Remembering Leslie Perry
(May 28, 1936-March 5, 2014)
The last time I saw storyteller Leslie Perry was at a gathering he hosted in Pasadena in order to have his close friends surrounding him one more time; photographs were taken, memories shared and of course stories told.. His body was withering away from the devastating effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but his smile was still incandescent as he held forth in typical Leslie fashion, all eyes upon him till the end. He had hosted many such gatherings in recent years, refusing to stop living in the face of his dire medical diagnosis. Indeed, it seemed to propel him into action, as he published two books, organized fundraisers for the Pasadena ALS (Amytropic Lateral Sclerosis) Society and became the center of gravity to his friends who were already missing him. And always this Michigan-born California transplant continued to practice his craft and tell his stories.
One of four African-American storytellers of my acquaintance (Michael McCarty, Barbara Clark and Nick Smith are the others) from LAs Community Storytellers, he devoted as much energy to being the main organizer of storytelling events as he did to actually telling stories. He was a focal point for WOW—With Our Words—whose leader Karen Golden has now put some of Leslie’s best known tales from live performances at the Beverly Hills’ Public Library up on YouTube. But the thing I remember with most fondness about Leslie is not his own storytelling—it was the fact that if he wasn’t performing himself he would always be in the audience listening. He was the Supporter-in-Chief of the entire community and it didn’t diminish his pleasure one iota to be in the audience rather than up on stage. He taught me that the story listener is just as important as the story teller. Without fail with Leslie in the audience you could count on a great performance from the stage; his kinetic energy, his rapt attention, his joy in the entire relationship was profoundly contagious and enveloped the performer as well as the room of other audience members.
It was an article of faith with this great “Story Man,” the title of his first book. Note he didn’t just refer to himself as a “storyteller,” but as a “story man;” it defined his entire being—not just the act of telling, but the act of being itself. It was who he was, not just what he did. More than any one I know, he became the story when he told it—he was just the vessel for the tale.
Leslie was the embodiment of Elie Wiesel’s wonderful saying: God made man because he loves stories.
What I will remember most vividly about Leslie are the stories he told about Frederick Douglass, American slave and abolitionist who found a modern voice in Perry’s retelling of his most famous speech What To An American Slave is Your 4th of July? At the time he developed this story this Michigan-born transplant was attending Berkeley at the height of the Black Power Movement in 1968, when the Black Panthers in Oakland were in the process of becoming national celebrities through the infamous cases of Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. Leslie was performing guerilla street theatre in Berkeley and the Panthers had taken a stand that such cultural attempts at protest were too tame and it was time to pick up a gun for self-defense. They became the epitome of what counter-cultural satirist Tom Wolfe dubbed “radical chic.”
However, Leslie would not be dissuaded or discouraged. He kept on performing in the streets and worked up a performance of Douglass’ powerful response to an invitation to speak at a July 4th gathering in Rochester, New York by white abolitionists who somehow imagined they were above criticism and were doing him a favor by inviting him. What Frederick Douglass had to say went down in the history books as the most radical statement ever made about the United States tortured legacy of slavery and racial injustice. No need to recount it here; those familiar with Martin Luther King’s Riverside Church condemnation of the Vietnam War on April 3, 1967—one year before he was assassinated—will hear echoes of Douglass in his assessment that “the most violent nation in the world” was his own country.
When Leslie performed as Frederick Douglass in his own words on Telegraph Avenue and was overheard by some curious Black Panthers in attendance they were overawed by what this street performer had to say. They had no idea he was acting a role from more than a century ago and bringing Frederick Douglass into the Black Power Movement as its new star performer. Suddenly this theatre student from Berkeley found himself completely accepted by the most militant group in the Bay Area, thanks to his deep knowledge of Black History and determination to practice the principles of nonviolence without sacrificing his radical critique of racism. It was absolutely brilliant and became the basis for his most enduring story.
I was inspired by hearing it long after the 1960s were in the dustbin of history itself and brought Leslie into Beyond Baroque’s Literary Arts Center for several performances during Black History Month in the 1990s. It had lost none of its power to enrage, engage and upstage. Leslie was a hard act to follow. So I always and proudly opened for him.
But Leslie had a larger vision of society than even he portrayed in this one story—it was based on a lifelong commitment to brotherhood and tolerance. During the height of the assault on human rights in Kosovo, Leslie created a story about building bridges between enemies and forging understanding and friendship as an alternative to killing. It may have been his finest tale, because once again he was able to touch on a theme that was both timely and timeless. He practiced what he preached, much like Pete Seeger’s one-line manifesto on his long-neck banjo head: “This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces It to Surrender.” Leslie did just that in the stories he fashioned and chose to tell. And if the hallmark of a great artist is their ability to transform any life situation into a canvas for their art, Leslie was indeed a great artist. Even after the progress of his disease had forced him to live in a series of retirement homes and board-and-care facilities he persisted in organizing events and reaching out to people to raise their sights above their own enforced limited horizon—to Keep Their Eyes On the Prize, as it were. On one such Martin Luther King Holiday he invited me to come out to Duarte and perform a program of civil rights songs for his fellow residents. His ability to perform himself by that time was severely limited, but it didn’t stop him from setting up the stage for me—and what I found there was awe-inspiring. He had brought downstairs from his room a display and tableau of vintage magazines with cover stories from the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement—to surround the songs with unforgettable images of the struggle as it was happening in the Deep South. It was far-and-away the most treasured memory I have of a single performance and it was because of what Leslie added to it. For forty-five minutes, Leslie had transformed this assisted living facility into a magical theatre of living history.
And that’s not all. Afterwards he introduced me to all of the residents—and I mean all of the residents—by name, even though he had only been there a month. He always created community around him, as his home base of Community Storytellers will attest.
In a word, that was Leslie Perry. From the streets of Berkeley at the epicenter of the most radical decade in modern American history to an out-of-the-way retirement home for the frail elderly in Duarte, he put his stamp on both of them without regard for their station in life—or his.
More even than his magnificent stories, Leslie Perry’s life was a work of art.
As Leslie’s body began to fail him his spirit kicked into high gear to realize the dreams of a lifetime—that his stories find some way to outlive him.
Already there are three memorials planned including the graveside memorial in Whittier from March 13, where he was laid to rest at a beautiful service at Rose Hills Memorial Park, 3888 S. Workman Mill Road. There is a memorial page here.
The next two will be on Saturday April 5, at 10:00am in Fullerton at Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 West Malvern Ave, the home of many storytelling events in Orange County, (contact Zoot Velasco at 310-809-3733 for more information) and in Pasadena at his own Church of Truth at 3:00pm, 690 E. Orange Grove Blvd 626-795-6905.
In addition Leslie’s wonderful life story is told in filmmaker Erik Hudson’s award-winning documentary at the following link: https://vimeo.com/66972182
Leonard Ellis composed a musical elegy to Southern California’s local hero and griot extraordinaire called Leslie Perry’s Happy Man Polka, a sure sign that he touched our lives with his own joi de vivre.
And this author wrote A Prayer for Leslie for his ALS fundraisers, placing Leslie in the unfortunately long-line of extraordinary people who have been afflicted with it, from Yankee great Lou Gehrig to Leadbelly to Stephen Hawking to Leslie Perry. 75 years after Lou Gehrig gave his name to the disease medical science has yet to find a cure and is still in dire need of funds to sustain their research.
Leslie Perry’s second book is entitled Wednesdays with Leslie by Kalen Tolces & Leslie Perry (after the bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom) and will hopefully be available at both memorials. Both books "…celebrate the enduring life lessons of a man afflicted with ALS. Leslie is survived by his daughter Aydia, his brother George, and a community of friends and fellow storytellers.
For further information visit the Community Storytellers website
Ross Altman may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org