Leon Pitts did not grow up thinking he’d ever dance on a stage. He grew up sneaking across the house and into the living room, stealing glances at Michael Jackson on the television and mastering the moonwalk.
As a kid, he obsessed over the Jacksons and how they chose their careers based on a love of their art. He has carried that idea with him to this day, and to Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, for which he performs as a singer, actor and dancer.
“In 2000, when I was at Manatee Community College, Mr. (Nate) Jacobs asked me what I was doing with my life,” Pitts says. “I must have looked like I had no direction at the time, but he gave me my first solo act in a Eubie Blake show — I had to sing ‘Great Big Baby.’”
He’d never heard the song before, but he liked it. Of course, he did question Jacobs’ motive for this particular tune.
“It was about a big guy who thought he couldn’t get love, but then he realized that big people need love, too,” says, Pitts, 30. “I thought maybe Mr. Jacobs chose it because I’m a big guy and he thinks I’m a big baby.”
Pitts had always kept up with the latest hip-hop dances, however, he had never shuffled, stomped or done a “falap.” But in order to sing the song, he had to learn the dance steps.
There are two noticeable sounds to a falap (a dancing term), therefore it is a two-part process. Part one: Lift your foot, and then lift the heel of that foot so the ball and toe point downward, but don’t touch the floor — yet. Then, move the lifted foot forward and downward, and brush forward on the floor with the ball and underside of the toe. Part two: Put the ball of your foot back onto the ground and stop all motion of your foot.
“Mr. Jacobs had a lady teach me, and the whole time I was thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is this lady doing to me?’” Pitts says. “It was fun learning it, but it was difficult. You get confused.”
A few years later, Pitts found himself learning to tap dance for the show, “Sophisticated Ladies.” He was always the heavy-set guy in the group and struggled to keep up with the smaller guys, but he had the moves and the routines down in two weeks. They practiced on a tile floor, which aided in teaching them to be more distinct and defined with their steps and movements in order to ensure everything was correct.
“There was one moment when it hit me,” Pitts says. “Mr. Jacobs has a gift. You don’t know what’s in you. You could be the oddest person, and he’ll tell you to try something, and you’re looking at him thinking, ‘You know nothing about this.’ But he will pull these gems out of people. I still feel like I’m growing every day.”
When asked about his upcoming show, “Soul Crooners,” also one of his favorites, Pitts grins and breaks into song.
“Why can’t a song be like, ‘I wanna love you, you make me feel brand new … make her fall in love with you?’” he asks. “This was a time when songs were pure. I guess I am part of the last generation that grew up with respect, especially in music. This show brings back the realness in music, the realness in love. Nothing’s coming from the heart anymore, that’s why they call this ‘soul music.’ We’re just trying to bring back the respect.”
The show is also one which, as soon as the guys open their mouths and start hitting notes, the audience immediately starts to sing — every single word. If someone on stage gets the lyrics incorrect, the audience never hesitates to inform them.
“Growing up doing plays, I would stay in the back,” says Pitts. “I never wanted to be out in the front — or so I thought. Then I got a taste of it, and the light became my friend. Theater isn’t something I have to do — it’s something I love to do.”
IF YOU GO
“The Soul Crooners” opens at 8 p.m. July 12, at the Westcoast Black Theater, 1646 10th Way. Shows start at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. The show runs through Sunday, July 24. Tickets are $25.
“Dynamic Duets of the ’70s” runs Aug. 16 through Aug. 28, with shows at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
For information, call 366-1505 or visit wbttroupe.org.
Q&A with Leon Pitts
• Describe your first time on stage.
It was at my church, and I was 5 years old. I had to lead a song with the youth choir. We were singing “Decently and in Order,” a song about teaching kids what not to do. It was my first solo. I was scared and very nervous. I barely held the mic to my mouth. The funny thing is that the kids had to repeat what I said, and I don’t even know if they heard me.
• Ever have a stage blooper?
Just recently, during “Five Guys Named Moe.” I played “Big Moe” in there, of course. I was supposed to say a part, and the guys were looking at me, but I forgot I was supposed to say it. I’m sittin’ here, snappin’ like this, and they’re looking at me just smiling and smirking at me. Another time, when I was doing “Sophisticated Ladies,” I was doing a dance move and forgot I was supposed to do a kick and then go into a split. I forgot to do the kick, so I did it and tried to catch up, and my feet went out from under me. I was sitting there looking up like, “How did everyone get up before me?”
• Whom do you idolize?
Nate Jacobs, because he’s sincere and serious about what he does and he loves it. Andre Descheer for his style of dancing, the way he moved and the way he spoke. Reggie Kelly — he was instrumental in taking me under his wings and helping me with my growth in theater. Harry Bryce because he taught me about my diction, got me into ballet and helped me sharpen the different nuances of dancing. My dad, because he taught me how to be consistent and how to stick with things, even though they might look bad sometimes.
What show must you do before you die?
I would like to lose this weight and do my first role in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” again. Viper’s Drag — it’s a song about the time in Harlem when people were getting high, and reefer had just hit the scene. It hits all areas where an actor is striving to be — acting, singing and dancing. It’s not being a jack-of-all-trades, but being able to do it all. You have to be the triple threat.
Are you ‘the triple threat?’
Oh yes. I am.
• If you weren’t in acting, you’d…
Honestly, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I actually went blank when you asked me that.
Contact Loren Mayo at [email protected].
Check out Leon Pitts singing a song from his favorite musical, "Ain't Misbehavin'."