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Interacting with imagination

Award-winning actor and producer LeVar Burton will read in Tulsa May 19

LeVar Burton


LeVar Burton is well-known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in “Roots” and Geordi La Forge in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” as well as for being the host of “Reading Rainbow.” He now hosts “Skybrary,” an interactive library of digital children’s content, and “LeVar Burton Reads,” a podcast of contemporary short fiction for adults.

Burton is the keynote speaker for the Arts Alliance Tulsa brunch on May 19. Afterwards, he will read a children’s book on Guthrie Green.

Zack Reeves: You grew up in a military family, trading comic books. What kind of comics were you into?

LeVar Burton: I grew up with pretty standard fare: both Marvel and DC Universes. I think my favorite as a kid was “Fantastic Four.” I loved Johnny Flame. Green Lantern. A smattering of “Archie.” You know those? Archie, Veronica, Jughead? [Laughs] I was in the third grade.

Reeves: “Captains Courageous” by Rudyard Kipling too, right? What makes that stand out?

Burton: It was the book I was reading when I really got what reading was about. The book itself is not great, but that was the book—the story—that turned a lightbulb on for me. Because when I finished that book I missed being in that world. I missed spending time with those characters. And I was sad that the story was over; I mourned the end of the experience. From then on, I was hooked.

Reeves: Do you still get that feeling when you read now?

Burton: Absolutely. When I’m reading a particularly good piece of fiction, I consciously slow down during the last chapter, because I know that the feeling of depression is going to hit. I’m going to miss that world, those characters.

Reeves: What are you reading now?

Burton: A lot—a whole lot—of short stories, for the podcast. Nnedi Okorafor stands out; Lesley Nneka Arimah stands out. So many people are doing exemplary work in the short fiction field, which is, for me, a real demonstration of mastery. As a writer, to be able to tell a satisfying story—beginning, middle, and end—in 30, 35 pages? To hook a reader—boom!—right off the bat, to keep you engaged, and then provide some kind of a twist in the ending that you just didn’t see coming? Phew! That’s mastery.

Reeves: What are you looking for when you’re choosing stories for the podcast?

Burton: I just told you! [Laughs] I just gave it away. That’s the secret. You’ve got to hook a reader right away, you’ve got to get them invested in the characters and what’s happening, and you’ve got to deliver a satisfying conclusion, oftentimes that the reader didn’t see coming. That’s what a writer has to do.

Reeves: When you’re reading short stories aloud on the podcast, do you feel that you’re more interpreting the way the author means it to be read, or are you trying to pull your own individual meaning out of it?

Burton: I’m reading the story the way I would want to hear it read to me. It is impossible for me to know for certain whether or not my interpretation lines up with that of the author’s. The author has left clues, and I try and take those clues—and cues—and incorporate them into my interpretation, but this is my version of the story. As is everyone’s!

When you read, you’re reading your version of the story. You’re making the movie in your head. You’re doing the casting; you’re the production designer; you’re designing the costumes. That’s the power of the written word: how it interacts with your imagination.

Reeves: You brought “Reading Rainbow” [now “LeVar Burton Kids”] back with a Kickstarter. Can you tell me what it felt like when you learned you had raised $1 million dollars in one day?

Burton: It was very emotional. We were hoping to raise a million dollars over the course of the campaign. Throughout the day, I was working on set, doing a series called “Perception” with Eric McCormack, and I wasn’t able to watch the progress. But I kept getting texts from my office saying, “This is blowing up!” And over at the office, they were watching it jump, moment by moment. Some of the guys from the office came to the set because they predicted that we would hit a million dollars right around 5:00. And sure enough, we did.

It was really overwhelming, not just to be the focus of that much love and attention, but to have the feedback and the proof that all those years “Reading Rainbow” had landed with the audience. And they wanted to share what they considered to be something that had had value in their lives—they wanted to share that with kids they would never meet. And so they were literally giving money to strangers. It was a powerful experience.

Reeves: When you’re creating this massive amount of new reading-based content, does it feel nostalgic, like old “Reading Rainbow” days? Or does it feel completely new?

Burton: It’s kind of a combination of both, I have to say. It’s different because it’s digital. And it’s not just the video field trips—which are an important part of the “Skybrary” experience—but it’s about the books, it’s about the literature. We’re able to do storytelling in the digital realm in a way we were never able to on television because the delivery system is different.

The child holds the device in his or her hands, and they have access to a library of over 1,000 books, over 250 video field trips, and they’re grouped in thematic islands. If you want to read about animals, go to the animal kingdom island. Go to the magical kingdom island for tales of fantasy. The idea is to make the literature accessible to kids and help them connect the real world to the literature they’re reading through the video field trips.

So, it’s the same work but with a different spin. In the same way, it’s not “Reading Rainbow” anymore; it’s “LeVar Burton Kids.” But it’s the same work. I’m doing the same thing I’ve been doing for almost 35 years. But it’s got a different name.

Reeves: Throughout your career, you’ve been vocal about policies that affect children and learning. What are we doing right, and what are we doing wrong, for children in America right now?

Burton: What we’re doing right is trying to serve the needs of children. What we’re doing wrong … the top of my list is Betsy DeVos. Allowing those who do not have the interests of our children at heart and are more focused on lining their own pockets and growing their own wealth to make decisions that impact how—and the degree to which—we educate our children. That makes me angry.

Reeves: Have you been to Tulsa before?

Burton: I have! Nice city, interesting history. I’m looking forward to being back there again.

Reeves: What were your thoughts about Oklahoma’s teacher walkouts?

Burton: I was very aware, very proud. Just the idea that teachers were taking their destiny into their own hands and had found a way to advance the conversation about the degree to which this society fails to honor that very important job. And they just took control of the narrative and said, “We’re not going to take it anymore! We can do better! We need to do better! And unless we do better, I’m not coming back to work!” I thought it was awesome.

Arts Alliance Tulsa brunch with Levar Burton
Saturday, May 19 | 11 a.m.
Hyatt Regency Tulsa, 100 E. 2nd St.
$250+ | artstulsa.org

Levar Burton reads
2:00 p.m.
Guthrie Green, 111 E. M.B. Brady St.
Free and open to public