A pandemic can’t hold back queer artist Douglas Lyons
By Frank Rizzo
Though the pandemic may have thrown a wrench into the complex gears of the arts and entertainment industry, there’s one creative artist who is going full-out from his apartment in Queens, New York, where a chalkboard that dominates an entire wall is filled with all the projects he is maintaining, developing, or just beginning.
Douglas Lyons, 33, who was born and raised in the Fairhaven section of New Haven, is what they call in show biz terms “a multi-hyphenate” – in his case, that would be actor-composer-lyricist-writer-recording artist – whose positive and inexhaustible energy has propelled his life and career on Broadway, on tour, and at regional theaters across the country. Now his projects are on the verge of connecting to the film, television, and music industries, too.
Right out of the Hartt School at the University of Hartford 11 years ago, he landed in a touring revival of “Dreamgirls” and then in the Broadway production of the just-opened “The Book of Mormon.” Later he was in the original cast, and did a six-year stint, in “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.”
For many young artists starting out, that would be enough to feel your career is off and running, with prospects for even more performing gigs.
But Lyons soon envisioned himself doing more.
His composing interest began after “a bad romantic breakup in the start of 2012,” when his parents bought him a guitar. While touring with “The Book of Mormon,” he collaborated with pit musician Ethan Pakchar and together they created an 11-song album, “#LOVE,” which Lyons describes as “a milkshake of theater, pop and R&B music.”
That was just the beginning of his multi-layered career. In recent years, some of his projects have tapped into his sensibility as a queer artist.
“I like to shed light on the underdog,” he says in a Zoom interview from his New York apartment, “and that includes people in society who are not represented or embraced with the same privileges as others. I feel like the stage and the screen are opportunities to put light on these people.”
That includes a new musical “Beau,” a collaboration with Pakchar, which centers on a queer singer-songwriter who uses his music to find his voice and identity. The show received a production late last year in upstate New York (directed by former Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson). There’s also “Sunshine,” which Lyons wrote for Long Wharf Theatre’s “Black Trans Women at the Center: An Evening of Short Plays,” which was presented as livestream readings this past summer.
But he is most excited about his new work, the family comedy “Chicken and Biscuits,” a play whose production was running in Queens right before the pandemic closed theaters. A film company has acquired the right to the play, which is inspired by the loss of his uncle and the family conflicts that followed during his funeral.
In the play, “there’s an interracial gay relationship that is not exactly embraced by the majority of the family. It is truth. It may be uncomfortable but the stage is the place where we are allowed to discuss the things we try to run away from in real life.”
Lyons says telling these stories on stage is one way to deal with issues that many prefer to repress.
“Sometimes the fear of ‘not wanting to know’ can be put at ease in the theater,” he says.
Lyons says the play was also written “to amplify and to celebrate black women who are so often in mainstream media reduced to pain and suffering and taking care of everyone else. My goal was to open up what blackness looks like, and for us to be the center of the story. There is so much joy and beauty that I’ve grown up [with] among the Black women in my life. I want to show the layers and the varieties and the laughter of that world that the American theatre has missed out on.”
Laughter, he says, is an important ingredient in this storytelling.
“The tone [of the play] would be ‘The Book of Mormon’ meets Tyler Perry,” he says with a big smile “Or, if you saw the film ‘Soul Food,’ it’s more like that; like a homecooked meal with a familiar family.”
Part of that inspiration comes from his own family and his need to share that feeling he felt growing up, including “the joy of my parents, the beauty of the jest, the laughter. For some, ‘Chicken and Biscuits’ might be seen as offensive or a stereotype. But like, no, y’all, that’s the recipe of our joy.”
Lyons is the only child of his parents: his father owns a transportation business and his mother is the first female paster of the Thomas Chapel Church of Christ in New Haven. He attended the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School and Hill Career Regional High School.
In high school, he discovered theater when he was cast in a production of “West Side Story” that turned the Jets and the Sharks into Black and Latinx rival gangs. The makeup of the school was highly segregated, and this gave students a platform to talk about it. Lyons played the lead, Tony.
“My experience growing up in New Haven was as an artist in school plays and dancing and choreographing, but also as an athlete because I played baseball and basketball and soccer. New Haven was a multicultural experience of art and sports and growth,” Lyons says. “In high school, there were not just the ‘jocks’ and the ‘freaks.’ There was none of that. We were all trying to get the best GPA. I feel like I got a taste of all the great appetizers of life growing up in New Haven.”
His previous projects are now in limbo because of the pandemic.
His musical “Five Points” – for which he co-wrote the music and wrote the lyrics – had a staged reading at Goodspeed Musicals two years ago, a production in Minneapolis, and a reading at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey last winter. But the future of that show is on hold right now, he says. Set amid the draft riots of the Civil War, the musical centers on communities of Blacks and Irish immigrants in Lower Manhattan, and the inspired-by-real-life dance battles between the two groups. Think Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York,” mixed with Riverdance and The Tap Dance Kid. The choreographer of “Hamilton,” Andy Blankenbuehler, is now attached to the project
Also on hold is his award-winning children’s musical “Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical,” which he created five years ago – and which premiered at the Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex and later played at West Hartford’s Playhouse on Park, and in theaters across the country and as far as Guam. The same stationary status goes for the future life of “Beau.”
But there’s still activity in his role as a writer.
Lyons has just been hired to join the writing team for the new reboot of the “Fraggle Rock” ‘80s television series for Apple TV.
In the meantime, he is also pitching a television pilot which he describes as “Friends” meets “Insecure” – but with a queer character at its center. There’s also a new Lyons and Pakchar musical short, “Fatigue,” with author Jodi Picoult and Tim McDonald. Oh yes, there’s yet another musical that he’s been attached to called “Hamlet Remix.”
Lyons also founded the Next Wave Initiative – a developmental branch of the award-winning, not-for-profit theater company The Directors Company. According to its mission statement, the Next Wave Initiative is “committed to amplifying future Black voices in the American theater.”
“There’s a lot of movements happening about race relations in this country but I’m always focused on the action,” Lyons says. “What is the action being taken? What is the tangible investment being taken for the next generation of Black theater artists? I believe you can effect change through art.”
The Next Wave, he says, will begin by offering four scholarships that will be given out in the beginning of 2021 to African-American artists.
“The Black Lives Matter movement is nothing new. Being a Black artist, I’m living in two parts: I’m living in what it is to be Black and walking around the world every day – and what it is to be an artist while Black and navigating that space, trying to make a way that diversity and inclusion is part of the conversation. But because of COVID, a lot of things froze and people no longer had an excuse to ignore the realities of institutionalized racism in our profession. I’m interested to see how this will all manifest when we are allowed to gather again. This movement is making us break down barriers of fear, of feeling like an outsider, that we’re voiceless. It’s leveling the conversation. But I beg everyone to focus on the action. Not just the mouthpieces.”
As for relationships, Lyons simply says, “I’m focusing on my future to make room for love.”
He’s not in a hurry for romance when so many other things are percolating unexpectedly right now.
“You know, last year my father, in the sweetest and most strange way, said to me, ‘Douglas, I think things are about to be big for you. I can just feel it.’ And I’m thinking, ‘What are you talking about?’ But he was right. He saw something that I couldn’t see. Everything that is happening in my life now is destined and happening at the proper time.”