Race, Reconciliation and a Community Rising with Support from one of Broadway’s Biggest Stars: Leslie Odom, Jr.
Leslie Odom Jr. was never a student at UVA — to commandeer a line from previous Speaker and University alumna Tina Fey’s movie Mean Girls, he didn’t even go here.
And yet, his question-and-answer session with President Jim Ryan at John Paul Jones Arena, held on a rainy Saturday just hours after Odom and his team drove hours through the night to get to Charlottesville after a cancelled flight, felt deeply personal to Charlottesville, resonating with a community still trying to heal centuries-old wounds.
The event began with two performances from musical groups on Grounds. First, Broadway-pop fusion group Hoos in the Stairwell performed a medley of songs from artists like Ed Sheeran and Fall Out Boy blended with tracks from Hamilton, the pivotal show that rocketed Odom to critical acclaim and household name status.
While this was an impressive performance, the next group that performed truly set the tone for the afternoon. Black Voices Gospel Choir first performed the soulful Ride On King Jesus, reminiscent of the group’s founding in African American tradition and Christianity, but it was their next song, a performance of Bill Withers’ Lean On Me, that truly captured the ethos of this event.
The line “I’ll be your friend,” simple as it may be, mirrors the sentiments that draw Odom to the University time and time again. When performing as a musical guest at the Bicentennial celebration in October 2017, Odom praised the University for its efforts in acknowledging its white supremacist history — a history forced into the public perception by the tragic events of Aug. 11 and 12. Standing on the very Lawn that was terrorized by violent white nationalists, just blocks from the Downtown Mall where Heather Heyer was murdered, Odom proclaimed his admiration for the University and Charlottesville. “Your community has really touched me and moved me on this trip,” he said. “You have a friend in me forever and ever.”
The question-and-answer session began with lighthearted banter between Odom and President Ryan, who opened the event by asking, “First, a quick question, Mr. Odom — is it okay if I call you Leslie? I’m a little starstruck.” Odom responded with a yes, then quipped, “Can I call you Jim?” The joking continued when Ryan asked, “But you know, I think there are many who would say your single finest performance was at our Bicentennial celebration last year. And I’m wondering, would you agree?”
Despite the jovial nature of the question, Odom used his answer to further delve into his recent devotion to the University, and said, “Jim, I would agree, and I’ll tell you why. What was so astounding about it … I came expecting only birthday party vibes. For you guys to open with the Native American blessing and for you to have the section that went deep on the painful history of slavery in this country, that stuff I just was not expecting at all .… I was just so impressed with this community and with that program.”
Odom went on to describe the period of time after Aug. 11 and 12 and before the Bicentennial when his decision to perform at UVA. was called into question. Many celebrities hesitated to come to town, most notably Future and Lil Yachty, who cancelled their Welcome Week performance in the days after the riots citing safety concerns. Odom had a different response.
“People asked me, ‘Aren’t you going to Charlottesville, are you still keeping that date?’ And I couldn’t wait to get here,” Odom said, turning from Ryan to address the audience. “Because I couldn’t wait to meet you, I wanted to see who you were, face-to-face like a lot of people did, and you guys showed up .… I couldn’t wait to come back and really see how you guys were doing, how you’re healing, if the conversations have continued .... I just came back for a check-in with your town.”
For a while, the conversation turned to Odom’s start in show business — a love for the iconic musical Rent fueled his entrance into the theater world. Odom then relayed to the audience how he learned the power of saying “No” early on, when he made the decision — influenced heavily by the wishes of his family — to turn down a role in a Broadway play in order to pursue an education at Carnegie Mellon.
Inevitably, the conversation turned to Hamilton, the epochal musical that told the story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, with the added element that the majority of the main cast of characters were played by people of color. Odom was able to see The Hamilton Mixtapes, the early version of the now-iconic musical, at a showing at Vassar College. It was during the fourth song of the show, The Story of Tonight, that Odom knew he was hooked.
“I had never in my life — as a fan of the form, as a fan of musical theater,” Odom said, “I have never in my life seen a song with four men of color on a stage singing a song about friendship and brotherhood, in my life. To me, that was the revolution.”
Talks of revolution continued as a video question from second-year College student Nia Williams was shown. She asked, “What was it like as a black man in America taking on the role of a white Founding Father, and if you had to reconcile the two characters in any way?”
Odom’s answering this question was undoubtedly the most serious and emotional part of the entire conversation. His response was slow and deliberate, and he clucked his tongue to fill the space as he thought. After a few moments of trying to start his answer, Odom said, “What I recognized was we were dabbling in things that we didn’t completely understand.” He gripped the table and took a breath before continuing. “And I’ll say this — when you have a deeply spiritual experience … they’re hard to talk about.”
“As a descendant of chattel slavery in this country,” he continued, and then he paused for several seconds. “To, to take the story and tell it how I wanted to. To wrap my arms around the neck, the throat of that story, and wield it how I wanted to, there’s something about that exchange that the audience is feeling, that Americans are feeling. They’re feeling that — that audacity. And it’s doing something.”
Odom then took the opportunity to discuss the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me and one of the most prolific writers on the subject of race today. “He writes when he teaches his son about slavery. He’s like, ‘Do not ever talk about it in broad strokes. Those are individual lives, every single one of them was an individual life. That was a person that God only knows what they could have been. And that person was snuffed out .... you destroyed that person, you destroyed their lineage, their future, and you erased their past because you literally erased their past.’ So that’s nothing to toy with.”
John Paul Jones was so silent as he spoke that it was impossible to imagine that the arena was ever home to thousands of screaming basketball fans. This moment drew out the heart-wrenching truth of the United States’ — and certainly Jefferson and the University’s — painful history. We speak about slavery at the University in the broad strokes Odom condemns. From the popular term of “enslaved laborers,” to the cemetery of unmarked graves on McCormick Road, full of nameless men, women and children only a few hundred feet from a monument that laments the fall of the Confederacy, to the commonplace excuse for Jefferson that “everyone had slaves,” we as a school and a community erase the individual completely. Slavery and racism are not simple talking points or passive occurrences. They are people and experiences the University has only barely begun to grapple with, through projects like the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers being constructed on Grounds.
That is why Odom’s appearance as the Speaker for the Arts is so monumental — Odom is a black celebrity, a public figure made famous for his role in a cultural phenomenon centered around inclusivity, and he chooses to support a university community that has been flawed since its founding. Odom recognizes this — his message isn’t at all the colorblind mantra of “this isn’t who we are,” which flooded social media after the events in August 2017. Rather, Odom has become a symbol of the mentality that this rally was not a fluke but a symptom of who Charlottesville, the University and the nation are. But that doesn’t mean there is no hope.
“Listen,” Odom addressed the crowd. “Healing can’t even begin until you acknowledge where you’ve come from.” The statement harkens back to his words at the Bicentennial celebration. “Seeing a community rally like this,” he said to the Bicentennial crowd, “take ownership of their past and lay claim to the future, I’ve never seen anything like it. You are rising to the occasion.”
There are moments where it’s hard to believe that the world will get better, that Charlottesville and the University will get better. And then, there are moments like this Speaker for the Arts event. At the very end of Odom’s appearance, he sang a few lines of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young, changing the last line of the “and may the game be won,” referencing the men’s basketball game between Duke and UVA. His voice and the gesture brought the arena to its feet all at once, a moment of unity in a town characterized by division. What Odom gave us was more than a fun few hours — he gave us permission to hope for a brighter Charlottesville, a brighter University and a brighter world.
~ Kate Granruth, Class of 2021
Originally published in the Cavalier Daily, January 2019