By Donalevan Maines
Photo by Kevin McIntyre
A ranch in Crockett, Texas, is the place to be for Mirron Willis. “It’s very Green Acres,” he says, crowing the imagined headline, “Hollywood actor moves to the country.” (Green Acres was a popular ’60s TV sitcom from Willis’ childhood, with Eddie Albert as Oliver Wendell Douglas and Eva Gabor as his glam wife Lisa, who said goodbye to city life in Manhattan for fresh air and farm livin’ near the fictional Petticoat Junction.)
Willis is a veteran stage and screen actor who studied theater at Prairie View A&M University before moving to New York City, then Los Angeles, and appearing in films that include Independence Day and Fracture.
His ranch in Crockett puts him closer to Houston. Two years ago, he played Malcolm X in Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting at the Ensemble Theatre and will return in May to direct the staged reading of the late August Wilson’s Jitney.
It’s part of the Ensemble’s ambitious 10-month project celebrating scripts that Wilson set in each decade of the 20th century, known collectively as The 10-Play Cycle.
For example, December’s reading was of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, in which a 1920s lady sang the blues to “her gal.” (Oscar winner Mo’Nique played Ma Rainey in the recent HBO movie Bessie.) Willis says he liked how Wilson presented Ma Rainey as a lesbian “without beating the audience on the head with it. The two women are constantly together. It’s very implied. They are just two women going about their everyday lives.”
Ma Rainey is a rare instance of Wilson writing about gays or lesbians, but Willis says, “Art speaks to all cultures. It is the great equalizer. Getting an audience of all ethnicities into a space to experience a play is very magical.”
Ma Rainey won the 1982 Tony Award for Best Play. Wilson followed it with Fences in 1987, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and four Tony Awards, including Best Play.
Willis saw that production on Broadway, with James Earl Jones as a garbage man in Pittsburgh who once was a Negro League baseball star. “It was a great experience,” says Willis.
Houston theater fans will soon get the opportunity to see fully staged productions of both Fences and Wilson’s other Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Piano Lesson.
Fences begins previews January 23 at the Ensemble, prior to its opening on January 28, the night before The Piano Lesson opens at the Pearl Theatre. Both plays will also be presented as staged readings in the 10-Play Cycle project, with The Piano Lesson on January 25 and Fences on March 28.
While working at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which also performs contemporary plays, Willis understudied the role of Avery in The Piano Lesson and met Wilson when the author attended a performance. “He was standing at the bar, writing his last play on cocktail napkins,” recalls Willis. “I asked him what it was about and he said, ‘Something about golf.’” Sure enough, those napkin notes became Radio Golf, which Wilson set in the 1990s and concluded his 10-Play Cycle.
The Ensemble’s project began last October with one play read each month, in the order in which they take place, not the order in which they were written. Gem of the Ocean, which takes place in the 1900s, was followed by Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which is set in the 1910s.
Willis says that Jitney, which takes place in the 1970s, “is about change. Not just change, but the apex of change, in neighborhoods and in individual lives.”
Willis was born in 1965 in the City of Gaithersburg in Montgomery County, Maryland. When his father died in 1977, Willis and his mother moved to Texarkana, Texas.
“I never was really in the closet,” he says. “My introduction to the gay lifestyle came during my formative years,” including visits to Houston while at Prairie View.
Tipping into Montrose, which he had heard was “a gay mecca,” says Willis, “my first gay bar was JR’s. It was scary. I was terrified. It was all white! I wasn’t drinking then, and I couldn’t have stayed long because I had to take the bus back to campus.”
Willis returned to the gayborhood for frequent visits to Studio 13, a gay bar on Westheimer that had a mainly black clientele.
“The lack of diversity in our community has been a constant everywhere I go since I’ve been on the scene,” bemoans Willis. “It was the same in L.A., with Latin bars and Asian bars. I think it’s very unfortunate. We feel separated enough without separating from each other.”
In New York, he says, “I found my tribe at Gay Men’s Health Crisis, involved in AIDS activities. In New York, we were very vocal. It was the ’80s, people were dying left and right. Everywhere you looked, there was a funeral, someone was going into the hospital, and on and on and on. Ed Koch was the mayor and Ronald Reagan was president, so we felt like it was up to us to conquer this thing.”
After earning his Actors’ Equity card, Willis moved to Los Angeles and worked in movies and television, including his roles as a Klingon guard in the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation and as Rettik, one of the Kazons in episodes of Star Trek: Voyager.
A strapping 6’2” with a deep, sultry voice, Willis was cast in the title role of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 in 2014’s Houston Shakespeare Festival, and he narrated Lincoln Portrait in a presentation by the Houston Symphony last summer at Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park. “I definitely hope to work more in Houston,” he says. “There are lots more opportunities to explore.”
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Willis converted a part of one structure into a sound booth that he calls his “treasure box.”
“It’s how I generate my money,” says Willis, describing his success as a voice-over actor. For example, he was honored for his recording of Larry Karp’s mystery-suspense book, The King of Ragtime, and he gave voice to the cosmos in Space Chronicles: Facing the Final Frontier, a New York Times bestseller by Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.