Having taken its final bow Off-Broadway, the evidence in the case for Leonard Pelkey and the touching story that it abides is packed away. However, the case is not closed. It will make its way around the country, as a shining example of the power theater has to break silence in our society and create new futures for our communities.
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey directed by Tony Speciale tells the story of the investigation behind young Leonard Pelkey’s disappearance from a small New Jersey town. It is written and performed in entirety by one man, James Lecesne, who delivers us a performance inspired. With each discovery an admiration for young Leonard grows, as the townspeople narrate the joy it was to have known him. Every character here enacted with a welcome balance of wit, and humour, in fluid transition bringing lightness to a tale of tragic loss; the eternal brightness that shines in the wake of hate and cruelty.
Leonard Pelkey, a fictional character, first came into the hearts of America through Lecesne’s award winning young adult novel Absolute Brightness. However, unless you knew otherwise, you would believe the account of Leonard as complete truth. It is a sadness that the imagination does not have to stray far to comprehend the murder of a young boy in hate. With the memory of Matthew Sheppard and others like him so fresh in our minds Leonard Pelkey becomes as real as you, or I.
The show made its way from downtown Dixon Place to its Off-Broadway home before taking its final bow 18 October, 2015. This was never a surprising feat for such a play surrounded by the NYC theater community who actively support works relating to the LGBT community. The real challenge lies ahead beginning in January as the play will make its way across the country to communities who more closely resemble the town Leonard Pelkey knew all too well. Where perhaps ignorance is still a defense for bigotry and hate.
We never heard the voice of Leonard. His presence, however, lives on in the memories and sentiments of the people who were touched by his living. Leonard’s guardian Ellen Hertle is just one of the many who couldn’t quite come to terms with his passing, to the point she nearly refused to attend the trial for want of leaving his memory in peace. For Ellen, even accepting Leonard as gay was difficult. She shunned her daughter for speaking of Leonard as ‘gay’ and for fear of rumors remarked that ‘Leonard may not like it’ if we talk about him that way.
The Absolute Brightness… creates a very needed forum for adults in today’s communities. In the same way Leonard’s sexual orientation was a point of contention for Hertle, many adults today find it difficult to acknowledge gay youth in our community. Too often homosexuality is spoken about in whispers and passing comments, where shame prohibits open discussion free of discrimination. Lecesne has done a remarkable job of silencing those whispers to demystify what it is we truly fear, or in his own words, ‘the shit in the shadows’.
The genius of Leonard’s mystery, being nothing more that a blurry picture of a blonde haired boy, is that Leonard has become an every-man. This kid isn’t important, not him in particular. This play is about more than just one kid. This is the magic of theater. This play is not about Leonard’s parents, who are entirely absent except for a brief mention at the beginning; it is not about how one parent alone must come to terms with their child’s ‘gayness’, no, it is about how a community (clockmakers and elderly widows alike) are part of the acceptance and raising of our youth.
For all those children who traveled to the play’s Off-Broadway location, including many of NYC’s gay-straight alliances and the children of Broadway for All, they were there given an opportunity to put themselves into the play, and see themselves in its measure. Theater is known for having an undeniable effect in the ego development of youth. It is the opportunity to explore in fantasy the impulses and ideas that are difficult to perceive about our own reality, that when presented in a play allow for the transformation of the perspective we have of our world when the curtain goes down. From the audience of Lecesne’s play a child is able to choose the society they will be a part of creating, with hope, one with less hate in the shadows.
It is the ability, beyond his years, in both the capacity and readiness to create his own identity that is the true brightness of Leonard Pelkey. The unapologetic manner in which he embraced his true self, in life, brought an endearing richness to the relationships he had within his community. True, he might have lived longer had he kept his brightness to himself, but he would have never given the world joy, nor would he have left it having created a legacy in his absence.
Years ago James Lecesne may have been seen as a dreamer when he envisioned a world where children could be themselves without fear and persecution. Today that is becoming a reality around the world, in ways we never could have imagined merely 5 or 10 years ago. The work James has done in and through the Trevor Project as its co-founder has brought us closer to a time and society where the light of children like Leonard will never burn out.
It is the power of theater to remind us of our humanity, and keep alive the stories that speak into both our hearts and the fabric of our community. A brightness absolute.