Sometimes the impact of sudden loss takes a while to be felt. However, for Mobile’s arts world, the death of Danielle Juzan was like the strike that left a mile-wide crater near Winslow, Arizona.
I was aware of her work when I first interviewed her back in 2009. I knew about the accolades elicited by the local thespian with the spooky resemblance to Hollywood actress Jane Adams — “I’ve heard that a lot,” Juzan said.
What I was unprepared for was her wit. Sahara-dry, quick and smart, she could deftly slip a joke into conversation phrased so subtly it would nearly pass in wry understatement before you caught it.
I once told her “the theatrics I most long to see would be [famous blowhard A] and [famous blowhard B] caught in a public bathroom in the throes of passion.”
“I think that one’s a long shot but it’s good to have a vision in place,” she replied.
It revealed how much more there was than just formidable dramatic chops. Uncommonly adept for community theater, Danielle immersed herself into roles and surrendered to the characters she birthed.
The plays she chose weren’t warhorses as much as outright heavyweights such as “The Lion in Winter,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “The Little Foxes.” They were extensive and renowned psychological explorations.
“She was as good as what I saw from Julie Harris on Broadway, maybe better, because while Harris played Dickinson as one of Freud’s withering old women, Danielle’s version was something else, something more alive,” playwright Tom Perez said of her portrayal of poet Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst.”
In speaking with Danielle before the show, she revealed a determination to inject more of Dickinson’s overlooked wit. She succeeded.
Just as valuable was her writing. Performing noted plays isn’t enough for a theater community to thrive; it must create its own material. I’ve never hidden the value I find in local playwrights and along with others like Perez and Thomas Lakeman, Danielle brought hilarity to Mobile stages with her pen.
Perez is now working on books. Lakeman is on the West Coast. There’s a sizable hole now.
In the last few years, I helped produce a series of local salons wherein an ever-changing spectrum of artists of various media would share work over potluck and camaraderie. When Danielle attended in August 2014 she brought a blog entry and read it aloud.
She took inspiration from a Biblical tale wherein elderly King David’s hypothermia was treated with a nubile young beauty named Abishag stripping down and lying next to him in bed. Danielle’s essay used the vantage point of the exceedingly beautiful girl, but awash in teenage vernacular and perspective.
In the piece, “Abi’s” parents were proud. They saw an inroad to riches and power.
“But my sister Miriam? That little bitch? She hisses in my ear, ‘Ew, Abi, imagine lying with an old man, even if he is the king. Glad it’s not me,’ and I said, ‘Fat chance of its being you, you wall-eyed cow.’ So she went off someplace and sulked,” Danielle wrote.
Abi gets to the palace and the scene is hardly intimate. It’s outright crowded.
“This guy who’s supposed to be the chief doctor says, ‘You had better remove your clothing, girl.’ Yeah, buddy, that’s your prescription, is it? Whatever. You’re the doctor! So all those f*cking men are right there watching, and you’re not going to tell me tentpoles weren’t happening all over the place.”
On it went, an adolescent voice irreverently describing matters of the royal state from a holy text. It was one of the funniest things we ever had at our events.
Danielle brought the same sensibilities to all her writing. Whether on her blog or in her columns for various websites, it was always clever and thoughtful.
Most of what I never expected over the years was the casual friendship I struck up with Danielle. We conversed a lot about politics, culture (both the sociological and the artistic flavors), and local goings on. She passed along tips and tales from the city’s pulse.
She sometimes challenged me on my perspectives in ways that made me question myself. All for the better, I like to believe.
It was clear Danielle and her husband remained in Mobile because they chose to, in the same way it was obvious they longed to make a difference in people’s lives. Not for power or importance but because they felt it “right.” That’s why they threw themselves into their community, donating heavily to arts and charitable organizations, participating whenever they could.
To be a good actor requires insight and empathy. You have to open yourself and grasp other perspectives.
It was apparent Danielle had the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. She had a big heart and when that big heart finally gave out, it broke the rest of ours.