Arcadia Magazine Winter 2023: Wicked Talented: The Story of a Bright Path from a Dark Reality
Bryanna Martinez-Jimenez ’22 (they/them) suffered from years of abuse as a child but was determined to succeed. After earning a BFA in Acting from Arcadia, they captured the first Graham Smith Fellowship at People’s Light theater in Malvern, PA.
The nervous high schooler from Puerto Rico wasn’t sure a theater class was right for them. A bit shy and more than a little timid, Bryanna Martinez-Jimenez followed a friend into the Drama I class at Trenton High School.
Little did they know, it was the start of a journey that would lead to their major of choice at Arcadia University — filled with starring roles, awards, and accolades — and eventually to a career path, which includes being awarded the first Graham Smith Fellowship at People’s Light theater in Malvern, Pennsylvania. Theater, it turned out, was an escape from a dark reality for Martinez-Jimenez.
Martinez-Jimenez came to Trenton, N.J. from Puerto Rico with their mother and their sister when they were four years old. Spanish was their first language, so their mother worked diligently to learn English. For Bryanna and their sister, picking up English on television and in the community was much easier than for their mother.
Coming to New Jersey seemed like a new adventure for Bryanna and their family at first, but things quickly changed when Bryanna’s mother started a relationship with another woman. For the next seven years, the woman abused Bryanna’s mother, along with Bryanna and their sister. For the siblings, simply going home after school became a challenge.
“It was every form of abuse you can think of,” said Bryanna. “She was bigger and stronger than all of us. I was always looking for an escape or a reason not to go home.”
Their mother’s relationship with this woman continued on and off, and Bryanna thought they were all past the nightmare when their mother started a relationship with a man and became pregnant with a son — a new brother, a new relationship, a new start, they thought.
Unfortunately, things didn’t improve. The man Bryanna’s mother had a child with was also abusive. Bryanna’s mother then struggled with addiction. The family struggled with food insecurity.
“I would say, overall, I had a really troubled childhood,” said Bryanna. “I tried reading novels or I listened to music as a form of escape, but none of that really worked.”
The Play’s The Thing
Walking into that drama class at Trenton High School, though, was the start of what would change everything.
That day, Bryanna found the escape they were looking for and also met the mentor who would become their rock when dealing with tragic situations at home or the stresses of school. Christina (Forshey) Vincent, drama teacher at Trenton High School, still remembers the day she met Bryanna.
“On the first day of their sophomore year, one of Bryanna’s friends brought [them] and said, ‘This is my friend; she’s kind of shy and not sure she wants to do this, but I told her to give it a chance,’” said Vincent. “I still remember Bryanna saying hello; I could tell they were nervous.”
Drama I was an intro to theater class, while Drama II was an acting class. Juniors and seniors could continue the program in advanced drama classes, where Vincent and the students would plan, rehearse, and take a production on the road. Local theaters in the area partnered with Trenton High School and gave the students mock auditions in front of judges. For Bryanna, the classes were everything they were looking for.
“I immediately knew I wanted to be part of it,” said Bryanna. “The theater was everything to me in high school. My best friends were the teachers, and [Christina] was my rock. I could stay after school and participate there or just spend time. It really helped.”
“It was amazing to see them unfold in that Drama I class,” said Vincent. “They bloomed in so many ways, and I’m so thankful they stuck around after that first day. Bryanna had this untapped voice and this truth. They could get to the heart of what actors train for for years. It’s this truth and this incredible voice. The raw talent was unbelievable. I don’t think Bryanna realizes the depth of their ability.”
The drama program was so important — and so much fun — that Bryanna decided they would continue this journey in college. The only questions were where, and if they’d have enough support to get there. Vincent stepped in and took Bryanna to college visits and helped them research the different theater programs in the tri-state area.
“When I started looking for schools, I was looking for something not in New Jersey,” said Bryanna. “I love Trenton, but I had seen too much and wanted to get away. I looked in Pennsylvania and a bunch of other states. I was looking for something that had a theater department and a major in it.”
When Bryanna and Vincent visited, they were instantly drawn to Arcadia’s beautiful campus and sterling Theater program. Bryanna noted that getting accepted into the University and acing an audition were highlights of their life.
But the first year would not be easy. Bryanna was not cast in a role and thought a lot about what was happening back at home with their sister.
“I was away at college and I knew what was going on, but I wasn’t there,” said Bryanna. “My mom… I don’t have much contact or a relationship with her. I don’t think my mom is a bad person and I have a lot of love for my family even though they didn’t support me much. I’m kind of thankful for it because it made me determined not to live like that. I knew I had to get out.”
Their Big Break
Despite these challenges, Bryanna wanted to get involved in everything possible within the program and work their way up. That determination was not lost on the co-director of Arcadia’s Theater program, Kathryn Petersen, who is also a long-time company member and playwright at People’s Light.
“I noticed pretty quickly that Bryanna had the capacity to be present and responsive to others in the work that was quite advanced,” said Petersen. “They never made excuses and never took the opportunity of education for granted. I always noticed an ease and a presence of deep attentiveness with Bryanna.”
“A lot of people on stage may not listen; young actors may just be thinking about the next cross they need to make or line they have to say,” Petersen added. “But the ability to be affected by what the other person gives you and to find your next impulse out of that — that’s deep listening. It’s risky to drop your guard and to be truly available to your scene partners on stage. Bryanna was bold enough to take chances and open themselves up to that risk.”
Bryanna worked for the program through office administration, on the tech side with lighting, and with social media. In February 2020, they got their big break — the starring role in a production called Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven.
But even the break would be delayed, as we are familiar with what happened the following month.
“We were literally a week away, and then we got shut down because of COVID,” said Petersen. “That was heartbreaking, but Bryanna handled it with the grace and class that not many others would.”
The program put on virtual shows, with Bryanna being cast, and classes continued online and eventually back in person. Bryanna’s final year at Arcadia would be their most accomplished. In the spring of 2022, they were cast as the title role in the production of Marisol.
It’s a role they shined in.
“It’s a really demanding role; a real tour-de-force for an actor,” said Petersen. “I don’t think the character ever leaves the stage. Not only was Bryanna excellent, they were professional and determined.”
Bryanna graduated from Arcadia in the spring of 2022 with a BFA in Acting and was awarded the Shakespeare Theater Award, which is given to a student who shows excellence and versatility in their work.
That was just the start of the accolades for them. This year, Bryanna took a summer internship at People’s Light, where they worked on the administrative side and coordinated outreach to the Latinx community in Chester County to come see shows. Bryanna parlayed that into being awarded the first Graham Smith Fellowship at the theater. There, they will spend a year working with administration, refining their skills, performing in a holiday canto of Alice in Wonderland, and acting in a production of Lettie.
“Bryanna is wicked talented, and we got recommendations about the degree of [their] commitment and values — it all just matched what we do here at People’s Light,” said Zak Berkman, producing artistic director at People’s Light, one of Pennsylvania’s largest professional, nonprofit theaters. “Bryanna is a constant learner, is focused and very attentive about the craft, is optimistic, warm, hopeful, and just committed.”
Petersen said she couldn’t be more thrilled for Bryanna and is confident their presence at the theater will extend beyond their fellowship.
For Bryanna, living and working at the theater this year is daunting, but exciting. It’s an opportunity they only imagined and hoped for, but wasn’t sure would ever happen. Now, Bryanna wants to keep acting and help mentor other young people who are interested in theater.
“I want to be a part of productions — that’s how I see myself in my career,” said Bryanna. “But I’m also open to the teaching side of it. Anything related to the theater interests me. I’m getting to do actual theater now, and anything related to that is where I want to be. I’m going to 100 percent give myself to People’s Light when I’m there.”