Remembering Michael LeLand when the Barrymore Awards forgot

Goodbye again, friend

This is the second year in a row I haven’t attended the Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre, and I feel pretty good about it. It's the theater community’s night, and critics aren’t part of the theater community; it’s the one evening we shouldn’t be seen or heard. But someone who belonged there was missing: Michael LeLand, a longtime veteran of Philly theater who died this year and was left out of the ceremony’s memorial segment.

Actor/director Michael LeLand in a still from the 2015 film 'Pay 2 Play.' (Photo via Facebook)

I knew Mike for at least 20 years — not well, but well enough to bring him as my plus-one to a few shows, and to chat whenever we saw each other. He tried hard — despite my protests — to get my injury-prone husband to join his Second City Troop Rugby team, an endeavor he loved almost as much as theater. He argued with me about theater criticism, but always respectfully, and he never forgot my early critical enthusiasm for his company Theater Double.

The last time I saw him, he joined me at the opening of New Freedom Theatre’s The Ballad of Trayvon Martin, and we talked about how hard it was to watch theater about children dying, how hard it was to live in a world in which children are murdered and the consequences are felt by the victims’ families and friends rather than the perpetrators. He was a kind, sensitive man, who cared deeply about others, and about Philly theater, so it's astonishing that Philly theater forgot about him.

As technical director James Jackson pointed out in an impassioned Facebook post yesterday regarding Akeem Davis’s Barrymore loss for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play, “In what world does a person who gets nominated for two different shows in the same category not win, and end up having a "tie" between two other actors [in that same category]?... As usual, a black man has to be more than twice as good to get half the recognition.” 

Better late than never?

For their part, Theatre Philadelphia executive director Leigh Goldenberg says KC Nocero MacMillan, who took over memorial duties this year, “sent multiple emails to our contact list of administrators and managers at theatres (over 100 individuals) with requests for names. We also posted on our Facebook page, individual Facebook pages, spoke with [Philadelphia Inquirer arts editor] John Timpane, and searched obituaries online. Once someone submits a name and photo, we aren't vetting or qualifying inclusion in any way. The list often includes supporters, volunteers, and audience members alongside theatre artists. Our video, directing, and stage management team reviewed the video before it went into the ceremony. When we found out we had made omissions, we were truly heartbroken, as we would never want to cause any pain for colleagues and friends of someone we lost.”

LeLand rang in the new year at his favorite haunt: Dirty Frank's at 13th and Pine Streets. (Photo via Facebook.)
LeLand rang in the new year at his favorite haunt: Dirty Frank's at 13th and Pine Streets. (Photo via Facebook.)

Changes to the process are now in the works, and the organization will offer public “Office Hours” every Monday through December so people can discuss their concerns. But it still stings, maybe even more after knowing how many people overlooked him; he wasn’t a small guy or one who was easily forgotten. He’d worked with Pig Iron Theatre Company, Iron Age Theatre Company and many others. He was the Hoveround guy and damn proud of it (please enjoy this remix of his performance).

One of LeLand’s Theater Double partners, playwright Dennis Moritz, says his friend “was a big man with big talents. An ear for theater poems, a feel for theatrical choreography, an instinctive ability to get performance from actors experienced and not experienced, an actor who could sing and act, a large body that moved gracefully on stage.” He recalls that New York’s “Nuyorican Poets Cafe gave us the month of September to produce our work, four years running.” Among the results were a “laudatory” New York Times review as well as seeing one of their plays, Moritz and Eliot Levin’s Just the Boys, anthologized by Simon and Schuster.

LeLand’s friend, director Ozzie Jones, remembers meeting him in 1990, when LeLand and another Theater Double partner, Shelita Birchett Benash, “made theater together everywhere.” Jones recalls, “The first play I did with him we rehearsed in a funeral home in South Philly, with a dead body in a casket in the room… This was back when South Philly was South Philly, mob everywhere.” They worked together many more times after that, including at the original Freedom Theatre.

When I mentioned to Jones I was glad Mike wasn’t around to know that he was left out of the Barrymores segment, he responded, “Frankly, the fact he won’t know is what’s pissing me off.” You see, LeLand always tried to convince Jones to work outside “the [black] community,” to strive for recognition among the city's white theater establishment. Jones argued with him about it all the time, countering, “No man or woman should put continuous effort into any machine that doesn’t return the love.”

Now, he says, after learning about the Barrymores omission, “I’ve never felt so unsatisfied about an ‘I told you so.’” 

[UPDATE: Theatre Philadelphia released a new video correcting all the omissions. Click here.]

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