When Houstonian Dayna Steele was five years old, her mother, Fran Nicholson, introduced her to the musical Brigadoon. Steele was instantly hooked on music and theater.
But since she was unable to sing a note, she decided to spin records for a living and became a Rock 101 radio DJ who was inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame in 2010. After two decades of on-air popularity, marriage, and children, she segued into working as a motivational speaker, podcaster, and book author.
Sadly, in 2013 her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Steele spent the next three years as a caregiver for her mother, getting through the pain of watching her slowly disappear by writing inspiring Facebook posts. In 2016, she compiled those posts to publish Surviving Alzheimer’s with Friends, Facebook, and a Really Big Glass of Wine. Whenever she is asked to speak about Alzheimer’s and caregiving, she refers to a quote by First Lady Rosalynn Carter: “There are only four kinds of people in the world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers, and those who will need caregivers.”
After Steele concluded a failed run for Congress in 2018, she returned to her first love—the theater. She and her husband, Charlie Justiz, a former NASA pilot, started to invest in theatrical productions. The first one lost money, the second broke even, and then they hit it big with Come from Away, followed by Tina: The Tina Turner Musical; Chasing Rainbows: The Early Judy Garland Story; and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella. “I’m a Broadway producer and investor now,” she says. “I’m producing a revival of a hit Broadway musical next year. There’s your scoop!” she laughs. “That’s all I’m going to be doing from now on. Producing and investing in Broadway is all about asking for money, and I learned how to do that during my congressional campaign.”
She’s also starring in the premiere of her own play in November here in Houston, based on her Surviving Alzheimer’s book. Steele actually started thinking about turning her caregiver’s memoir into a play when it was first published. After she met Marley Singletary, a director and playwright who has worked at Houston’s Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS) and Queensbury Theatre, Steele sent her a copy of the memoir. Singletary signed on as the co-writer and director, and The Woman in the Mirror was born. “We had planned for a 2020 debut at Midtown Arts and Theater Center (MATCH). Then COVID hit,” says Steele, “so we decided to go ahead and do our first table reads on Zoom and [produce] a YouTube movie.”
The Woman in the Mirror will finally have its stage premiere this month at MATCH, starring Steele.
“I’m not an actor, but I am a professional storyteller and speaker, and it’s my story,” she explains. “I’m so fortunate to be able to share the story and help others—and to be able to do it with an outstanding co-star and creative crew.”
Houston native and New York City-based actor Chris King will appear with Steele in the role of Stage Manager, a multi-faceted part created for the live production.
“When I saw his résumé, I knew I needed to audition him,” Steele explains. “He’s perfect. I wanted a young man who has never given a thought to caregiving in his life to play opposite my intense caregiving story.”
Steele’s middle son, Dack, who actually is a stage manager in New York City, is supportive of the production but declined to appear in it, as he didn’t want to relive his grandmother’s death every day.
The show runs 75 minutes with no intermission. Each performance will be followed by a short Q&A session with Steele and area Alzheimer’s experts that may include a doctor or nurse, a professional caregiver, an elder-law attorney, an assisted-living expert, and others. She will also be signing books after each performance.
“This production is a love letter to caregivers, with laughter and wine,” Steele concludes. “When it comes to Alzheimer’s, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”
What: Dayna Steele’s The Woman in the Mirror
When: November 4–14
Where: MATCH, 3400 Main Street
Tickets: matchouston.org or 713-521-4533