For James Lecesne, the joy of performing a one-man show is having the opportunity to truly connect with his audience. “I walk out there every night and I don’t know who my costars are going to be…But people are so amazing. They’re willing to take the journey,” he said.
At the start of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” we are brought into the world of a missing 14-year-old boy who is considered different in his small New Jersey town. Lecesne, who wrote the script and impressively rattles off 75 minutes of dialogue without even taking an intermission, plays nine different characters whose lives were all touched by Leonard. From people like a mob wife to a teenage girl to a local hairdresser, we are given glimpses into who he was and how bright his personality shined.
In the 90s, Lecesne’s one-man show, “Word of Mouth,” led to the creation of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning teens. To this day, it is still the one and only organization of its kind and gets 44,000 phone calls a year.
The future is - fittingly - bright for Lecesne, who hopes to continue telling Leonard’s story for as long as possible, which includes bringing it to other cities.
What message do you hope to convey through the show?Young people are dealing with so much. They’re dealing with so many things that we didn’t have to deal with. They’re getting two messages. One is ‘Be yourself,’ and the other is ‘Tone it down.’ One of the things I hope people go away with is that they think about how they can really help protect these young people. And not just LGBTQ kids, but all kids. How do you encourage them to be themselves and then put in place the protections. That’s our job. Their job is to experiment and try new things and to figure themselves out. The other thing is that everybody was an adolescent at some point and we all know this feeling of burying something that may be one of our better qualities. I hope the show is an encouragement to people to think about what their own brightness is and what it is that they bring into the world and what they want to leave behind.
How long did it take you to memorize the script?Having written it helps. But that’s an actor’s job, to learn the lines. Early on, it was harder. I remember one of the first times I did the show, down in Dixon Place, I just literally stopped in the middle of the show and was like, ‘I don’t know the next word.’ But the audience, they wait for you. Basically what I said was, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know what’s next.’ People laughed. Because I wrote it, if something should happen, if I forget something, I can improvise until I find my way. But fear is a great motivator. [Laughs]
In its review, the NY Times referred to you as “among the most talented solo performers of his (or any) generation.”A review doesn’t get much better than that, right? I feel so grateful just because it shines some light on the show and enables me to get out there every night and tell the story. I have such a good time doing it so I’m happy people are finding their way to it.
The play is based on your young adult novel “Absolute Brightness.” What feedback do you get from teenage readers? It’s very touching. They often have questions; they want something cleared up in the story. One of the greatest letters I ever got was from a kid in Venezuela. He wrote to me to tell me it was the first book he read that was about a gay kid and how much it meant to him. You just think, ‘That’s incredible the book found its way there.’ It’s amazing what a story can do and how far it can travel and how much we need them.
You did another one-man show called “Word of Mouth,” whose character Trevor inspired The Trevor Project. That was done off Broadway and Mike Nichols presented it and Eve Ensler, from the Vagina Monologues, directed it. In that show, there were a character that I played called Trevor. He’s a 13-year-old boy who, through a series of diary entries, realized he’s gay and tried to kill himself. It was actually a very funny and touching little piece. So it was made into a film and won an Academy Award in 1995 and that’s what inspired The Trevor Project, which is a suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for lesbian, gay, bisexual and questioning teens. That was an unexpected outcome. I did the show and these two filmmakers, Peggy Rajski and Randy Stone, approached me about the screenplay so I wrote it. And once it won the Academy Award, we made arrangements with HBO to put the film on TV because it’s just 16 minutes. They were going to show it over the course of a year, every once in a while. Ellen DeGeneres did this big wraparound presentation for it. And we thought it would be a good idea to put a telephone number at the end of the film in case there were kids in their homes who recognized themselves in the character Trevor. And there was, at the time, and still isn’t, no national 24/7 suicide prevention line specifically for LGBTQ kids. So we created it. We didn’t man the phone ourselves but we figured out how to do it all and raise the money for it. And it’s been going for 17 years.
To learn more about the play, visit absolutebrightnessplay.com.