The past 18 months have been great for performer Liz Mikel. She’s had a string of successes on North Texas stages and on the TV show, Friday Night Lights. Now she’s even looking at Broadway. But KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, the string of successes didn’t start off that way.
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In the Theater Center’s recent revival of The Wiz, Liz Mikel played a whip-cracking Wicked Witch — who warned everyone don’t bring her “No Bad News.”
But a year and a half ago, bad news was all that seemed to hit the veteran stage performer. On a frigid January 7th, Mikel was awakened at 5:30 a.m. by someone pounding on her door and her teenage daughter Vershea shouting there was a fire. The two ran barefoot out of their Lake Highlands rented condo.
They turned, and watched it burn to the ground.
Mikel: “It was just roaring, crackling. And the roof caved in. It had to be five minutes after we got out of there. And I was like, I was laying in that bed.”
The blaze had started in a fireplace flue which joined her apartment flue, and then it ignited the ceiling insulation. The fire left Mikel standing in the cold mist with her purse, her laptop and the pajamas she and Vershea were wearing. Everything else was gone. “I still think about photos and gifts people gave me,” she says. “The scripts from Friday Night Lights, my invitation to the red carpet premiere [of the 2008 film, Welcome Home, Roscoe Jenkins]. All of them up in smoke.” Mikel went to the Red Cross that morning just to buy her and her daughter some underwear and shoes. The two moved in with Lindsey, Mikel’s other daughter in Oak Cliff.
A few months later, Mikel was rehearsing Black Pearl Sings! (below) at WaterTower Theatre – when her mother died. Dr. Versia Lacey taught biology at Bishop College. She’d inspired her daughter Liz with a love of music — and handed her over to her friend Ann Williams, founder of the Dallas Black Dance Theatre, when the very young Liz insisted she wanted to be a ballerina. Black Pearl Sings! is Frank Huggins’ drama about the blues. It changes the story of folklorist Alan Lomax’s discovery of Leadbelly in a Texas prison into a play about two women. Mikel played the prison inmate cajoled into recording old songs she’d learned from her parents, who’d once been slaves. With a ball and chain on her leg, Mikel belted out blues and spirituals – all in memory of her mother.
Mikel: “That show allowed me to mourn her – openly. Being given that opportunity to just bear my soul every night was a true gift. And a testament to what we do as artists when we can just give everything that we have.”
Her art helped Mikel in other ways. For one thing, after more than 20 years performing in theaters, clubs, TV and films, Mikel had a lot of friends and fans.
Yolanda Williams (left): “Everybody welcome to Tucker’s Blues this evening. This is our second night fundraising event for Liz Mikel.”
The morning of the fire, people were already looking to help. They set up benefits at nightclubs. The Theater Center donated proceeds from a pay-what-you-can performance. People gave her and Vershea gift cards, furniture and clothes.
Mikel: “People just really rallied around us. And as an entertainer we’re always giving people pleasure and moving them to tears, you know, and we just take it for granted because that’s what we do. But when they show you on the other side we appreciate what you do, it – it still just humbles me so.”
Remember that laptop that Mikel saved from the fire? It held her script for the show she’d been rehearsing that January at the Theater Center, a new musical called Give It Up! The show updated Aristophanes’ classic Greek comic satire about a real war triggering a war between the sexes. Playwright Douglas Carter Beane made it a battle between cheerleaders and a losing basketball team at Athens University. Perhaps more than any other member of the Theater Center’s Brierley Acting Company, Mikel has benefited from artistic director Kevin Moriarty’s season choices and casting choices. From the Gypsy Queen in The Who’s Tommy to Hermia in Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Good and Wicked Witches in The Wiz and now the muse/brothel madame in Give It Up!: If they weren’t lead roles, they were all showcases for her voice, her comic acting and for what can only be called her formidable stage presence. It was Moriarty who encouraged Beane to consider Mikel for the role of the musical’s muse. She was the only North Texas performer to tackle a major character in the show: After meeting Mikel and hearing her sing, Beane re-shaped the muse — with Mikel in mind.
Mikel: “Everything shifted around and it was like it was tailored for me. I start the whole show off: ‘Citizens of Athens U, townies and alumni, too.”
It took more than a year, but the show, renamed Lysistrata Jones, opened off-Broadway in May – with Mikel recreating her role. The production was staged in Greenwich Village in the Judson Memorial Church’s basketball court, making the whole collegiate-athletic b-ball setting a bit of environmental theater. (“After the high-tech Wyly,” Mikel says with a laugh, “I had to carry the scoreboard there myself ” — she mimes like she’s a boxing-ring girl holding up the number for the next round.) The run of Lysistrata Jones was extended — partly because people like Jerry Zaks (who directed the Broadway Sister Act, which Beane helped adapt) and representatives from the Nederlander and Schubert Broadway chains wanted to see it.
Needless to say, the show was well-received: It’s set to begin previews November 14 at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre. Yes, Mikel has been offered the role. As they say, she’s “in negotiations.”
Mikel: “So I feel like this has all come full circle for me. I lost everything, then I gained everything.”
In fact, she’s back looking for a place to stay for awhile — this time, in New York.