by Genea L. Webb, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Actor and writer LeLand Gantt never thought that his childhood exploits on the streets of McKeesport would lead him on a journey of self-worth, acceptance and self-love.
“Growing up in the ghetto there were not many positive choices for me,” said Gantt, who graduated from McKeesport Area High School in 1973 and attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania for a few years before enrolling at what was then known as Point Park College. “While I was in school I did acid and anything that was ingested or smoked, I did it. That was the ghetto—it was day-to-day living. I saw people flunk out of school. No one cared about reading a dictionary.”
Theater was a saving grace for the torn youth. He credits drama club teacher Janet Robb for helping him realize his potential as a performer.
“She inspired me. She was the original wind in my sails. I first joined it to meet girls, but I found self-esteem and confidence. I was looking for someplace to be somebody and I found it,” Gantt fondly recollected. “We had these weekend competitions and we’d go out early Saturday mornings and speak and do original literature readings and all these different things. It was wonderful stuff. I was good at it and that helped me feel like I had something going on. Janet Robb saw something in me and she made me see it.”
As a result, his grades improved and after graduating, he went on to study drama at IUP and then writing and directing at Point Park. While in college, Gantt performed in numerous shows around the Steel City with various playhouses including the now-defunct Odd Chair Playhouse, Camelot Productions, Pittsburgh Lab Theatre and the Pittsburgh Public Theater.
While at Point Park, he created the Lee Gantt Show, a Las Vegas-style review show, which took him out of the concrete streets of Pittsburgh and exposed him to a whole new world of possibilities.
“The show traveled to other parts of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Canada,” Gantt said. “When you travel and you see other people and other places, your opinion and view of yourself and of the world grows. You mature, you get information and nutrition. It was a broadening experience. It made me realize I was too ambitious for Pittsburgh and what I wanted I couldn’t get in Pittsburgh.”
In 1983, Gantt moved to New York (where he currently resides with his wife of 19 years, documentary filmmaker Michelle Ferrari) and has since played on Broadway in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom;” off-Broadway in “Let Me Live,” “Police Boys,” “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” and more. He has performed in regional theater companies throughout the country and returned back to Pittsburgh twice to perform in “Jitney” and “Seven Guitars.”
He also performed in the NBC mini-series Hoover vs. the Kennedys; Law & Order SVU; Jag; and The Good Fight. He has appeared in several films including “Malcolm X” and “Miracle at St. Anna.”
Those experiences are examined and discussed in Gantt’s one-man play, “Rhapsody in Black,” which will run for one night only this Friday, Nov. 15, at 8 p.m. at the August Wilson African American Cultural Center. The production is being presented by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater.
“Rhapsody in Black” was a labor of love for Gantt, developed by the Actors Studio in New York City. For three weeks the coming-of-age story played there to sold-out audiences. It won the Best Storyteller and Best Director Awards at the 2014 United Solo Festival in New York City and for the past five years has toured countless high schools, colleges and theaters-nationally and internationally.
He is excited to be bringing the show to his hometown.
“In the show you meet me as a 9 or 10-year-old kid who’s seen people get shot and die and he thinks life is cheap. When he goes to other neighborhoods, he sees grass and yards and he steals flowers out of people’s yards to give to his mother,” Gantt said. “This show reaffirms humanity. It deals with survival, racism, identity and the psycho-emotional effects of growing up racism on a young Black man growing up and living in America. This show has enabled me to open up people’s minds and have them look at things differently.”
Tickets for “Rhapsody in Black” are $27.50 each and can be purchased by visiting www.pghplaywrights.org or at the door while tickets last.
“This is your hometown artist, and this is what McKeesport has grown, Gantt said. “This is what is coming out of Pittsburgh. I can be your cousin or your brother. Everyone has issues and racism is affecting everyone. I just want to start a conversation. I want people to talk about the issues of racism, divine love—even if you don’t go to church every Sunday—and talk about how we are more the same than we are different.”
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