Leslie Sword's vision


December 02, 2007|By Katy O'Donnell | Katy O'Donnell,Sun reporter

When Leslie Lewis Sword, daughter of business tycoon Reginald F. Lewis, told her father when she was young that she wanted to be an actor, he gave her advice she still thinks about today: "You don't just have to be an actor. You can be a director. A producer. You can own the theater."

This week, Sword - now an actress, writer, producer and businesswoman - will perform 10 roles in Miracle in Rwanda, a one-woman play she created with Edward Vilga. Her performance at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture will kick off a celebration weekend to honor what would have been her father's 65th birthday.

Lewis, who was born Dec. 7, 1942, in Baltimore and rose from a working-class upbringing to make Forbes' 400 wealthiest-Americans list, died of brain cancer in January 1993 at age 50. He was the CEO of TLC Beatrice International, the first African-American-owned business to make the Fortune 500 list.

"My father was an incredible visionary," Sword said, "and I think he taught me and my sister how to visualize something and then allow it to happen."

Sword's most recent vision resulted in the creation of Miracle in Rwanda, a play that chronicles the experiences of Rwandan genocide survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza, the New York Times best-selling author of Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. In addition to writing her book, Ilibagiza also told her story last year on CBS' 60 Minutes and on various PBS shows.

Ilibagiza's family was slaughtered during the three-month killing rampage in 1994, but she managed to live by huddling with seven other women in a hidden bathroom of a local pastor's home. She and the women stayed cramped in the bathroom for 91 days, even as her family's murderers repeatedly ransacked the house with machetes.

Sword first took interest in Ilibagiza's story when she heard the survivor give a presentation about her experiences, but it was her trip to Rwanda with Ilibagiza (during which Sword adopted two Rwandan toddlers) that cemented her decision to write about and act out Ilibagiza's various experiences.

It is Ilibagiza's outlook since the tragedy, perhaps even more than her survival, that continues to awe Sword.

"It's completely revolutionary to go through a genocide and forgive the people who massacred your family," she said of Ilibagiza, who now lives in New York City. "It's a quiet revolution."

Ilibagiza's devotion to religion, which grew stronger during her confinement, pulled her through the devastation of losing her family and her way of life, according to Sword.

"She's a happy person," Sword said. "I just hung out with her last week. She's funny. Because she's let go of hating."

Sword, who divides her time between Naples, Fla., and New York City, ascribes part of her own happiness to her father.

"His life was very dramatic, and he made it so that mine doesn't have to be," she said. "He made it so it's easier for me to be happy than it was for him."

Her father was fiercely dedicated to her independence and education, she added, noting that she and her sister are fluent in French because he split the family's time between Paris and New York while they were growing up.

At 18, she was made a director of TLC Beatrice, a "gift" she said that gave her "a wonderful education in business." She went on to graduate from Harvard University (bachelor of arts degree in social studies), where her father had gone to law school, and to receive a master of fine arts degree in acting from the University of California at Los Angeles.

"I have found that business is important in art," she said of her father's influence on her career. "I want to make sure the art gets seen by people. ... Theater is not theater without an audience."

katy.odonnell@ baltsun.com

Performances of "Miracle in Rwanda" take place at the Lewis Museum, 830 E. Pratt St., at 6 p.m. Thursday, 11 a.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $35 Thursday and Friday ($10 Friday for students with ID) and $100 Saturday (includes a post-performance reception). For more on the weekend celebration, call 443-263-1801 or go to africanamerican culture.org. For more about Sword and the production, go to miracleinrwanda.com.

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