The Greatest Showman

The legendary Dennis Spears reflects on his early years and a stunning career in the performing arts.

Dennis Spears
Dennis Spears stands in front of a set piece used in multiple August Wilson plays at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul. Photo by Tracy Walsh

If you happen to run into Dennis Spears, don’t be surprised if you find yourself overcome by a sudden burst of generosity.

According to his friend, pianist/composer Sanford Moore, the renowned performer goes through life with a “good-karma bubble around himself.”

“We’ll be out and about, and Dennis will start talking to a stranger,” Moore said. “When he compliments the person on something they’re wearing, or some other possession they have, they’ll inevitably end up giving it to him.”

As much as others seem inclined to give their personal items — and praises — to the theatrical whirlwind that is Dennis Spears, he keeps giving back, on stage and off.

Spears, 62, is in the business of enlightening, enchanting and entertaining, and he’s been delighting audiences at theaters all over the Twin Cities throughout a career that’s unlikely to slow down any time soon.

“My grandmother used to tell me, ‘Please sit down, you’re making me tired.’” Spears said. “But I am always flitting around; and Lord knows I will never take a nap.”

Dennis Spears in The Piano Lesson
Dennis Spears in The Piano Lesson

A home in the theater

Spears is the artistic director of the hugely popular — and affordable — Legends series at the Capri Theater in North Minneapolis. Built in 1927, the venue, originally an old movie house known as the Paradise Theater, went through many renovations over the years and was eventually renamed the Capri in 1967.

In 1987, the adjacent Plymouth Christian Youth Center purchased the theater, and in 2015 launched a $9.5 million capital campaign to create a full-service campus for learning, youth development and the arts in North Minneapolis.

“We’ve raised $5 million so far,” Spears said. “When it’s completed, we’ll have an expanded space, green room and great hall.”

Bonus: Best Buy is installing a Teen Tech Center to inspire creativity and innovation.

The Capri, which is expected to debut its newly renovated spaces in 2019, will continue to showcase plays, concerts and the Legends series. But it will also be available for rent as an event space.

“I’m using my work at the Capri to redirect and help change some of the negative atmosphere on the North Side,” Spears said.

Referring to his work with young people in the neighborhood—and those who attend the annual summer Camp Capri—Spears said, “You have to start with the babies.”

Dennis Spears as Nat King Cole
Dennis Spears (Nat Cole) in the Penumbra Theatre production of I Wish You Love

‘I Wish You Love’

Spears, who is a beloved actor and ensemble member at theaters all around town, is probably best known for his portrayal of Nat King Cole during the Penumbra Theatre Company’s production of I Wish You Love in 2011.

“That is absolutely my favorite role,” he said.

Spears played the part for two weeks at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. When he came back to Minnesota, he won an Ivey Award for Excellence in Acting. Not long after, Spears was honored with an induction into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2013 — an honor he shares with luminaries such as Prince, Bob Dylan and Judy Garland.

Spears has appeared on stages around the country as well as at local venues such as the Guthrie Theater, Illusion Theater, Ten Thousand Things, Chanhassen Dinner Theater and the Dakota Jazz Club.

His most recent role was as the Tin Man in The Wiz earlier this year at the Children’s Theatre Company.

“There were 83 performances, and I didn’t miss one,” he said. “It was a very physically taxing role. My costume was so heavy and hot they had to put ice packs into it when I was off stage. It was so grueling that I lost 10 pounds.”

Dennis Spears as the Tin Man in The Wiz.
Dennis Spears as the Tin Man in The Wiz. Photo by Dan Norman

Early life

Spears grew up on his grandparents’ farm in Mangham, Louisiana. Life was hard, and work was unrelenting.

“I was the only boy, and I worked in the fields and with the animals in the hot Louisiana weather,” he said.

He graduated from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with a degree in veterinary medicine.

“My grandfather wanted me back on the farm,” he said.

Instead, he worked for two years at a local radio station. When the station asked him to appear in person during a “live remote” event, his loyal listeners realized for the first time that he was black.

“After that, I got hate calls on the air,” he said. “I had an aunt who lived in Minnesota, and I wanted to get as far away from Louisiana as possible, so I moved here.”

Despite his radio background, Spears’ first job in the Twin Cities was at the Perkins restaurant that was once at 60th and Nicollet.

“I was the first African-American waiter they had. I used to sing in the restaurant, and I was a good waiter, too,” he said. “I’d go back and wait tables again if I had to, but I’ve been blessed that I’ve been supporting myself through show business all these years.”

Dennis Spears in Fiddler on the Roof
Dennis Spears in Fiddler on the Roof

Moore by Four

Spears moved from Perkins to a day job in corporate underwriting.

He also began working night gigs as one of the original members of the vocal jazz ensemble Moore by Four.

“Up until then, my only singing experience had been in church, back in Louisiana,” he said.

Convinced he could make a life in show business, Spears eventually walked away from underwriting.

“I had to make a choice, and I decided,” he said.

His first role was at the Penumbra in Raisin, a musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.

“I wasn’t auditioning, but I went along with a friend who was,” Spears said. “I was sitting there reading and passing the time, and I started to sing.”

Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder, overheard him, and asked him to audition.

“I got the part — then got other roles after that — and the rest is history,” Spears said with a laugh.

Dennis Spears in Black Nativity
Dennis Spears in Black Nativity

Life off stage

Spears lives in North Minneapolis, in a townhouse poetically placed on New York Avenue, a little street just off West Broadway.

“I didn’t know we had that intersection in the city, but there it is, just a perfect place with a view of downtown. It’s very ‘me,’ and I love it.”

When the weather permits, he rides his scooter to work at the Capri, about a mile away.

Spears recently was inducted as a deacon at Kingdom Life Church in Minneapolis.

“My great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all deacons, and I thought it had passed me by, so it was a great honor,” Spears said. “I want to be the best deacon that God ever called.”

David Keaton, the church’s senior pastor, said the church looks for wisdom, maturity and leadership.

“And that certainly describes Dennis,” Keaton said. “He’s very loving and giving, and he’s the first one through the door and the last one to leave.”

Spears has a presence that translates well to a congregation, Keaton said.

“You can feel it in church when he prays,” he said. “No matter how many people are in a room, you know he’s in the room. He’s a stand-out personality, and he’s a most caring, loving person. He always has an impact.”

Spears, meanwhile, has found his church to be open and affirming.

“Our pastor preaches that God loves everyone,” Spears said, adding that members of the congregation march in local Pride parades.

Spears said he’s “open and honest” about being gay.

“But I don’t go around screaming about it,” he said. “My heterosexual friends don’t have to introduce themselves that way, so neither do I. I want people to think of me as a ray of sunshine, someone happy and blessed to be making a living as an artist, able to have a career, own a home and be self-sufficient.”

After recently ending a 19-year relationship, Spears says he’s currently enjoying the single life.

Dennis Spears at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul
Dennis Spears takes a seat at the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, where he’s a longtime company member. Photo by Tracy Walsh

What’s next?

This winter, Spears will be touring Arizona in the role of West in August Wilson’s Two Trains Running, directed by Lou Bellamy.

This month, Minnesotans can see him with a reunited Moore by Four on July 13 and 14 at Crooner’s in Minneapolis.

What does he dream of for the future?

“I want to travel abroad more, perform jazz and write music,” Spears said. “And I want to live my life, be happy and bring joy to the world.”


SEE DENNIS SPEARS IN ARIZONA!

Traveling to Arizona this winter? See Dennis Spears performing with the Arizona Theatre Company in Tucson and Phoenix in Two Trains Running, Dec. 26 to March 3.

DONATE TO THE CAPRI

To make a tax-deductible donation to the Capri Theater capital campaign, mail a check to:
Capri Theater, Attn: Jane Scott
2210 Oliver Ave. N.
Minneapolis, MN 55411


Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.