Day 15: Denver’s First Lady of Song comes into her own
Mary Louise Lee has been the First Lady of Denver since 2011. But she’s been the First Lady of Denver’s stages since she was a teenager. So she grins and bears it politely whenever people introduce her as the wife of Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock. Her husband will be the first to tell you that whenever he’s walked into a theatre for the past 25 years, “I’m Mr. Lee,” he says with a laugh.
City Hall may be Hancock’s house, but the theatre is Lee’s lair. And in 2019, while her husband was focused on winning his third term, metro theatre audiences got to witness Lee reach new heights on stage – by plumbing her characters to new-found depths.
During her husband’s election week, Lee was starring in her crowning theatrical achievement to date. She won the 2019 Henry Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical starring in the Aurora Fox’s Caroline, Or Change as a no-nonsense African American maid to a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana. And she followed that crowning achievement with Crowns, Vintage Theatre’s gospel tribute to the shared history of black women through their church hats. Lee played Velma, a young funeral director who has buried far too many friends.
Betty Hart has been a first-hand witness to Lee’s emergence from songbird to fully realized stage actor these past few years. Hart directed Lee in Lady Day, a 2018 musical exploration of Billie Holiday’s messy final days. In 2019, she performed alongside Lee in Caroline, Or Change, and then directed her again in Crowns.
“It has been a privilege to watch Mary Louise grow and grow as a performer,” Hart said. “She leads by example. She is one of the most positive people in the room at all times. She shows up with a ‘can-do’ and a ‘win-win’ attitude. She lifts up everyone around her through the pure positivity she radiates.”
‘As Caroline, Mary Louise Lee peels off one flawless song and moment after another. A force in the regional theater scene, she embodies the anguish of Caroline as the show navigates painful racist and personal rapids.’ – Dave Perry, Aurora Sentinel
Lee could have gone happily along with her life as a concert performer, actor, wife, mother and church choir director before the whole First Lady thing happened. But Caroline, Or Change Director Kenny Moten says it cannot be overestimated how valuable it is to have a leader in the community who champions the arts by participating in them. More than that, Lee has made the most of her opportunity in the public eye by founding “Bringin’ Back the Arts,” a non-profit initiative that encourages arts education in the public schools.
“She just practices what she preaches,” Moten said. “She is such a dynamic performer, and she is a leader in the community. It’s a such rare thing to see somebody who’s given a platform and uses it to do good work for the community.”
Bringin’ Back the Arts, Lee said, exists to provide visibility and access to local cultural institutions and artists. “It’s important to me because I am a proud product of the Denver Public Schools,” said Lee, a graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School. “When I was a student, it wasn’t even a question: You had to take art classes. Now it’s being cut completely. I think it is important for us to make sure that our kids have an artistic outlet so they can use the other half of their brains and grow into balanced adults who are able to think outside of the box.”
In a coincidence that is perhaps anything but, it turns out that Nathaniel Waite-Lutz, one of her young castmates in Caroline, Or Change, won an art award from Lee’s foundation four years before. The discovery wasn’t made until well into the rehearsal process, Hart said, because no one made a point of telling anyone of Lee’s esteemed place in public life.
“She never leads with that – and there were cast members who were stunned when they found out,” said castmate Lee Ann Scherlong.
Caroline, Or Change, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) with a virtuosic score by Jeanine Tesori, was a deeply personal project for Lee, who played an impoverished, single mother of four whose employer allows her to keep any pocket change she finds while doing the family’s laundry. Not out of compassion, but rather to teach their son to be more careful with money. But the arrangement goes wrong when a $20 bill goes missing, creating a family crisis that plays out against the backdrop of the growing civil-rights movement swirling outside. Lee, whose character is distinctly lacking anything akin to warm or fuzzy, said she wanted to tell this story because of what hasn’t changed in a still deeply divided America.
‘Mary Louise Lee carries the night as Caroline with her powerful voice and profound emotion.’ – Juliet Wittman, Westword
“When I stood on the Aurora Fox stage, I stood on the shoulders of my ancestors,” Lee said. “I was paying tribute to all the Carolines of the world. Many of them are my relatives from the past who had to take those jobs for $30 a week. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. So I did it for them, and everyone who is working those jobs today. I did it for all of them – and their untold stories.”
The show, she said, provided the audience the opportunity to think about things differently. “There’s always an opportunity to change,” she said.
Mary Louise Lee/At a glance
Denver native Mary Louise Lee began singing at age 3, and is well-known throughout the Rocky Mountain region for her extensive contributions to the performing-arts community. While still a senior at Thomas Jefferson High, she was cast as Nancy in Oliver, making her one of the first black students at the school ever to get a leading role playing a white character. Also that year, she was cast in the popular 1960s musical revue Beehive, which ran for several years at what is now known as the Garner Galleria Theatre. Other notable productions have included The Vogue Theatre’s A Brief History of White Music; The Arvada Center’s The 1940s Radio Hour; Shadow Theatre and the Denver Center’s separate productions of Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill; Country Dinner Playhouse’s Ain’t Misbehavin; and the Denver Civic’s Menopause the Musical. In 2006, she founded The Mary Louise Lee Band, which specializes in R&B, soul, contemporary jazz and Top 40, and recently performed concert tributes to Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross at the Lone Tree Arts Center. Lee has been married to Mayor Michael B. Hancock for 25 years and is mother to Jordan and Janae.
About The True West Awards: ’30 Days, 30 Bouquets’
The True West Awards, now in their 19th year, began as the Denver Post Ovation Awards in 2001. DCPA Senior Arts Journalist John Moore — along with additional voices from around the state — celebrate the entire local theatre community by recognizing 30 achievements from 2019 over 30 days, without categories or nominations. Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre magazine in 2011. His daily coverage of the DCPA and the Colorado theatre community can be found at MyDenverCenter.Org