When Leslie Smith was 3, his mom moved back to Pittsburgh; his parents split up and his father, also named Leslie Smith, headed to California. A few years later, when Smith was in third grade, his teacher at East Hills Elementary announced a pen-pal project. Smith asked her, "Would it be OK if I wrote to my dad instead of a stranger?"
Smith says his letters brought his dad back into the lives of he and his younger sister — fitfully, at first, culminating when he was 15 in a brief attempt to live with his father. For years afterward, Smith and his dad didn't even speak.
Now Smith, at 37 long one of Pittsburgh's top spoken-word artists, has his own 15-year-old son. And in his first full-length solo stage show, he tries to explain his life — the life of a black man growing up in Pittsburgh — to the boy in a way Smith himself never experienced, in stories and poems. The Book of Ezra premieres Oct. 4 at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Co. "What I was asking my dad to do with me," he says, "is what I'm attempting to do with this."
The second Friday of each month you'll find Leslie "Ezra" Smith onstage at the Hill House Kaufmann Center, in the Hill District. He's the affable host of Eargasm, the performance-poetry and open-mic series he launched four years ago. In August, the networking-and-arts event drew 40 attendees, mostly in their 20s and 30s. Before introducing that evening's open-mic poets, Smith performed his bittersweet but hopeful piece "Her Smile." Its lines include, "I still see my mistakes as my identity" and "I've been hugged and forgotten, over and over, mostly by me."
The crowd enthuses over Smith and the other performers, mostly locals but including notable featured guests like Chicago-based poetry-slam champion Phenomenon the Poet. More than an entertainer, between acts Smith also exhorts the crowd to do "something positive" with their lives, "something to pass on to the next generation. They cold because you cold."
As a teenager growing up mostly in Homewood and Larimer, Smith searched for a cultural identity. A hip-hop fan and rapper from childhood, he got into Bob Marley, Public Enemy, the Nation of Islam; he quit going to church. When his mom grew frustrated by his teenage rebellion, he'd say, "Send me to my dad." One day, she did.
In San Gabriel, Calif., Smith says, he argued with his dad, too; the elder Leslie Smith, a born-again Christian who worked in building security, eventually kicked him out, and Smith wound up living briefly in a Nation of Islam house in South Central Los Angeles. There, he dressed sharp, and sold The Final Call and bean pies on the street.
By the time he returned to Westinghouse High School, months later, his life experiences had given him a voice. He discovered performance poetry and worked at it (along the way embracing the alternate name "Ezra"). Local actress and performance poet Kim El says that when she first saw Smith perform, in 2002, she thought he might be from New York. "When I found out he was just a regular guy from Homewood, it really impressed me with his power and professionalism," says El, who became close friends with Smith. "He gets the audience riled up. He goes there."
"He exhibits his strength through his vulnerability," says Yah Lioness Borne, another top local performance poet. "You see him do a performance and you want to talk with him about it, as a human being, afterward."