Young Leonard Pelkey shattered the darkness around him before he mysteriously disappeared from his small New Jersey town in James Lecesne’s 2008 young adult novel, “Absolute Brightness.”
The title page reads: “Darkness: Where light is not. Light: Brightness or illumination from a particular source. Absolute brightness: The mystery of Leonard Pelkey. This is the story of a luminous force of nature: a boy who encounters evil and whose magic isn’t truly felt until he disappears.”
“He’s a 14-year-old boy who’s very original and flamboyant, I guess is the word people use,” Lecesne (pronounced la-scene) said by phone from his home in New York’s Hudson Valley. “He has a kind of spark about him that people respond to. But also, some people close to him are worried about that brightness that he has. That he’s a little bit too much, in the way that many people are sometimes worried about LGBT youths — that they’re invisible or too much, when in fact, I think they should turn it up.
“We all need to be turning up our inherent and natural brightness, especially in the world we’re living in at the moment.”
Lecesne said his book “had a life and did really well in that world,” but he wanted to speak to adults, too.
So the Academy Award-winning writer of “Trevor” and co-founder of the Trevor Project — a nationwide 24-hour crisis line for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youths — spun his book into the 2015 one-man play, “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” He also stars in the show, making its Midwestern debut Sunday night (11/11) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.
It’s presented by Summer of the Arts, the umbrella organization that fills downtown Iowa City with outdoor music, art and movies from May to September, as well as Iowa City Pride, the area’s LGBTQIA advocacy organization. Proceeds will benefit both groups.
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“Around 2012 or ’13, I started to get the idea that what I wanted to do was talk to adults, as well,” he said, “and talk to them about what they could do about safeguarding the lives of these young people.
“What’s a town’s responsibility? What’s a school’s responsibility in keeping young people safe, seen and celebrated? How do they do that — and do they want to do that? That’s something they have their attention on, and I think that’s really important. Statistics have shown that any school where LGBT kids feel safe is the place where everybody feels safe. I just feel like it does everybody good to make sure that their schools are inclusive. And my particular passion happens to be that population.”
Pelkey doesn’t appear in the stage play.
“It’s the story of this town and this investigation into the disappearance of this young, 14-year-old boy named Leonard Pelkey,” said Lecesne, 63. “I play the detective who is helming the investigation into his whereabouts, and then I play all the people he’s been in contact with and whose lives he’s affected in the time he’s lived in that town.
“One of the things that makes it special for me, it’s really a celebration of connection and the connection that happens between people. And also how a single life really affects the lives of so many people — people who are very different from one another.”
Ron Clark and Jody Hovland of Iowa City, retired co-founders of Riverside Theatre in Iowa City, saw Lecesne perform the show a year ago in San Diego and raved about the experience. Clark said Lecesne was “brilliant” — the best solo performer he had ever seen. Hovland said she had “rarely been so moved. With the pivot of a hip or a change in the set of his jaw, each character — whether detective, hairdresser, mobster widow or teenager — is rendered with compassion and truth. ‘Absolute Brightness’ is a 75-minute wonder, storytelling at its best.”
An off-Broadway veteran who made his Broadway debut in 2012 alongside James Earl Jones, John Larroquette, Candice Bergen, Angela Lansbury and Eric McCormack in “The Best Man,” Lecesne said he also enjoys the artistic freedom of a solo performance.
“One of the things about being a solo performer is that people think you’re up there by yourself, but it actually takes a lot of people to make a solo show, from the set designer to the costume designer, lighting designer, to the people backstage, and the producers and everyone who believes in the show. And generally, the people who believe in the show believe in it because of something that you’re trying to say. In some ways, I’m their front person, I’m the person that’s saying the thing, but they’re supporting me and saying the thing that they want to say about the world, as well,” he said.
“The other aspect ... is that it’s like a magic act in a way. You have to make people believe in certain things that aren’t there. I don’t use props and costumes. Most of the show takes place in the imagination of the individual audience members and in the collective mind of the audience. And that’s where it really happens. It’s me up there on the stage, but they’re up there, too. I’m giving them the prompt to use their imagination in a way that television or film or the internet really allow them to do.
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“It’s really our most precious tool as human beings — this the ability to imagine. One of the things that’s really exciting about it is that they get to be the set designer and they get to be the lighting designer, and they get to be the producer. They produce the show in their mind.
“It’s an honor to be able to do it,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for many, many years. It’s such a beautiful exchange that happens between the performer and the audience. I’m working hard, but they’re working harder, and hopefully having some fun in the process.”
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WHAT: James Lecesne in “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey”
WHERE: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
WHEN: 7 p.m. Sunday (11/11)
TICKETS: $30 adults, $15 student, Englert Box Office, (319) 688-2653 or Englert.org/event/the-absolute-brightness-of-leonard-pelkey/
PRESENTERS: Summer of the Arts and Iowa City Pride, with proceeds benefiting both organizations