In early March of this year I lost a dear friend and the community lost a talented writer, educator, activist, and storyteller. Leslie Perry lost his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He was not only a friend to me, but he was a friend to all he came into contact with. His inviting smile and sweet spirit touched all those who found themselves in his presence and, most importantly, were lucky to hear his gift for dynamic storytelling. With a booming voice and an impassioned delivery, he could bring just about any tale to life. Folktales like John Henry, Brer Rabbit and Anansi the Spider became vibrant and real through Leslie's delivery. Stories about freedom and human dignity would open the heart and minds of listeners of all ages. Stories about great historical figures like Frederick Douglas would bring an audience face to face with history. He was a great storyteller.
Leslie's story began in Saginaw, Michigan in 1938. He became interested in theater arts while attending high school and performed in numerous productions. While living in the Bay area, he attended UC Berkley where he continued to pursue his interest in theatre arts. In the late 1960s, Leslie became a member of the Black theatre ensemble known as the Aldridge Ayers West.
As a member of the ensemble he wrote, directed and performed in many politically charged productions. However, through his work on stage, in various one man shows, it was soon clear that storytelling was Leslie's main passion, a passion that would put him on stages and in front of audiences of all ages throughout California and many other states.
As a beginning musician in the early 1990s, I was hungry to learn from local performing artists in Southern California. I studied every performer and artist I could. Leslie Perry was tops on my list. In early 1995, I was asked to do a performance for students and families at Vaughn Street Elementary School in Pacoima, California. I was told Leslie Perry would be the other artist performing that evening and I was excited. Leslie had never seen me perform before that night. I was new and he was the veteran. I was thrilled to watch his performance, but nervous to have Leslie catch my show. His approval would validate my skills. After the show he approached me and said, "I want to work with you!" Wow, he was actually impressed with me! And that was the beginning of our working relationship and friendship.
Throughout the years, I've blessed with many opportunities of adding my blues to Leslie's stories. Leslie Perry, Robert S. Hilton, and I formed a performance group called Homespun that brought music, stories, and homemade instruments to schools through the Pasadena Unified School District. In 2010 Leslie told me of his ALS diagnosis and I was surprised and saddened by the news. As he described the probable symptoms, he added he may have to stop performing. Although he appeared a little upset, he remained upbeat and positive, as he always was. Accepting his fate without any hesitation, he was ready to take on this new journey.
In the summer of 2010 Leslie asked me, Robert Hilton, Paul Moorhouse, and Chazz Ross to back him up on a performance at the Pasadena Levitt Pavilion. He wanted this to be, as he said, his last grand performance. By this time I noticed he began losing weight. He was moving a little slower, and I didn't know if he'd be up to the task. He brushed off my concerns and the gig was set. On the night of the show, he pushed aside his disease and gave his all. He was electric and the performance was magic. I was honored to be backing up my friend.
Of course Leslie's story didn't end there. With the help of friends, he published two books of his plays and stories and was featured in an award winning documentary call "The Story Man." He traveled when he could to promote the publications and the film. And he was still telling stories, albeit from a wheel chair. He was living his next journey.
When I was a child, I once heard a street preacher proclaim: "If Mother Nature won't stop you, father time will." ALS couldn't stop Leslie. In the end it was time. I learned many things from Leslie. I learned what it takes to be a strong, dynamic performer, I learned about professionalism, but, most importantly, I learned how to live life to the fullest. Even in the face of adversity, with faith and love, you never know where that journey will take you. He would say, "with or without this disease, I will keep going till I go to glory," and he did.
On Saturday, April 5th, family and friends will gather to celebrate the life of Leslie Perry at The Church Of Truth located at 690 E. Orange Grove Blvd in Pasadena, California. The memorial will begin at 3 p.m. in the community room.