The Neon Lights are Bright

By Ursula Brantley

A child rarely knows for certain what they want to be when they grow up. It usually changes from day to day. Since his South Highlands days, Shreveport native and Broadway director Zhailon Levingston knew what he wanted out of life. He earnestly pursued his passion until those dreams became a reality. Levingston was exposed to the arts early in life and fell in love with theatre. His mother made sure he regularly experienced The Strand, he was active in school productions, and he was part of community theatre all over the SBC. Community theatres like Mahogany Ensemble Theatre, Peter Pan Players, Extensions of Excellence, The Shreveport Little Theatre, and Stage Center all helped nurture his creative spirit. “Being in community theatre, being in Caddo Parish Public Schools. I was lucky to go to schools that all had arts programs. They were in many ways the only reason I knew what many things were creatively”, says Levingston. He always loved the arts, but he never knew you could make a career from the arts.

His 5th-grade year was a turning point in his young life. “That year, I learned what a was. I googled, and this whole world opened to me. From 5th grade on, I knew that’s where I wanted to work”. After graduating from The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in Los Angeles, he obtained his equity card much sooner than anticipated. Levingston stepped out on faith and moved to New York with three suitcases and his last professional check. Levingston’s faith has been the foundation upon which his career has been built. Says Levingston, “I didn’t have a traditional path. I didn’t go through a pipeline that was set up for me to be a director, so all I had was my faith. Faith, for me, is the thing that gets you from the couch to the door. It doesn’t necessarily promise what’s going to be on the other side of the door, but it compels you to move closer to it. For many years in my career and still now, I’m moved by what compels me. I trust that on the other side of that, God is taking me to something that is for me”.

When he first arrived in New York, he had no job and slept on a broken couch in the middle of a blizzard. Eventually, he found a job selling Broadway tickets on the street. Despite struggling and hustling, he was grateful to be able to pursue his dreams. It wasn’t long before doors began to open, and he knew that directing was his calling. In his words, to be someone who makes spaces happen and not just occupies the spaces themselves. His campaign, Words on White, began as a way to contribute to the conversation of race in America after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. This guerilla-style theatre that he did in the streets, in the parks, outside of churches, and at schools became his backdoor into the industry. Words on White provided space for all types of individuals to have uncomfortable conversations and allowed him to meet other directors, actors, and writers whom Levingston held in high regard. 

Levingston’s extensive portfolio is incredibly impressive. He made his directorial debut on Broadway in 2021 as the resident director of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. That same year, he made history as the youngest Black director on Broadway as the director of Chicken and Biscuits. His other credits include The Exonerated at Columbia Law School, Mother of Pearl at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center, and Hadestown in South Korea. Levingston is also a board member and co-creator of the Broadway Advocacy Coalition at Columbia and has worked with Idina Menzel’s A Broader Way Foundation. The first weekend in January 2023, he helped bring The Color Purple to life at Shreveport’s Marjorie Lyons Playhouse. For him, creating something for the community that molded him was a different type of gratitude and felt more personal than his Broadway debut. Levingston will be back in Shreveport in December to act in the production Top Dog, Underdog with Shreveport actor Michael Thomas. The production will open the first weekend of 2024 at the Marjorie Lyons Playhouse. For all the aspiring creatives, Zahilon’s advises, “It will always be hard. You’re always going to be learning. It’s always going to feel overwhelming, but if you’re supposed to do this, then this is what you have to do”.