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.”
For times and ticket information, call 215-546-PIFA. ••