By Walter Rutledge
On August 19th actor Lee Thompson Young took his life in his Los Angeles apartment, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound; Young was twenty-nine years old. Most people remember him as a former child television personality who had successfully transitioned into a working adult actor. To me Lee was one of those people blessed with a special gift; for which acting was more than a profession, it was a calling.
I met Lee in 1995 while working with the Phillis Wheatley Repertory Ensemble For Youth in Greenville, South Carolina. The Phillis Wheatley Center is located just a stones throw away from the housing project where Jesse Jackson had once lived. The Repertory Ensemble is a safe haven, it gives young people an avenue to excel and create, to build levels of self-esteem that carry over into all areas of their lives; and for a few it is the foundation for a career in the performing arts.
The Artistic Director and Founder Dwight Woods had commissioned me to choreograph and stage his original production entitled A Night of Stars and Dreams. Like so many unsung heroes Dwight was a mentor, taskmaster, tutor, chauffeur, parent, therapist, and financier to name a few. As a musical/theatre director, and as a human being, he knew how to bring the best out of everyone he encountered. On the weekends I would ride my motorcycle the hundred miles from Columbia, South Carolina to Greenville to rehearse with the thirty plus young people under Dwight’s tutelage. Velma Young would also make the two-hour sojourn from Columbia to rehearsals with her son Lee.
About a month into the rehearsal process a diminutive ten-year ago boy walked to the front of the room and began his rendition of Dr. King’s I Have A Dreamspeech. The precocious young man with “old soul” self-assuredness presented more than a mere recitation. It was a focused performance complete with deliberate gestures, phrasing, infliction of tone, and an uncanny understanding of the power of stillness. It was clear that this was more than youthful happenstance, but a perfected and polished oration by an aspiring thespian, a natural, whose maturity exceeded his years. During the performance Lee endeared the audience, and the production served as the official launch of his acting career.
The following September the fall production of Benedict College’s Harold Odom Dance Theatre was SOULS. The dance theatre work centered on an evil low country Root Doctor who corrupts the soul of a child; the two wreak havoc on a community of former slaves living on post Civil War Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina. I played the Root Doctor and Lee was the young boy whose soul had been taken.
The additional cast consisted of fifteen female and thirteen male students from the college. To achieve the large number of male performers we worked with the football coach to enroll members of the team in a dance performance workshop class. This was a win/win situation; we got extra male bodies, and the class would assist in maintaining the football player’s GPA (Grade Point Average) so they could keep their eligibility. The testosterone charged hard-bodied cast delighted the regular cast members, and the novelty created additional campus and community buzz.
The great things about student performers are the level of commitment, fearless mindset and most of all their stamina. I could (and did) rehearse this “non-union” cast for hours. Rehearsals were danced full out until the studio mirrors and windows fogged and the walls literally dripped water. Lee’s role required both non-verbal acting and movement, and he approached his part with his usual enthusiasm.
At dress rehearsal Lee entered the stage wearing black ankle cropped pants and a black bowler hat with a large feather placed in the band. “Mr. Rutledge where is my shirt”, he inquired. Keeping in character I replied, “You have no shirt Voodoo Jr.” It was the first time I saw the confident Lee shaken. He surveyed the muscular cast and replied, “You mean I’m going on stage like this?” We talked and once reassured the now eleven-year old-young man resumed the dress rehearsal.
The curtain rose on Halloween night to a standing room only audience; and Voodoo Jr. (with his cherub face, which included ember colored eyes) was the perfect foil to the over the top Root Doctor. In addition to the choreography and staging we left room for improvised moments by the lead characters. Lee responded to the freedom with demonic vigor to the delight, and amazement of the audience. The response reminded me of the W.C. Fields quote (or warning), “Never work with children or animals”.
Soon after the performances Lee left Columbia for New York City, and within two years he was the teen heart throb The Famous Jett Jackson. Over the years we kept in touch, and he matured into an intelligent, gentle and thoughtful young man. The last time we spoke was a little over two years ago. I was in Greenville at Dwight’s house when the telephone rang, after about five minutes Dwight said, “There is someone who wants to say hello”, then he handed me the phone.
The same respectful young man I had always known said, “Hello Mr. Rutledge”. I greeted him as usual, “Yes Voodoo Jr.” We had a pleasant conversation, which ended with the two of us discussing getting together in New York City, when time permitted, so he could to talk to my students about his exciting Hollywood career.
What’s so strange about human nature is no matter how much time had lapsed there was a part of me that still saw Lee as that little boy full of wonder. After the recent tragic events I now choose to think of Lee as being a prism; an instrument that the invisible light of promise passed through, and became a radiant spectrum of endless possibilities. I will miss you Voodoo Jr.