The power of poetry

The part of a poet: North­east nat­ive Mike Dees is ap­pear­ing as poet Frank O’Hara in ‘Every­one and I,’ which opens March 28 at the Kim­mel Cen­ter. PHOTO COUR­TESY JO­HANNA AUS­TIN

It wasn’t un­til he was a stu­dent at Arch­bish­op Ry­an High School that North­east nat­ive Mike Dees, who grew up around the Frank­ford Av­en­ue/Knights Road area, con­sidered be­com­ing an act­or — but then only briefly.

“We rarely went in­to the city,” he re­membered. “In fact, the joke in my neigh­bor­hood was that we had everything right here in the North­east — movies, res­taur­ants and so on. So why pay for park­ing when we already had all we wanted in our own back­yard?”

But even­tu­ally he de­cided he would go fur­ther and wound up as an act­or, thanks in great part to the ur­ging of his fath­er, Joe. Mike Dees, 37, is now ap­pear­ing as poet Frank O’Hara in Azuka Theatre’s one-act play Every­one and I, which opens Thursday, March 28, and runs through Sunday, April 7, at the Kim­mel Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts.

Tak­ing audi­ences back to 1959, the play of­fers a glimpse in­to O’Hara’s ele­gi­ac poem, “The Day Lady Died.” O’Hara wrote the poem quickly upon learn­ing the death of Bil­lie Hol­i­day, the jazz le­gend whom he greatly ad­mired. Ac­cord­ing to Dees, who still makes his home in the Brookhaven sec­tion of the Far North­east, the play gives in­sight in­to the ex­traordin­ary char­ac­ter of O’Hara, the im­petus be­hind the art of his words and his love for Hol­i­day’s mu­sic.

“The main point of the play is the way these two people con­nect through the poem,” Dees ex­plained. “We get to fol­low O’Hara’s struggles as well as those of Hol­i­day. In a way, they mirrored each oth­er in their pur­suit to cre­ate art. He, the poet, she the sing­er. And al­though they lived very dif­fer­ent lives, there was a com­mon­al­ity in their ex­ist­ence.”

Dees ac­know­ledged that he nev­er knew much about either artist un­til he got the role in this play.

“I al­ways loved Hol­i­day’s mu­sic, but nev­er knew much about her or her life,” he said. “And I had nev­er read any of O’Hara’s poems. But when I got cast, the first thing I did was look him up on­line and began read­ing his poems, which I thor­oughly en­joy.

“I found out he led a pretty charmed life. He was from a well-do-to fam­ily, and was well-edu­cated at Har­vard. But he had his own per­son­al struggles, mostly in re­la­tion­ships that did not pan out. And al­though Hol­i­day’s struggles, es­pe­cially with drugs, were ob­vi­ous, his were not.”

Act­ing in a two-per­son play can be dif­fi­cult at times, Dees said. “It re­quires be­ing on stage most, if not all, of the time, and a great deal of mem­or­iz­a­tion. [But] I cer­tainly can’t com­plain. After years of be­ing mainly a char­ac­ter act­or in sup­port­ing roles, I have my first big break now in the lead.”

In or­der to play O’Hara con­vin­cingly, Dees tries to con­nect with him the best he can and hopes the audi­ence can con­nect, too. “I didn’t have the same life as O’Hara, but there’s something very hu­man about him. He was a poet, and I’m an act­or, yet the struggle over the need to cre­ate and make art, and touch an audi­ence is sim­il­ar, and I can feel for him in that way.”

After gradu­at­ing from Ry­an, he at­ten­ded La Salle Uni­versity and then earned a mas­ter of arts de­gree in theat­er from Vil­lan­ova Uni­versity, where he won a 2002 Bar­ry­more Award for sup­port­ing act­or in a mu­sic­al. Some of his cred­its in­clude work with 1812 Pro­duc­tions, Lan­tern Theat­er Com­pany and Wilma Theat­er. Be­cause he has man­aged to step out of his com­fort zone, he hopes to get more lead roles in the fu­ture.

“This is such a great ex­per­i­ence for me to step out­side of what I usu­ally do,” he said. “It re­quires a bit of a risk-tak­ing and it’s very ex­cit­ing. I do hope I get more work of this kind that pushes me in­to a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion. Maybe I didn’t real­ize I had it in me all the time.”

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