Harlem Poet — Levy Lee Simon’s ‘Odyssey’
Playwright, poet, actor-vist Levy Lee Simon debuts his one-man show at the LA Fringefest, with two more performances this weekend
When I launched Bette Dangerous my aim was to mix my investigative work with political commentary, pro-democracy activism, and cultural reporting. I was a nightlife columnist and music writer for the Los Angeles Times for 15 years - while I was an investigative reporter for broadcast news — and in the early weeks of Bette, you’ll find ghost stories from the Hotel Roosevelt, my date at Swingers with Jon Favreau, poetry about Mike Judge, and reflections on writing Ice T/O.G.’s book, as well as a 2Pac book. These are stories from the vault never published anywhere but on these pages. I’ll reboot them soon.
But I was a girl interrupted in March — when my Substack was attacked and my inbox was flooded with death threats — all cuz a girl like I reports truth, unwaveringly and with conviction. I know who the threats came from, and so do the FBI. I’m not playing, and neither are they.
So it was while I was watching my brilliant playwright friend Levy Lee Simon’s one-man performance ‘Odyssey - Race and Racism’ last week in Hollywood, that I realized we are all fighting for the same freedom — whether it’s me on these pages, or Levy Lee in his one man show, or Zarina Zabrisky reporting from the frontlines in Ukraine, we all want is a decent world, free from authoritarians, free from cruelty.
Those trying to hide their corruption and treason are trying to make the world dark, force us to live in fear, separate us from loving our neighbors, but the artists are simply not having it.
Like the flowers that grow stubbornly in a bombed out landscape, and the rose that grows from the concrete, poets, playwrights, authors, historians, filmmakers, and activists are here to demand decency. They tell their stories to make the world wake up.
Although it’s been nearly a week since I saw Lee’s play on opening night, it’s sticking to my bones. I feel it inside of me. I think about it constantly.
“We are all fighting for the same freedom,” said Lee. “We are more connected than we ever can know. But his country has always been divided and I dont know if it will ever not be but those of us who connected must continue the good fight no matter what, and stay connected. That's why I support the people and country of Ukraine.”
What follows is a Q & A with Lee about his work and ‘Odyssey’ — which is told in nine parts, beginning with his grandfathers in the Jim Crow south — his grandfather ‘Moot’ was a successful, principled man, who loaned money to anyone who needed it. After graduating college, his parents moved to Harlem, where Lee was raised. He tells stories of race and racism, and how despite all the pain and losses and the awareness of how far we have not come, his play aims to inspire people to change.
Racism is an illness, but it’s an illness that can be cured. It lies in the heart, but hearts can be changed, I believe that.—Levy Lee Simon
An Interview with Levy Lee Simon
BD: Describe for the readers the vignettes you tell and why out of a lifetime you choose those?
LEVY LEE: I’d thought about doing a one-person show for years, but I didn’t want it to be one of those self-indulgent plays that I’ve seen too many times that is ego driven and should be saved for the psychiatrist couch. Then in the summer of 2020, during the middle of the pandemic, my good friend and director Juliette Jeffers called me. She was co-producing a festival of solo plays on racism. This was inspired by the George Floyd murder. She asked me if I would do something as part of the festival. My knee jerk reaction was to say, “No.”
But I was in the middle of writing my memoir and thought maybe I could take some excerpts from that. I told Juliette I would give it a shot. But trying to adapt stories from the memoir was too much, and I didn’t have enough time. It was August and the festival was going to be in November. So, I thought about some stories dealing with racism from my own life. The earliest encounters were stories my mother told me about my grandfathers and stories from my own experience with my grandparents, Walter Bradley and Jesse “Moot” Simon. Then from my childhood there was an incident with a teacher when I was in the 3rd grade and encounters with the police when I was a boy in Harlem and them killing some of my friends. Then I included a job I worked at in my early twenties that was pivotal in shaping my understanding about living Black in White America. After that, in the show are pieces of spoken word poetry on the subject that I had written. The “Into the Night” piece is actually part of another play of mine called “Same Train.” The I AM piece at the end is one of my signature poems which I wrote years ago, but I updated it for the festival. People love that poem.
BD: Your opening story about your grandfather as told by your mom is stunning. Can you tell us why you started the ‘Odyssey’ in Jim Crow south?
LEVY LEE: I began there, one, because my mother was such a great story teller. And she created vivid pictures for me from a young age about what it was like into the south during the ‘30s and ‘40s. The thing about racism is that it’s generational. I think that was one reason, to show that. Black people live with generational racism in a way most White people cannot understand.
BD: I know you have lived in LA a long time, but how did growing up in Harlem shape you as a writer and what are some of the biggest misconceptions?
LEVY LEE: I am blessed to have grown up in such a culturally rich environment such as Harlem. Yes, there were bad elements there, drugs, gangsters, etc., and that’s what most people think about, but Harlem was rich with every type of art imaginable, crazy politics, political activist, famous people, so many different types of characters and personalities giving me so much to draw from once I knew my calling as an artist. I already had a reservoir of stuff to draw from.
BD: Share with our readers the line you learned about how you try not to hold hate in your heart when you deal with racists.
LEVY LEE: I don’t think that is quite right. My mother told me not to judge people upon seeing them, but let them show you who they are first, because they always will. Then make up my mind about them. She’d always say, “There are good and bad in every race.” I don’t try to hold onto hate, because it’s not healthy, but I have no love or forgiveness for racists. I am not in the school of Martin Luther King, though I love Martin Luther King. But I’m more in the school of Malcolm X.
BD: I wrote about how reading the ‘Autobiography of Malcolm X’ changed the trajectory of my life btw. Okay, so how the hell did you memorize all those stories and all that lyrical poetry? On top of acting and writing and rhyming, how do you do that?
LEVY LEE: LOL It’s what I do. I have been acting for a long time now. I began acting before writing, but wait that’s not true. I always wrote but kinda in the closet. Acting though was my first love, and I just began to do what actors do, and learning lines is what we do, good actors anyway. It’s like asking a surgeon how did they conduct that surgery, well, practice, practice, practice. I remember very early in my acting career I had to learn a three act, two-character play in two weeks. Whew. That was a challenge but I did it. I had more time with ‘Odyssey’ but I’m also older so there is that. LOL
BD: What is your hope that people take away from seeing this play?
LEVY LEE: Hmm. A lot. First of all, most White people will never know what it is to walk in a Black person’s shoes or path. Many simply ignore the injustices not knowing that they are the ones that need to solve the problem among their own race, because we have done everything imaginable to bring it to the attention of the world and change the problem. White people have to talk to their own neighbors, friends, family members, children to make sure that they understand racism is not cool. It’s not cool to be racist. In fact, it’s sick.
Yes, talk to people, let them know it’s not cool. They will receive it more from someone White then me. So, seeing a play like ‘Odyssey’ and getting a glimpse of what happens in a Black person’s life gives people ammunition to challenge anybody who feels differently. Racism is an illness, but it’s an illness that can be cured. It lies in the heart, but hearts can be changed, I believe that.
BD: So do I.
Odyssey: Race and Racism is playing at the Broadwater in Hollywood at 1076 Lillian Way for two more performances: Saturday, June 17, at 6:00 pm; Sunday, June 18, at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $20. To purchase a ticket to this show or any of the many other plays at this 2023 Hollywood Fringe Festival, go to: The Hollywood Fringe.
Odyssey is directed by Juliette Jeffers — a Caribbean-American director, writer, and actor. She penned Batman and Robin in the Boogie Down (Drama Desk nomination). She is a recurring guest star on The Residency, a Shondaland series headed for Netflix. She has also been in Tulsa King, Lone Star, and Organized Crime.
More about Levy Lee Simon:
Award-winning playwright Levy Lee Simon has written 20 plays. His previous works for the stage include The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel (L.A. Times Critic’s Choice), For the Love of Freedom: The Haitian Trilogy (L.A. Times Critic’s Choice), The Bow Wow Club (Lorraine Hansberry Award), The Guest at Central Park West (Audelo Award), Gentrified: Metaphor of the Drums, A Heated Discussion (staged last year the L.A. Theater Center), and its follow-up A Heated Discussion – Revisited. His film The Last Revolutionary can be seen at Amazon Prime. A Harlem native, Levy Lee Simon received his MFA at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop. Here is a terrific review of ‘Odyssey.’
(Lee’s grandfathers, Walter Bradley and Jesse ‘Moot’ Simon)
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