By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Levensky Smith is in a contemplative phase.
The Broadway and screen actor has a new movie out today — “Black Nativity,” the film adaptation of the Langston Hughes stage show. And for that he’s thankful.
But it’s the lull between projects, and the uncertainty of the acting business, that has him pondering where he’s been and where’s he headed.
Smith is a Youngstown native who has been living and working in New York for the past 17 years. He grew up on the South Side. His mother, Mary Smith, still lives in the city while his father lives in Akron.
A dancer-singer-actor, Smith’s stage credits include “The Color Purple,” “Cats” and a host of others.
“Black Nativity” is easily the biggest screen role he’s ever had. The cast includes A-list stars Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson.
But while the film is just debuting, Smith is already on the lookout for his next role. And for someone who is used to the fast lane of the entertainment world, the slowdown can be hard to handle.
In a phone call from his Times Square apartment Tuesday, Smith talked about “Black Nativity,” his present situation, and the wisdom he’s gained from decades on Broadway.
Smith saw the premiere of “Black Nativity” last week at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem — an experience he described as awesome.
Although he is in many scenes as a member of the choir, he had a bit of a letdown to discover that many of the choreographed numbers — “Black Nativity” is a musical — did not make the final cut. “It was edited out for continuity,” said Smith.
It might have been a lot of work for nothing, but Smith knows Hollywood is a different game. “It is what it is,” he said. “It caused me to understand what God has been protecting me from for years!”
Smith’s foundation is in stage work and it remains his reference point.
“Broadway taught me discipline and professionalism,” he said. “It is the real deal. But you get worked like a mule and paid in peanuts. In film, you are paid exorbitantly and some of your work might not even be seen.”
Professional integrity is foremost in his mind as he searches for another project, be it on stage or screen.
Smith said it always comes down to who is interested in him. “The best roles I’ve ever gotten were the result of phone calls, where somebody thought of me and called me and said ‘go audition’,” he said. “That’s how I got ‘Black Nativity’ and ‘The Color Purple.’ Nothing I’ve ever gone out for on my own has ever happened.”
Smith has long been on the highest levels of his trade, but working on “Black Nativity” was “magical, to say the least,” he said.
He was part of shooting from Jan. 9 to March 1 at locations in New York. “Every day I was working with these stars and I felt like I was one of them,” he said. “I am a seasoned actor and I had what it takes. I didn’t feel any inferiority, and it’s easy to feel that way.”
He came away with deep respect for both Bassett and especially Whitaker, whom he called “the best, most humble, respectful, caring and true artist that I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve encountered the gamut.”
While “Black Nativity” is currently in the spotlight, Smith finds himself between jobs — a routine ebb in the feast-or-famine world of an actor. But this time around, he’s motivated more by a desire to mesh his heart with his career. He’s still trying to get to a higher place, but money — once his main motivation — now takes a back seat.
It’s due to a mix of disenchantment over the workload, and disdain for the unsavory underside of the business that can whittle away at your self-respect.
Smith’s longevity has led him to a place where he finally sees the whole New York entertainment world for what it really is.
His analogy is interesting, and enlightening.
“There is a rhythm to the city and the shiny bright lights keep people oohing and aahing. But it’s a facade. It’s the Matrix,” he said, comparing it to the 1999 sci-fi film in which people were in a coma-like state but did not know it. What they perceived as reality was only a simulation, perpetrated upon them by sentient machines.
Where does Smith fit in in this world?
“The theater people like myself are trying to find Zion,” he said, a reference to the last human city in the film. “The powers that be are the controllers, the sentinels. Everyone else has to follow the rhythm.”