“I think that everything that a writer writes has some basis in a form of autobiography. We’re all trying to tell our own stories at some level,” said playwright and actor James Lecesne.
But, in the case of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” the story was inspired by the thousands of young people Lecesne has met since co-founding the Trevor Project, the 24-hour nationwide suicide prevention and crisis intervention lifeline for LGBTQ youth.
“Over those years, I had the opportunity to meet so many young people who are trying to figure out who they are,” he said.
His hit Off Broadway one-man show is coming to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. In the show, based on a 2006 novel, Lecesne plays the townspeople in a Jersey Shore hamlet who react to the disappearance of a flamboyant teen, Leonard Pelkey.
“People in that town warn him to tone it down, but when he disappears, they realize what a gift he was to the town and the lives of the people he knew,” explained Lecesne.
In addition to a critically-acclaimed run in New York City, Lecesne recently performed before a high school group of more than 400 students and, “as usual, someone always asks if this is based on a true story. For me as a storyteller, that is the greatest compliment you can get.”
While the play was written after nationwide attention was already focused on anti-LGBTQ bullying, Lecesne was reminded of his own feelings as a young gay boy growing up in New Jersey.
“The book was a little ahead of its time and geared towards young adults, but (with the play) I wanted to tell the story from a different point of view to adults and encourage them to reflect on our part of the story, what we do and how to support these young people. This isn’t really just about LGBT kids, but every kid who is trying to figure out who they are,” he added.
Lecesne has a long theater resume including roles in regional, Off Broadway and Broadway productions, so adapting the novel wasn’t the most difficult part.
“Writing the book was a step outside of my comfort zone, as opposed to performing,” he said of the novel, which won the William Morris Award by the American Library Association and was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
Tony-winning composer Duncan Sheik (“Spring Awakening”) contributed original music. Veteran producers Darren Bagert and Daryl Roth and director Tony Speciale also signed onto the project.
The tour performances are timely, Lecesne noted, especially after the election of president-elect Donald Trump and the ascendance of conservative Republicans in all three branches of federal government.
“Many of these young people grew up in a world where they were given permission to be themselves in the mix and marriage equality showed their love is of equal value,” he said. “Since the election, the Trevor Project has never been busier. Calls have skyrocketed. These young people are calling with real concerns.”
While the youth are not so much concerned with the politics of their situation, they are fearful that tolerance of “others” may wane in the new political climate.
“I know firsthand how alarming this is for them. One of the things we can do is show the value of having diversity in the community and allow everybody the freedom to be more expressive and involved. Of course, I’m concerned for these young people who have their whole futures ahead,” Lecesne said.
And then he added, “Did I mention that the play is funny?”
James Lecesne performs “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 – 4 and at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3. Tickets start at $32 at Kravis.org.