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Remembering D.C. Theater Icon Jaylee Mead

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Jaylee Mead, left, cuts the ribbon officially opening Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater to the public at the Homecoming Grand Opening Celebration October 23, 2010.
Photo by Margot Schulman
Jaylee Mead, left, cuts the ribbon officially opening Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater to the public at the Homecoming Grand Opening Celebration October 23, 2010.

A top contributor to Washington, D.C.'s artistic transformation has died.

Retired NASA astronomer Dr. Jaylee Mead was a patron, board member and dedicated friend of the Washington theater and arts community for more than 25 years.

Numerous theater spaces are named for the petite North Carolinian and her late husband, Gilbert Mead, including Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater. The Meads' $35-million gift was the largest donation an American regional theater has ever received.

Jaylee Mead was born in Clayton, North Carolina, and died at her home in Northwest Washington last night. She was 83 years old.

Victor Shargai is a former actor and longtime D.C. theater patron, as well as the president of the Board of Directors for theatreWashington, the umbrella organization that promotes D.C.-area theater and produces the annual Helen Hayes Awards.

Shargai says that although his longtime friend had become renowned for her generous behind-the-scenes support of local theater, she got her start in the spotlight. He remembers seeing her play Bertha, the grandmother, in a production of Pippin, with Goddard's Music and Drama Club. That's how she and Gilbert Mead met and, says Shargai, "became special friends."

Shargai remembers how "in the last twenty minutes of the show she had almost a 10-minute-long number, and she came on and took that theater over. If she had chosen to become a Broadway actress, she would have been a star."

According to Shargai, when it came to Jaylee Mead, "anything she set her mind to, she excelled at. She was an incredible leader as chair of the board at Studio Theater. She's an incredible board member of any organization she's ever been on."

Shargai served with Jaylee on several boards and recalls how "she had the same quality that Gil had. They would sit in the meeting; they would not talk, and you would think sometimes they weren't paying attention.

"And all of a sudden, either of them would come out with, 'Well, this is what I see it as...' And everything would come into perspective."

Shargai says whatever the Meads did, "they did it with a full heart. Neither believed in giving money without being involved."

Jaylee Mead and Victor Shargai met decades ago, after Jaylee and Gil had become what Shargai calls "secret theatergoers as a result of MAD at Goddard. They started coming to Studio Theater when it was in the hole in wall on Church Street that Woolly [Mammoth] eventually took over.

"We put this acrylic box out in the lobby and people put in dollars or five dollars. And one day there was a check for $3000 dollars," Shargai recalls with a laugh, "and it was from Gilbert and Jaylee. and Harriet Blum, who was chair of the board at that time said, 'Oh my God, we've never seen anything that big! I have to meet this woman.' So Harriet met Jaylee, brought her to the board of Studio, and that's how we met."

Victor Shargai and Jaylee Mead became fast friends. Shargai says they grew even closer once Gil got sick and eventually died.

"I spent the month before he died in the hospital with Jaylee because he was in a coma for a month before he died," Shargai recalls. "And we just became very close. We both have this great love for theater and I always would tease her she would teach me how to be and I would teach her how to be bad! Because she needs a little badness!"

Shargai says when he lost his partner a year before Gil died, Shargai and the Meads would always go out.

"And then after Gil died [Jaylee and I] just took up and started doing everything together. And it became a very special friendship"

When asked how he thinks Jaylee Mead will be remembered, Shargai says he thinks the most important effect her presence in Washington has had "is as a great teacher of how to do something worthwhile to support something you really care about.

"Beyond the names on the lobbies, beyond the names on the theatres, her passion has really caught fire and brought so many new people into the theater," says Shargai. "And I think that will be remembered more than anything: her belief in the community and the love that she [had] for the artists. This passion will live on forever."


[Music: "No Time At All" by Stephen Schwartz/performed by Jaylee Mead from Pippin]

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