If there’s one thing Sen. Jim Dabakis is known for on Utah’s Capitol Hill, it’s his stories. You could call him a loudmouth. You could label his rants as diatribes or attention-grabbing monologues. But no matter your political persuasion, you’ve likely heard the torrential power of Dabakis’ words.
This weekend, Dabakis is raising the political bar. He’s stepping into the spotlight to perform “Stories From My Soul,” a one-man show on the Chapel Theatre stage at Salt Lake Acting Company. It’s an unusual one-person show in that Dabakis isn’t playing a character, says director Charles Lynn Frost.
“I’ve seen Dabakis in a one-man show before — I just called it the Utah Legislature,” quips Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, a Democratic political ally who appeared with Dabakis and other politicians in last year’s hammy carpool karaoke “Hamilton” video. “I think the idea of Jim Dabakis sticking to a script will be entertaining in and of itself.”
The three-show run is ostensibly a fundraiser, and, yes, he plans to run for another term. Politics aside, says Dabakis, a longtime theatergoing geek and arts lover, the show represents more of a life goal. “This is not going to be a whitewash,” he says. “There are warts.”
Another thing that makes the stage show so unusual is that Dabakis might be a performer, but the former talk-radio and TV personality isn’t an actor. “I don’t have any actor’s training,” he acknowledges. “And anybody who comes will realize that quickly.
“Give me testimony before Congress or meetings at the White House, and I am fine, but that stage is so out of my comfort zone — it has me petrified.”
Even after writing his material, Dabakis confesses he’s likely to go off script. And that’s where his genius will show, says Pioneer Theatre Company artistic director Karen Azenberg, who directed him as the No-Neck Narrator in two concert stagings of “The Rocky Horror Show.” “When he goes off script, he is as connected and in the moment and reading the audience as well as anyone I know.”
Dabakis showed his game nature in a marketing video in which he was depicted roaming the theater company begging for future roles. “He’s not a great actor, but he is an incredible persona. He’s great at being him,” Azenberg says. “And he’s got great stories. I’d watch him any day of the week.”
Dabakis is aware, of course, that the idea of a one-man show seems pretentious. But at a time when elected officials are likely to focus-group and poll-test the spin of their sound bites, he hopes it will throw open the doors to another kind of political theater.
“It’s a direct reaction to politicians who don’t want you to know anything about them other than the package that’s been worked on by all the PR people,” he says. “I think if the public knew much more about us, then they could make much more solid decisions when they are voting. What’s important is not all of our parrot speeches, but what’s at our core.”
To direct the show, Dabakis enlisted his old friend Frost, a longtime theater performer, noted for creating the persona of Sister Dottie Dixon in several hit one-person shows. The beloved Spanish Fork Mormon housewife regularly performs on Facebook and X96 radio segments.
Frost helped the political showman compile his stories into mini-arcs with a bigger overall arc. “Jimmy is an extemporaneous performer,” Frost says, “which is a director’s nightmare.”
Frost says the first draft was more than two hours long, which caused him to tell Dabakis the play simply couldn’t be longer than an LDS General Conference session.
Dabakis says hitting age 64 caused him to look back at the turning points of his life, rising from a hardscabble childhood as the son of a drug-addicted mother and a working-class father. He joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at age 11 to play basketball and moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University before serving a Mormon mission.
After being kicked out of BYU, he was broke when he moved to Salt Lake City. That’s where he launched a career as a talking head, volunteering on the state’s only talk-radio station.
Then there’s the unlikely story of moving with his boyfriend, now husband, Stephen Justesen, to the Soviet Union, where he worked as an art dealer and started a variety of businesses. “Many adventures. Including getting kidnapped. Made a fortune,” is how he shorthands that time, before he found himself swindled by his Russian business partner.
When he moved back to Salt Lake City, he plunged himself into advocacy, helping to co-found the Utah Pride Center and Equality Utah. “Went through AIDS times — lost so many,” he says. In 2010, he jumped into politics, serving as the state’s Democratic Party chairman, then eventually running for McAdams’ state Senate seat.
No matter how much Dabakis runs his mouth publicly, the range of his background and passions continues to surprise even his longtime friends. As Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, explains: “Jim has got to be Jim.”
Jim Dabakis: Stories From My Soul
When • Saturday, 7 p.m.; Sunday, 1 and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company Chapel Theatre, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 at secure.actblue.com/donate/jimjabs