Playwright James Lecesne can’t wait to watch the Cinnabar Theater production of “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey.” He wrote the one-man play, and starred in it many times. But this will be the first time he gets to watch it as an audience member.
“I’ve performed it, and there have been many productions with other actors, but they’ve always been somewhere that I wasn’t,” he explains. “Now I’m actually going to get to see it.”
The play, about the disappearance of a gay 14-year-old who goes missing from a small New Jersey shore town, has been a hit in theaters across the country since it made its world premiere off-Broadway in 2015. It’s been a touchstone for LGBTQ youth ever since.
Cinnabar’s production, directed by Nathan Cummings, features actor Michael Pavone in the role Lecesne originated. The virtual production, which opens Jan. 22 and runs through the end of the month, marks the play’s Bay Area premiere.
Lecesne, a longtime gay rights advocate – he was Grand Marshal in the 2011 San Francisco Pride Parade – came to national prominence with “Trevor,” about a 13-year-old Diana Ross superfan who survives a suicide attempt. The 1995 film won an Academy Award; inspired by the response, Lecesne co-founded the Trevor Project, a national suicide and crisis-intervention line for LGBTQ youth.
Yet, in a recent phone call, Lecesne said he continued to be troubled by what he saw. “Around 2011, things changed for LGBTQ youth,” he said. “There was a big shift in terms of the danger of being a queer youth. There were a lot of highly publicized suicides, and young people became more targeted in some ways. Bullying became more acceptable.”
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” was his response. Adapted from another Lecesne young adult novel, it follows nine characters in the aftermath of Leonard’s disappearance.
The playwright says that authenticity is one of the title character’s defining traits. Smart, outspoken and prodigiously talented, Leonard is as bright and original as the rainbow-hued platform high-tops he’s designed for himself. “He’s probably more flamboyantly himself – joyously himself – than most people,” said Lecesne. “And that puts him at risk.”
Leonard never actually appears in the play, but its nine characters – including Leonard’s mother, sister, drama teacher and the middle-aged Jersey detective investigating the boy’s disappearance – paint an indelible picture of an exceptionally gifted teen.
The action of the play isn’t based on a specific event, but Lecesne, who had written and performed earlier solo shows, says this one struck a chord with audiences. He took it to theaters from coast to coast.
Gradually, though, he decided to step away from performing. He began working with gay youth, “helping them tell their stories.” Today, he says he’s seen an enormous change in the LGBTQ community. “I’m so completely over the moon about this young generation,” he said. “They’re really re-defining what it means to be not only queer, but what it means to be a young person. They’re so well-informed. They have a social justice component I’ve never seen before. And they’re just kinder, so considerate of one another and of the world.”
In his wake, actors across the country have taken on the play. Cinnabar’s production stars Pavone, a New York native who grew up in San Mateo and spent much of his career as a Hollywood producer, writer and actor with roles on series such as “Any Day Now” and “Saving Grace” (where he played Holly Hunter’s brother.)
In 2001, he moved back to the Bay Area, settled in Santa Rosa, and focused on acting. “Leonard Pelkey” is his latest assignment, and he says he’s loving it.
“It’s a wonderful play – and an exciting challenge,” says Pavone, who recalls writing characters and wanting to appear on “Saturday Night Live” as a teen. “I’ve always loved playing characters.”
Still, he said he’s never done this many characters in a single show.
“The nine-character thing was a challenge,” he said. “During filming, I’d be a detective on stage right, then move to stage left to play a 90-year-old woman.”
But Pavone says the play’s message of acceptance is indelible. “It shows that tolerance and love can help people be who they are. The struggle for identity is never easy. But any time you can shine a light on that, show them there will always be a place to turn, is good.”
For Lecesne, that light is the takeaway of “Leonard Pelkey.”
“It’s always difficult, whether you’re a young person or an older one, to be yourself. There’s so much pressure. I think a story like this is just a cheer from the bleachers, in terms of continuing to make change, to be willing to explore who we really are – even after we’ve grown up.”
In fact, Lecesne has made a recent change himself. He’s started using his middle name, Celeste, in place of James.
Celeste came down to him through his father’s French lineage; in France, he explains, it’s often a man’s name. But Lecesne says it always filled him with dread: “Growing up as a little queer in New Jersey, I lived in terror that somebody would find out about it.”
But his younger friends urged him to embrace it. “They were like, ‘Do it anyway,’” he says. “Wouldn’t you know it, I went out into the world with the idea of supporting these young people, and they ended up supporting me in taking this step closer to being my own authentic self.”
The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Presented by Cinnabar Theater
Streams: Jan. 22-31