprisingly, she’s developing a children’s musical about immigration. She doesn’t have to look far for experiences to draw on.
«I have a lot of family members that are undocumented immigrants.»
Another piece she’s developing charts the story of her mother and herself. It’s for a general theater audience.
She’s made progress dealing with her eating disorder.
«It’s not about getting to a certain size but fueling my body to allow me to do the things I want to do in life.»
She writes about it on a social media page «geared to helping women unleash their healthiest versions.»
Lopez has grown attached to Omaha.
«This is a really great place for theater artists to just play and explore. A place like Seattle can be a much tougher environment, where they don’t necessarily want to help people grow. Being here is refreshing.»
But she finds it challenging often being the only Latina in local community theater circles. Her hunger to immerse in her culture finds her going to South 24th Street just to «hear beautiful Latinx people speaking Spanish.»
She plans attending grad school – either the University of Texas-Austin or the Yale School of Drama.
«My ultimate goal is to be an artistic director of a Latinx theater company,» she said. «Being able to tell our own stories is really important. It would be amazing to have a theater where I could not only share these stories to promote change but support Latinx artists, too.»
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.