October 30, 2018

Acting with Purpose

UMass theater student and activist Celena Mendes Lopes ignites a meaningful career

Where did you find yourself over summer vacation? If you were University of Massachusetts Amherst junior Celena Mendes Lopes ’20, a double major in theater and Social Thought and Political Economy (STPEC) who is earning her multicultural theater certificate, your answers would include: playing Juliet at Shakespeare in the park, and immersed in experimental performances in Edinburgh—all part of crafting a career based in creative activism.

Lopes’s distinguished summer began with a production of Romeo and Juliet with the Billy Shakes Company, owned by undergraduate Jasmine Goodspeed ’19. The innovative casting of Romeo and Juliet was gender-indifferent to who played what roles, so long as they were the best for the part—and also to show that “queer people belong in these old texts, they just weren’t represented,” Lopes explains.

It was Lopes’s first time performing Shakespeare, and his powerful, nuanced language made a huge impression on her as she recited it. “The beauty of everything he writes, like: ‘My true love is grown to such excess. I cannot sum up sum of half my wealth….’ I mean, who says that? That’s so beautiful! It’s taught me a lot about finding light in every little thing, and finding love in every little thing.”

It is important to Lopes, as she becomes a professional actor, to draw on her identities—as black, queer, a woman, and the daughter of Cape Verdean immigrants. When she was younger, Lopes says, her deep desire was to be a United States senator. She decided to leave the path because it had become draining to have to argue her points in the political sphere. Instead, she is channeling her ardor into advocating for policy change and fighting for human rights through her art.

Celena Mendes Lopes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Celena Mendes Lopes at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

This past summer, Lopes crowdfunded a two-week immersion at the Fringe Festival—the storied outside-the-mainstream arts festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, which she attended as a credited course through the University of New Mexico. “It was theater that leaves you thinking, ‘Oh my God, why is the world like this? And we need to do something about it!’” she exclaims.

This semester, Lopes will act the prominent role of Birdie in “What of the Night?”, a play cycle by Cuban-American playwright María Irene Fornés that will be on the UMass Theater mainstage in late November and early December. The gritty, fierce part allows Lopes to stretch into new skills as an actor.

And for the rest of the academic year, Lopes has more big plans. Empowered and inspired by the Hip-Hop Feminisms course in the Department of Theater, she is putting up a performance of her first play as a playwright: “It’s going to be a lot of my own experiences put on stage—about family, abuse, love, friendship, and what life can be like for a college student here at UMass, with food and a talk-back at the end.”

Lopes intends to continue writing plays and acting as part of, and alongside, her political activism. She says she wants “to be in roles that I’m passionate about, that showcase things that you don’t usually see on stage, on screen, or in media. Connecting with people, and showing their stories on stage so that they can say, ‘Hey, there are others like me.’ I can make change in people’s lives by performing in my vulnerability.”