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BWW Interview: Darryl Van Leer of MANDELA: LET FREEDOM REIGN at MarshStream Uses His Many Talents to Uplift Us All

The lauded performer & writer brings his moving portrait of the iconic leader to MarshStream on February 6th

BWW Interview: Darryl Van Leer of MANDELA: LET FREEDOM REIGN at MarshStream Uses His Many Talents to Uplift Us All
Actor & Writer Darryl Van Leer
(Photo courtesy of Mr. Van Leer)

The uncommonly versatile actor/writer/musician Darryl Van Leer has made it his mission to provide inspiration to others. It would therefore be hard to think of a more perfect way for The Marsh to launch Black History Month than with a live performance of his electrifying one-man play, Mandela: Let Freedom Reign, which it will present on MarshStream on Saturday evening, February 6th. From his early life to his epic struggles against apartheid, Nelson Mandela comes to vivid life in this life-affirming performance. An icon of democracy and social justice, Mandela's life-long dedication to promoting forgiveness and equality are celebrated in this stirring reminder of one man's incredible impact. Mandela: Let Freedom Reign will be presented at 7:30pm PST on Saturday, February 6th on MarshStream. Van Leer will also appear two days prior to that on Stephanie's MarshStream at 7:30pm PST on Thursday, February 4th to discuss the play and perform a brief excerpt. For more information, visit www.themarsh.org/marshstream. Also, please note that the performance on February 6th will be live only, and not archived for later viewing.

Van Leer has enjoyed quite a wide-ranging career. While his theater work has focused primarily on his one-man shows about iconic historic and musical figures, he has also racked up some impressive film and TV credits in ensemble projects, sharing the screen with acting luminaries such as James Earl Jones, Samuel L. Jackson and Rue McClanahan. I spoke with Van Leer last week from his home base in Nashville, Tennessee. In conversation, he is instantly and effortlessly engaging, warm and upbeat, and clearly thankful for the opportunity to create and perform works of inspiration. His Kentucky roots are evidenced by the delightfully musical lilt in his speech patterns. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Given that you're based in Nashville, how did you connect with the folks at The Marsh?

Well, I have traveled around the country and internationally as well with shows on Frederick Douglass, Dr. King, of course this one on Nelson Mandela, and musical icons such as Ray Charles and Little Richard. I have another show entitled Power on Earth, which includes Thurgood Marshall, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, so forth like that. So I'm happy to say that I guess the word got around and The Marsh was interested.

What was your impetus to create Mandela: Let Freedom Reign? Obviously, he's an extremely worthy subject for a play, but it's also a pretty daunting proposition for an actor and writer to take on.

Well, they say "When you find a job that you really love, then you don't work another day." So my life's mission is to inspire - in theater, in music, television. That is what I'm put on earth to do, and I'm so happy that's my calling. So I'm constantly looking for historical characters to inspire people in some form. When Mandela passed away, I figured this is a person that's truly worthy of bringing to the stage and I just went to work ASAP. That's what motivated me, just having my mind out there searching constantly for pieces that I think can uplift society.

Mandela is such a towering figure in world history. As an actor portraying the man, how do you get past the icon to find the actual person behind it?

I get to know the character by reading the autobiography. It allows you to grow up as the person, you know what I'm sayin'? So that I can take on all of his thoughts from youth on up til the last period in his book. So that's what really does it for me, reading their words. The first full-length one-man show that I wrote was on Frederick Douglass, My Life in Bondage, and it was amazing to see his inner workings, his mind, his thinking. And the same with this piece. I read that autobiography and I had an opportunity, in a sense, to grow up as Mandela.

In the research you've done for this play, did you learn anything about him that surprised you?

Well, I would say everything was new knowledge to me because I really didn't know that much about the whole apartheid struggle. The thing that truly amazed me is his ability to continue to be humble, in spite of all that he went through, you know what I'm sayin'? His persecution, in prison for years and years and years, and his - what would be the word to use? - his humble spirit. And then when he came out of prison, he still had just so much love in his heart. He was truly, truly, truly driven by love. And to be able to forgive across the board, after all that he'd been put through? I mean, his life with his wife and kids was all stolen from him. 27 years is a long time. So the thing that amazed me was the humanity to be able to do that.

I certainly don't think I would have been able to that - to still feel love and forgiveness and not just become this bitter, broken-down person.

Well, you know, the show also reveals that this was an extremely humble, intelligent, brilliant person, a highly educated, respected lawyer. And not only that, but he was a leader, and so his thinking was not just for him personally, but for the well-being of that country, and he realized that love conquers. You know you can't conquer hate with hate; you just can't. The only thing that can do it is love. And he knew what was going on in the States with Dr. King, he knew what was happening with Mahatma Ghandi. No doubt his thinking was not just for himself, but it was for the well-being of South Africa, and I think that is why he did it and how he was able to do it. Because he had the power to persecute, but he didn't and I think that's the greatest thing that healed that country, that right there. When he actually stepped up to be the president of South Africa, he forgave 'em, you know the people that done so much harm and destruction.

What is your own favorite part of performing the play?

Well, when I write these productions, I always try to find a shining light, I try to find inspiration. When people leave my productions that I've been blessed to put on, my whole intent is they will leave feeling empowered, happy, inspired - Black, white, Asian, Native American, all people. Now, I take them through a lot. You know there's valleys and hurdles and conflicts in the pieces. There's certain parts that I take the audience really down into the trenches of the mechanics of apartheid, that very few people know about. And I bring them up and it inspires me as well, when he steps up to the stage to become the president. That is probably one of the most inspiring parts to me.

There's also another part in the play that is truly heart-wrenching. It is his connection with Winnie, his wife. The strength he gets, that he gathers from her to maintain, to stay on the court, is inspiring to me as well.

What is the show's future after February 6th? You toured it in the past.

I did. I've done two tours with this one, England and Wales. This piece, along with a one-man show on Frederick Douglass, and I was actually scheduled to be back in Liverpool again this past May, along with the music that I travel around with as well, that I do on Ray Charles. I'm hopeful that this piece during this period of time when we definitely need inspiration will continue, you know, to breathe, along with all the other pieces, too. And I'm a tell you this, you know the virtual thing is great, but live performance still reigns supreme for me. I truly miss that, but I'm thankful still to be able to do virtual shows. I've done several of 'em and it's a real blessing, to still be able to give fuel to my artistry.


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