The Hippo


May 25, 2020








LeLand Gantt. Courtesy photo.

See Rhapsody in Black

In Meredith: Winnipesaukee Playouse, 50 Reservoir Road, Meredith, Tues., Feb. 10, at 10:30 a.m. and 7:30 p.m., $12 to $18,
In Derry: Stockbridge Theatre, 5 Pinkerton St., Derry, Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 10 a.m. and 7 p.m. (10 a.m. performance in the large theater, 7 p.m. in the small black box theater); $6 to $15,

Transcending truth
LeLand Gantt brings Rhapsody in Black to NH

By Kelly Sennott

Rhapsody in Black became what it is today due to “Still I Rise” by Maya Angelou.

The poem, sung by Ben Harper, struck actor and playwright LeLand Gantt “like lightning” during an epiphany years back. He was sitting in his kitchen, mulling over how to connect a series of seemingly unrelated monologues, when the song came on.
“It was my first formal play. It was a series of monologues that had nine discrete characters. Those who knew me said [the voices] sounded like me and suggested that I own the story. That I use the monologues and put them together in a timeline of my life. But I still didn’t have an organizing principle for it,” Gantt said during a phone interview last week. 
Angelou’s words formed clarity: “You may write me down in history/With your bitter, twisted lies/You may tread me in the very dirt/But still, like dust, I’ll rise.” 
“The epiphany led to the organizing principle of the work: the psychological effects of young black men working and growing up in America,” Gantt said.
His play became Rhapsody in Black. The one-man show took years of writing, re-writing and direction from Academy Award-winning actress Estelle Parsons (best known for Bonnie and Clyde), and it explores Gantt’s personal journey to understand and eventually transcend racism in America, starting with his unprivileged childhood in the ghettos of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to his eventual scholastic and theatrical achievements that often land him in situations where he’s the only African-American in the room. 
“I’m just trying to start a conversation,” Gantt said. “A lot of black folks don’t know that much about white people, and the same holds true for white people. They only know what they’ve heard or read. And a little misrepresentation goes a long, long way.”
It wasn’t until he began telling the story onstage that Gantt realized what a vulnerable act it is. He discloses a lot —as a teen, he experimented with crime and drugs, but most revealing are his feelings at being marked “The Other.”
“People started reacting to me. They said, ‘You’re so bare and naked up there.’ … In the quest to tell the truth and be honest, I hadn’t thought about my own protection. … It’s not something a lot of people talk about. It’s something that exists, and you know, it needs to be talked about.”
In its nearly two-year history, the play has done well; this past fall, Gantt won “Best Storyteller” and Parsons won “Best Direction” at the United Solo Theatre Festival in New York, and more recently, Rhapsody in Black won third at the International Performing Arts for Youth Conference in Philadelphia. 
Parsons, who lives in New York and owns a summer home in Wolfeboro, became enamored when she heard Gantt’s work at The Actors Studio, which is a “kind of gym for method actors” in the city. She moderates sessions every week along with Hollywood greats like Alec Baldwin and Al Pacino.
“We kept saying, ‘Come on, bring in some more!’ … Everybody was terribly excited about it,” Parsons said. “We showed it to a black director who owns New Federal Theatre in New York, who said it was terrific — and that all black men feel this way, but nobody says it.”
The ideas and feelings kind of transcend cultures, races and stereotypes. At one showing, a white woman from South Africa burst into tears and said, “This is the story of my life during the Apartheid.” A woman in a wheelchair told Gantt it resonated with her experiences, and an Asian man came up to Gantt after a show and said Rhapsody in Black changed his life. Women have also found connections, Gantt said.
“I think there’s a universal truth in [the play]. It really kind of talks to the human condition. I’m trying to convey what was a real journey, as honestly and truthfully as possible,” Gantt said.
Ganttt will perform in Meredith’s Winnipesaukee Playhouse Feb. 10 and in Pinkerton Academy’s Stockbridge Theatre Feb. 11. 
As seen in the February 5, 2015 issue of the Hippo.

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