What Do You Have in Common with The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey?

Playwright James Lecense says we can all relate to his story about owning your identity
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“Most people reach a moment in their life when they realize that fully being themselves is being a liability.” So says actor and writer James Lecesne. It’s an area he knows well’ Lecesne wrote the screenplay for the 1994 short film Trevor, which won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 1995. After that film, he helped create The Trevor Project, a 24-hour hotline service for gay youth contemplating suicide. Now Lecesne has written a one-man show, The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey. After experiencing off-Broadway success last year, it has landed in L.A. for a run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through January 31.

Ever the under-achiever, the play is based on Lecesne’s novel Absolute Brightness, about an investigation into the disappearance of Leonard Pelkey. Though Leonard does not appear in the play, Lecesne brings a multitude of characters to life including the detective on the case, a salon owner and her daughter who are looking after the boy, and two bullies who might have some knowledge of Leonard’s whereabouts.

“We live in a period where people are encouraging young people to be themselves,” Lecesne says of the genesis of both the novel and the play. “I wanted to tell a story about a young person who was surrounded by a group of people who really didn’t get his brilliance. The novel came out in 2007. Then everything happened in 2009 in terms of media focus on bullying and the It Gets Better campaign. In some ways the book was ahead of its time. I really want to talk to an adult audience about these issues and about what their responsibility is in keeping young people safe.”

When asked if bullying isn’t just part of the growing up process, Lecesne is quick to respond. “That says more about our indomitable ability as human beings to make shit shine than it does about the value of bullying,” he replies. “We all have to put with stuff in our lives. In a place where adults have a zero tolerance policy about bullying, young people do better academically and socially. I’m not out to stamp out all bullying. What I’m about is adults actually being aware and conscious of the environment they create for young people.”

Lecesne does admit to sharing certain characteristics with the titular character. “Like Leonard, I was a very lively and creative kid and kind of flamboyant,” he says. “Then, around 13 or 14, I realized that might not be a great thing. I had to turn down the volume. The best that I could do was to try to stay under the radar and dim down my natural exuberance. One of the great things about being an adult is you can let it fly. You can turn up the volume and have it benefit everyone around you.”

Not that he’s the most avid Tweeter, but last fall Lecesne shared several quotes about stories. Indeed, he has some ideas about narratives he’d like to explore next. “I’m interested in the changing nature of gender,” he says. “Not just sexuality, like sexual orientation, but also gender orientation. I’m not talking about transgender. There are so many young people coming up who are not interested in the binary. They are not interested in gay/straight, male/female. They are interested in fluidity and flexibility in terms of gender, which I find really fascinating. We haven’t been there before. It’s the real frontier. I think it’s exciting and says to me something about human nature.”

Before he tackles new projects, Lecesne still has more time to spend with Leonard, whose story has even impacted the man who wrote it. “It’s taken me out of the gay ghetto,” Lecesne says. “Thinking that being yourself is some kind of challenge that’s specific only to gay or trans people—that it’s something we all have to go through in finding our authentic self—it’s taught me that people really relate to it. It’s fired me up in terms of my commitment to help young people regardless of their gender, sexuality or orientation.”

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