SHREVEPORT, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Zhailon Levingston has a little time left to develop nervous jitters before the curtain goes up on the first performance of The Color Purple in his hometown of Shreveport, but so far the youngest Black director in Broadway history says it feels great to be backstage in the same theatre where he acted in his youth.
Levingston sat in an auditorium seat at the Marjorie Lyons Playhouse on Tuesday afternoon and told KTAL what it feels like to return home to direct The Color Purple after achieving major theatrical success in New York.
“I feel maybe more pressure than I do on Broadway,” said Livingston. “Here, in every single audience, I’ll know half of the people. I know they’re investing time and they have to find a babysitter or will bring a kid that’s probably too young for the show but will bear witness to something. So, I’m like I hope it’s good. I hope they like it.”
Levingston’s career has seemed nothing short of meteoric to those who have been watching from a distance and an inexplicable, blazing-hot fireball to many of those who have watched from up close. But Levingston says he knows why his career has taken off so quickly, though he also admits it’s difficult to describe.
“Sometimes it’s hard to explain faith. How do you explain how a really good cookie smells? That’s how I feel about my journey. It’s as much about my ambitions as it is about God’s ambitions for me— I listened to the whisper.”
The whisper began for Levingston when he was a child when he was a part of almost every community theatre in Shreveport. The director says his initial introduction to the arts was at South Highlands.
“When I would be bullied on the bus, I knew I could sit in Mrs. Johnson’s art class and it would be okay. Or I could go nerd out to the Music Man with my drama teacher and I would be fine. This was before I even theatre it as a career path,” he recalled.
Levingston says that getting people interested in theatre requires giving kids access to the arts at a very early age, and he says statistics prove it.
“In Shreveport when I was growing up if you were really trying to study theatre you’d go to the community theatres,” he said. “I needed to be doing three or four shows a year, and that wasn’t in the curriculum in the schools.”
Levingston turned to local community theatre troops and local leaders in the artistic community. Mahogany Ensemble Theatre’s Angelique Feaster Evans and Extensions of Excellence’s Vincent Williams were some of the troops and inspirations that helped guide him early on.
Levingston was also briefly a part of Peter Pan Players, which he says was run by Shannon Shea at that time. He also remembers being in the Shreveport Little Theatre Academy and working with Jared Watson, Mary Thoma, Robert Darrow, Laura Beeman, and Adam Philley.
“Eventually Stage Center was my last big involvement before I went off to college,” Levingston said.
The aspiring actor and director graduated from Captain Shreve in 2012, left Shreveport, and moved to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles. But he says he always came home in the summertime to be in or to direct shows.
After he graduated from college, the plan was simple. But as it turns out, Levingston’s hard work made things more difficult.
“I knew that as soon as I graduated and got my equity card, I wanted to go to New York. I thought I’d work in LA for two years and get my card, but I got it in three months.”
Levingston says when he showed up in New York, he had “no job, one check left from LA, three suitcases, living on a broken futon, in the middle of a blizzard, selling Broadway tickets in the middle of the street in Times Square.”
But, in his own words, he “kept a low standard of living and didn’t expect a lot.”
And this humbleness, combined with eagerness and a genuine love for his craft, made a great combination.
“What was most valuable for me was time,” said Levingston of his early days in New York. “I woke up every day and thought about meeting directors, actors, and playwrights. I made that my job.”
He sold Broadway tickets on Times Square and eventually started selling concessions inside of the theatre.
“I was getting closer to the stage,” Levingston said with a laugh.
But closer to the stage wasn’t going to be close enough for Levingston. He wanted the stage itself. And he had a secret.
“Even when I showed up in New York, and nobody knew me, I knew who everybody was in every room.”
But even though he was meeting a lot of people, Levingston said he’d never met or heard of a director that looked like him and was his age.
“I knew I wanted to direct eventually, but I thought you had to act for 50 years, and then somebody tapped you on the shoulder and said now you get to do this thing,” he said.
Then came Words On White.
In 2016, Levingston tweeted, “Our words, being the only thing we have total control over, must be held to the fire and illuminated by light.”
“I felt like there was something I needed to do after the death of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille,” Levingston said. “I didn’t want to have children one day and tell them that I didn’t do anything to help. And so I decided to create an arts advocacy campaign called Words On White, where I took the words of artists from the previous century and put them in the mouths of emerging artists of today.”
Levingston says he felt like we were living in a generation that didn’t know how to respond to what was going on.
“I was like well, bad things have happened in the past, and people have talked about it, written about it, so let’s just resurrect their words.”
He used the few connections he had at that time, and a local theatre in New York let him produce a one-night event there.
“It was very successful,” remembered Levingston. “We then started a campaign where you would hear artists say the words of James Baldwin, or Nina Simone, or Maya Angelou, or Toni Morrison, and then we’d roll out a long white canvas on the ground, and we’d pour these markers on the ground, and you’d respond to what you saw on the stage.”
Levingston explained that the campaign was designed so that a sixteen-year-old Black girl could be across from a 30-year-old policeman, and they could respond through art instead of the other ways they encounter each other.
This would prove to be Levingston’s big break, albeit by accident.
“The industry was trying to figure out how to respond to things as well,” he said. “That was a lane that I made for myself. Eventually, I got interviewed to be the resident director of Tina, the musical on Broadway.”
And things have gone onward and upward from there for the young director.
But if there’s one thing that can be said about Levingston, it’s that he’s not the kind of guy that rests on his laurels and watches others struggle. He has plenty of heartfelt advice for anyone who is out there trying to climb a ladder and reach for a seemingly impossible dream.
“Whatever your industry is, go to the place your industry is best,” he said. “Wake up and go outside. Go to the café, go to that place where the people are that you want to be with, and find your community first. Remember that more than people want to work with other skillful people, people want to work with people they can get a drink with–everyone has the skill set. If you feel like you have the skill set, get into a community of people who have the desires you have, the dreams you have, and the ambition you have–people that are moving at a pace you want to be moving at. It’s a game of stamina.”
Levingston is definitely winning at the game of stamina. He’s directing The Color Purple at the Marjorie Lyons Playhouse on the Centenary campus from January 5-8. Tickets are available through Stage Center.
“The ways that I come to this project are very personal because of the connections I’ve made growing up in Shreveport,” he says. “It means a lot to people that I left Shreveport and am able to do what I’m doing in New York. I’m trying to recognize that because in New York your head is down and you just have to work. You don’t become the youngest anything in New York without just working nonstop and grinding nonstop.”
Levingston says he got introduced to the arts so early in life that he didn’t know theatre was a possible career.
“I just thought it was fun and I think I still enter it from that place,” Levingston confessed. “So when Jared, the artistic director, said the rights to the Color Purple were out, I said, ‘I love that show! That’s so fun! Let’s go do it! I love making theatre!’ These are all of the things that happen in my mind before I think about what it means impact-wise, culturally. I still grapple and negotiate with what it all means to direct The Color Purple here.”
The Broadway director and Shreveport native says now is the right time for this production and that he’s the right director.
“And it’s tailored for this community in ways that we’re still discovering,” he adds. “Even the talent that’s in the show were raised in Shreveport and got their training in Shreveport. I think it’s such a showcase of what’s always here. I think that’s really exciting. With the very little resources that we have, you can still work to push everyone to whatever their growing edge so that it’s not just sentimentally impactful, but that people are actually experiencing what theatrical excellence can look like and feel like.”