Actor and playwright LeLand Gantt was sitting in his kitchen listening to Ben Harper's version of the Maya Angelou poem "Still I Rise" when he was struck with an epiphany. The lines—"You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I'll rise"—crystallized a paramount statement. As a black man, Gantt often felt like "The Other" in a predominately white world. But with Angelou's words ringing strong, Gantt was filled with a newfound determination: "You're gonna' knock me down, but I'm going to get up."
And with that, a play was written. "Rhapsody in Black"—a three-movement journey of one man's personal discoveries, honest accounts, and optimistic beliefs for the transcendence of racism. In an undeniably raw, comfortably humorous, and painfully poignant exploration, Gantt's first-time playwriting triumph not only offers an outlet for his story, but also sparks a conversation for his listeners. "I want to open up this can of words so wide that it cannot be denied—bring the truth of reality into their consciousness," he says. "Stop dehumanizing and eradicate 'The Other.'"
The play, an uninterrupted 90-minute one-man performance, reflects Gantt's linear timeline of growing up in the ghetto of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to later medicating with alcohol and battling with a lack of acceptance in both white and black communities. Living in poor conditions, he effortlessly slipped into trouble as a child. "One of the first things you learn in the ghetto is that your life is cheap," Gantt says. "So I became a thug." By high school, he wanted out of a criminal lifestyle and pursued theater, which quickly led to local and national competitions. With growing self-esteem, Gantt left home for college and has been living as an actor in New York City since 1984, taking on small and large roles on stage and in movies and TV series, including several "Law and Order" episodes and an appearance in the film Requiem for a Dream.
But regardless of race, Gantt struggled with finding peace. There were times, he says, where he was the only black man in a room full of white people. More off-putting, he says he was taken aback when they were surprised by his intelligence. When he'd return to his home, he was singled out for talking "white and not using slang and some of the verbiage of the street." Gantt began to adress these challenges, and with very little writing experience, started channeling his stories through nine different monologues. Eventually, nine voices blended into one: Gantt's. "I decided to make them me. I started talking about racism and I didn't inhibit myself," Gantt says. Through workshops and as a member of The Actors Studio, Gantt began fully developing the play, later working with Actors Studio Artistic Director Estelle Parsons when the project was complete.
Executive director of the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, Chris Silva, traveled to the city last year on Parsons's recommendation and was blown away by Gantt's performance. With the ongoing tribulations of the Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin shootings, racism is at the forefront of American culture. "Everything that's been happening in the last year in our country has reemphasized the issue of race, and having the conversation about it is the hardest thing to do," Silva says. "We think [Gantt's play] is a really important piece of theater to get out into the world right now." Starting February, the Bardavon will be producing a Northeast minitour of "Rhapsody in Black" at performance venues and high schools, including a stop at the Bardavon itself on Friday, February 6.
Confronting such heavy subjects may be unnerving to the audience, but both Gantt and Silva believe it's the only way to initiate a much-needed change. "It's hard to avoid the truth when it's square in the eye," Silva says.
LeLand Gantt performs "Rhapsody in Black" at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie on February 6 at 7pm. $6 suggested donation. (845) 339-6088.