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How Dallas actor Denise Lee is changing the scene for the better

denise lee 3 circle theater.jpg
TayStan Photography
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Courtesy Circle Theatre
Dallas actress Denise Lee is a fierce advocate for fairness and equity in the arts. Here, she performs in "Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds" at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth in 2022.

She is busier than she’s ever been, playing roles that embody her character, her passions and a hard-won feeling of redemption.

Explore more stories from Arts Access.

Denise Lee learned long ago that, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re apt to fall for anything.” It has powered her work as an activist and as a heterosexual woman who has stood for decades with the LGBTQ community, which recently honored her with a major award.

Being an “upstander” has defined her work as an actor and her life as a mom, whose daughters include one now touring with a Broadway production and another whose literary and academic success has earned her an advanced degree from Harvard University.

So, perhaps there was no better actor than Lee to inhabit the role of Wiletta Mayer, who in the new production of "Trouble in Mind" now playing at Dallas Theater Center, reaches a point of no return. She all but explodes on stage, having reached her limit as a Black actor.

She is done — with stereotypes that prevail over truth, with having to deal with the toxic effects of racism, whether they exist in the shadows or as a slap on the face.

Wiletta is mad as hell, and she’s not gonna take it anymore.

A woman stands on stage in front of a wooden table. She wears a white suit and raises her hands, smiling.
Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer
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The Dallas Morning News
Denise Lee portrays Wiletta Mayer in a Dallas Theater Center production of "Trouble In Mind" at the Kalita Humphreys Theater on Sunday, Oct. 16, 2022, in Dallas.

Now 61, Lee calls the role “the most important one that I think I’ve done — ever. Because I know this woman. I am this woman. I am this actor, who is still fighting for roles and respect in a country and a world that doesn’t see me. It’s not like it’s open to me completely. And I still see myself fighting for the pay I should get.”

Lee is perfectly cast as a seasoned thespian who is tired of falling for anything, who puts her career on the line to finally stand for something, if only to redeem her soul.

And who knows, perhaps that redemption is now playing out in real life. In the span of a few months, there appears to be a reward — a well-deserved salute — for standing up and speaking out.

Lee, as they say, is on a major roll.

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Courtesy of Denise Lee
Denise Lee celebrates with retired sportscaster Dale Hansen, for whom Dallas' Black Tie Dinner charity has named its "Ally" award in honor of someone who stands up for the LGBTQ community. Lee received the Dale Hansen Ally Award in 2022.

In addition to receiving the Dale Hansen Ally Award from Dallas’ Black Tie Dinner charity in September, for her work in the LGBTQ community, she is keeping the printers of theatrical programs busier than they’ve ever been. In 2022 alone, she has racked up voluminous credits.

In April, she starred in the one-woman show "Pressure Makes Diamonds" at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth. Lee co-wrote the show, which is filled with songs performed lustily with a band that makes it a night of memorable cabaret.

In less than a year, she has performed in concert at the Meyerson Symphony Center; in "Broadway Our Way" at Uptown Players; at Dallas Children’s Theater; at Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth; and in Tulsa, Okla., in memory of the victims of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which as The New York Times has reported, “killed hundreds of residents, burned more than 1,250 homes and erased years of Black success.”

denise lee circle theater.jpg
Tim Long
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Courtesy of Circle Theatre
Denise Lee, who appeared in "Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds" at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth in 2022.

And now, she’s the wounded heart and tortured soul of "Trouble in Mind," which runs through Oct. 30 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. It is a play set in New York in 1957, but oh so relevant today, with eerie parallels to the 21st century.

But that’s not all.

In July, Lee drew a prolonged standing ovation at Carnegie Hall — yes, Carnegie Hall — by performing as a soloist with Dallas’ Turtle Creek Chorale.

In other words, 2022 is Denise Lee’s world. She’s only letting us live in it.

Building a life

When she isn’t starring as a stage actor telling her own life story in a sassy confessional, she has scored 38 credits as a film and television actor, which helps pay the bills. She also has a calendar full of voiceover and “industrial” work.

Born in St. Louis, Lee lost her father when she was 8. He was robbed at gunpoint and killed. She and her suddenly single mom — pregnant with a son when her husband lost his life — left for Dallas three years later. Lee also has a younger sister, “who comes to anything and everything I do.”

Newly arrived in Dallas, she attended grade school at Booker T. Washington before it added an arts magnet component and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1979.

“I’m a big believer in faith and that everything happens for a reason,” she says, noting that she chose to stay in Dallas and not escape to New York or Hollywood, as some might have expected.

“I think I was too naïve. Had I gone to New York, I think I might have been eaten alive. Burned out. I just think that everything that has happened has led me down the path I’m on now — in Dallas — including my activism. My artistry, I believe, prepared me for activism.”

Among Lee’s earliest gigs was performing as a regular at Bill’s Hideaway, a Dallas gay bar that closed in 2009 after a 26-year run. Her Hideaway experience gave birth to wanting to protect those in the LGBTQ community.

“I have had people say, ‘You should just sing. Don’t get involved in politics. Don’t get involved in activism.’ But I pay taxes too, so why not? Why should I not have a voice?”

denise lee 2 circle theater.jpg
Tim Long
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Courtesy of Circle Theatre
Denise Lee, who appeared in "Denise Lee: Pressure Makes Diamonds" at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth in 2022.

Terry D. Loftis, the president and executive director of The Arts Community Alliance, or TACA, met Lee years ago at Bill’s Hideaway.

And because she’s a friend, he was there on opening night at the Kalita, where, he says, “There were times I said to myself, ‘Yeah, she’s playing a character, but to make those points most powerfully, she is infusing — going to a place where she has direct experience in such situations.’ Which made that performance so much more powerful for me, as someone who knows her and has worked with her.”

Lee is, Loftis says, “authentic. What you see is what you get. She does not suffer fools. She is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met, and that genuineness and her ability to be an authentic human being, not only is exampled in her life but also to those who call her a friend.”

Loftis is among those who is happy Lee has chosen to remain Dallas, although he is not alone in believing that she could easily “make it” in New York or Hollywood.

Lee says she’s happy she chose to stay, which doesn’t mean she isn’t concerned about money. Often.

“It takes a lot to do this for a living as a sole means of support — in Dallas. It has been tough sometimes. There are so many talented artists in our city. But half of us can’t afford to buy tickets to see each other at theaters. I love working at the Theater Center, but that’s not a living wage. I couldn’t live off what I’m being paid to do this show. And it’s the best-paying gig in town!”

And then at that moment, as it often does, humor invades Lee’s spirit.

“So,” she says, “If there’s a guy out there with a really good benefits program, hey, man, bring him on.”

Catch Denise Lee in Dallas Theater Center’s Trouble in Mind through Sunday, Oct. 30. You can also purchase a ticket for a digital recording of the show for $15, which will be streamable Nov. 2 to Nov. 13. dallastheatercenter.org/shows/trouble-in-mind

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.