The Power of Being Different
Actor and LGBTQ activist James Lecesne finds opportunities and danger for a new generation of social outliers
By Christina Campodonico
Writer, actor and LGBTQ activist James Lecesne is a man who wears many hats.
Onstage performing his acclaimed one-man show “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” — now in from New York for a limited engagement at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City — Lecesne singlehandedly populates a small New Jersey town on the lookout for a missing 14-year-old boy whose gender-bending experimentation both amuse and unsettle those around him.
From a tough-talking detective to a surly teenage girl, Lecesne transforms into an array of colorful characters “with the precision of a fine engraving and a dollop of a great cartoonist’s comic expressionism,” writes The New York Times.
Offstage, Lecesne is an author and the founder of the Trevor Project, a national organization and hotline providing crisis and suicide prevention to LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered and Questioning) youth that came out of his Academy Award-winning short “Trevor,” about a gay teen who attempts suicide.
Whether on stage or off, Lecesne’s multiple roles center upon his passion for helping LGBTQ youth transition between childhood and adulthood. He’s found that storytelling and laughter are actually powerful ways to confront some of the most pressing issues facing young people today as well as those charged with mentoring them.
“I feel like if you can get people to laugh, it’s sort of an indication that their heart is open,” says Lecesne. “So even though these topics are kind of serious topics, I like to approach them from the point of view of humor and incorporate a kind of joy into the work.”
Such joy is bright in Leonard Pelkey, the titular child who never appears on stage yet is at the core of Lecesne’s play. Leonard’s the kind of kid who might call the Trevor Project for help. Yet he’s also the kind of kid whose spirit is so brilliant that almost nothing can bring him down.
As if channeling the culturally antagonistic fashion sense of a young David Bowie, Leonard glues the soles of flip-flops together to create rainbow-colored platform sneakers, wears nail polish and mascara and insists on donning a pair of fairy wings for his role as Ariel in “The Tempest,” even though his teachers and friends advise him to “tone it down.”
His cousin-of-sorts Phoebe thinks he’s gay. Phoebe’s mom and Leonard’s foster aunt, Ellen, a sassy hairdresser, is a little more wary of labels, but most of the town is in agreement that Leonard is definitely different. That differentness may just be the key to his disappearance, suspects Chuck, the hardboiled detective assigned to solve Leonard’s case.
FACT AND FICTION
That being different can be dangerous is a thought that Lecesne started to explore as he was writing the character of Leonard Pelkey for his 2007 novel of the same name and then returned to when he began adapting the book for the stage.
The violent deaths of gay teen boys such as 15-year-old Larry King, who was shot and killed by his eighth grade classmate Brandon McInerney at their middle school in Oxnard, and the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly taped him having a sexual encounter with another man, weighed heavily on Lecesne’s mind.
For many, the influence of those true crime stories becomes apparent after the curtain falls. Audience members often ask Lecesne if Leonard’s story is real.
“The question I’m most asked after the performance is — actually they say it in the form of a statement, which is — ‘This is a true story, right?’” says Lecesne. “I think it feels real to people because it feels … very similar to a lot of things that have actually happened.”
Fact and fiction do meet in one respect. Leonard’s upbringing on the Jersey shore is not far off from Lecesne’s.
He grew up doing youth theater in suburban New Jersey at a time “when homosexuality was a sin and it was a crime and it was a mental disease,” recalls Lecesne, 61.
“In those days there was nobody gay in my world at all, so to suddenly discover the theater — where people were encouraging you to be yourself and to be all sorts of other people as well as yourself — seemed to me like heaven,” he says.
Yet the actor is reticent to draw direct parallels between his own life and that of his theatrical creations.
Rather, Lecesne sees pieces of himself in each of the characters he portrays.
“I guess that you could say that they’re alter-egos. … They’re my ego altered,” Lecesne says with a laugh. “And sort of fragmented; they all sort of represent different parts of me, different aspects of me … so I’m able to sort of access that part of myself and give them a name like Leonard or a name like Trevor.”
A DIFFERENT WORLD
What interests Lecesne more is how his characters have changed with the times — how growing up as a closeted gay teen in the 1960s or ‘70s is different from growing up as an LGBTQ youth in the 1990s or 2000s.
The struggles perhaps are the same, but the climate surrounding them is radically different. He points to Trevor, the character Lecesne created for his 1995 one-man show “Word of Mouth” and became the basis for the Academy Award-winning short, for comparison. In the play, Trevor is a troubled teenager who aspires to become the next Diana Ross. In the film, he’s a gay teen who attempts suicide because he feels like he can’t fully express himself.
“Trevor is a very 20th-century construct,” explains Lecesne, who updated Trevor’s story in a 2012 novella. “‘Trevor’ is set in 1981 and [“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”] is set in 2005, so it’s a very different world. The rules of engagement are different.”
Reared in the new millennium, Leonard’s challenge is not so much with expressing himself, but how others receive him and accept his endearing quirks.
“I think that one of those things that’s so different about Leonard for me is that here is this community where everybody is kind of rolling their eyes and saying like, ‘Oh God, he’s so original and so flamboyant,’” says Lecesne. “But they’re just not aware of how special he is. They may know he’s different, but they don’t get what he’s doing to the community and how he’s really connecting people to one another.”
‘ALMOST LIKE MAGIC’
It’s not until Leonard disappears that his impact on the town is fully felt, or for that matter pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, with bits of evidence finally falling into place.
Every character that Lecesne portrays with what the Times review described as “channel-changing virtuosity” has a story about Leonard — like the time he told one woman to dye her hair a new hue, or the afternoon he spent playing in the neighborhood watchmaker’s shop.
Phoebe brings together these moments of insight into one unified theory of everything Leonard Pelkey:
“Once, Leonard told me this theory he had about how the world is actually a glowing pulsing web of fiber optics connecting one person to another. … He said the stronger the bond between two people, the brighter the strand. The more strands, the brighter the overall glow of the world.”
It’s through such connective strands — between himself, his characters, and his audience — that Lecesne aims to bring the fictional life of Leonard Pelkey from the page to the stage.
“In a funny way the characters have to make themselves known to me,” says Lecesne.
“I have to be able to know that I can fully embody them without any costumes or props, and I think part of that is because the audience becomes my accomplice. Their imagination becomes the sort of magical ingredient that brings those characters to life,” he says. “That’s the greatest thing to me in the world —to be in that kind of communication. It’s almost like magic.”
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” is now playing at 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays and 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays through Jan. 31 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $30 to $70. Call (213) 6282772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.