Interview with Rhapsody in Black playwright LeLand Gantt & Through a Lens Darkly director Thomas Allen Harris
LeLand Gantt had an epiphany when he was in Los Angeles attending the opening of a film in 1995. “I found myself feeling isolated, and to try to save my sanity, I started writing things down,” he said. That was the genesis of Rhapsody in Black, his one-man play about his life growing up in the black ghetto of McKeesport, a depressed steel town outside Pittsburgh. In telling what it’s like growing up black and poor in America, Gantt hit a chord: Rhapsody in Black won Best Storyteller (Gantt) and Best Direction (Estelle Parsons) awards when it played at the United Solo Festival in New York last November.
“As Woodie King says, ‘It’s the story of every black man in America that nobody will say out loud,’” said Parsons. “It’s his story of growing up to be a criminal and realizing he doesn’t want to be a criminal. By the time he was 13 he was heavily into drugs, stealing from people, in a lot of physical mayhem…when he got caught and had to go to the judge, he realized, ‘This isn’t what I want my life to be.’ Then he travels from the ghetto to the white section of town with houses and yards…it was another way of life and he was never going to get it. Everyone [who has seen the play] relates to it. A woman who grew up under apartheid in South Africa was weeping after seeing it…the play has universal appeal.”
Rhapsody in Black was developed in workshops at the Actors’ Studio, which is where Gantt, whom she already knew as an actor, connected with Parsons. When Gantt finally presented the complete play, “It was too good just for us, so we opened the room to the public for three weeks and it filled up with people from all over,” said Parsons. She went on to direct – a role that she describes as “directional consultant.”
Local audiences can now see Rhapsody in Black, which will be performed at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on Friday, February 6 as part of a series on the African American experience. It will be followed on Friday, February 20 by a screening of the documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People, which is the first film to explore the role of photography in shaping black identity and aspirations.
Inspired by Deborah Willis’ book, Reflections in Black, the film tackles the subject through the personal lens of Thomas Harris, an award-winning African American filmmaker who also directs. In talking to Willis about how to translate her book onto the screen, “I realized I had to be a character,” said Harris. The film not only examines the work of well-known black photographers including Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson and Anthony Barboza, but also family albums and other vernacular images.
Both the play and the film will be presented at 7 p.m. at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie and followed by a panel discussion with prominent local African American scholars, artists, students and community leaders.
Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods interviewed Gantt, who lives in New York City, and Harris, who resides in Warwick, for this piece.
Interview with LeLand Gantt
LeLand Gantt has performed extensively in regional theater, Off-Broadway and in television. He was a Drama Desk and Audelco Award nominee for Featured Actor for his role in the play Let Me Live. Film and television credits include Miracle at St. Anna, Requiem for a Dream, Malcolm X, Presumed Innocent, Law and Order, Law and Order SVU, JAG and HBO’s The Affair. Rhapsody in Black is his first play.
How did the play evolve from your first jottings back in 1995?
It didn’t take form or shape until I got back to the City and wrote nine characters in nine monologues. As it turned out, those characters were all me, and it started to evolve as my life story. I cannibalized the monologues and began writing my life story about the psychological effects of racism on black men growing up in America.
I attended a retreat four or five years ago and took a playwriting workshop hosted by Sharon Bridgeport. She was teaching theories and concepts based on The Artist’s Way, and in that workshop I found my voice as a writer. I wanted to emulate the pentameter poetry of my hero, William Shakespeare, and the rhythmic way of speaking of August Wilson.
Do you have props?
I’m moving through time and space by taking various positions on the stage. When I’m sitting on the stool, maybe it’s me as a 10-year-old kid. There’s a bunk bed, chest of drawers and a staircase that acts as a stoop. When I’m down in the subway, I’m on a bench.
What has been the audience reaction?
It’s kind of overwhelming. Everybody has their best-case scenario, and [in this case it happened]. When I presented it to the Actors’ Studio, Estelle Parsons immediately attached herself to the project and I got a three-week run in the fall of 2013. Then I performed it for two weeks at the WorkShop Theater in February of last year. It was submitted and accepted at the United Solo Festival last fall, and I did two performances because the first one was sold out. Black men have said, “You’re saying my life;” white folks, “I never knew that.”
What’s it like being onstage performing the story of your life, compared to acting in a movie or someone else’s play?
In both instances you’re trying to get to the truth of the material. I didn’t do research on this character because it was me. Not until after I did [the performances at the WorkShop] did I realize how naked I actually was up there, and then it became hard. My first inclination was to cover up, and that’s when everybody said how courageous I was.
Let’s be clear it’s a dramatization, a fictionalized autobiography. All of the events are real, but the connective tissue between them is contrived. Some names have been changed.
Did writing and performing the play change how you view your life?
It illuminated my life and afforded me a broader perspective. I was trying to convey the filters constructed in your human psyche in your attempt to survive. By illuminating and surveying the effects they had on me, it was kind of impossible not to understand that other people have filters too. It took me out of myself, and my facility as an actor became more facile. People tell me my acting has become exponentially better.
What were your prospects in McKeesport?
It was a blue-collar steel town that was a depressed place. I was raised by my mother, and though anyone in town with any economic affluence worked in the steel mill, my mother did not want me to go to the mill. It was a dead-end job.
What was it like growing up in the black ghetto?
I was in a constant search for self-esteem. I had no father around. I always felt like the Other. I say in my play, “The ghetto teaches you very early on how cheap your life is.” People are killing each other. There were pimps with tricked-out cars, junkies on every corner, winos and the churchgoing ladies. That was attractive: that you didn’t have to do that square job in the mill. I was dragged into crime, got busted and almost went to jail. I hitchhiked to a park in another part of the city and was tripping and speeding. I had three bad trips in a row, and determined I couldn’t do that.
What saved you?
I started to get interested in stuff happening at school. I’m 12, 13 and found a Boys Club of America, which gave me some self-esteem. I always had the acting bug, from watching movies with my Mom, and joined the Drama Club. I would participate in acting competitions in Pittsburgh every weekend. When I was 16, I competed in my category in the national finals. There was a high dropout rate at my school, but it was a great school.
It’s all about making choices. No matter where you are, you have to make choices that are the most beneficial to you. I was driven by survival.
I graduated in 1973 and got a four-year scholarship to two state colleges. I went to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, flunked out after two years and moved back with my mother.
Unfortunately the school didn’t provide training for acting. Of course I gravitated to the few black people, but I hung out with this Irish guy. We’d go to frat parties.
So how did your acting career take off?
I was back in the place I wanted to escape. I got a job selling men’s retail and got involved with a community theater in Pittsburgh, which engendered a desire to go back to school. My mother signed a loan and I went to Point Park University, where I got great training. I was the lead for Pippin on a show on the road and met a woman who became my girlfriend. Her mother and her mother’s husband bankrolled The LeLand Gantt Show, which was like a Las Vegas revue. We went on the road with our truck and lights and performed at supper clubs all over Pennsylvania.
After a couple of years I went back to Pittsburgh and became involved with theater there. I met a lot of people coming in from New York to work at these theaters. It became all too obvious there was not going to be a niche for me in Pittsburgh. If the character wasn’t painted as a black man, I wouldn’t get an audition. I was also seen as musical person and there weren’t a lot of opportunities to do musicals, so I moved to New York in 1984.
In New York things started opening up. I got my first gig in 1985 in a Martin Luther King mini-series. I had done industrials, so I was somewhat conversant with the camera and got TV and film work. I had a lot of success in the 1980s and ’90s.
Since you were growing up, do you think the country has become less racist? After all, some Fortune 500 CEOs are black and we have a black president.
They’re the exceptions. Racism is still happening in ways [white people] can’t see. If I send in my résumé and you send in yours, mine gets filed under G for Garbage. You will get more opportunities to be hired. No matter how affluent I am, I’m still a monkey in a tuxedo.
What makes the ghetto? Is it black people moving in, or white people moving out? A lot of people say “black people moving in,” but I ask, “Why did you move out?”