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LeVar Burton ahead of South Jersey visit: ‘Storytelling is a part of the human experience’

The 'Reading Rainbow' host talks about his new non-fiction podcast.

LeVar Burton will visit the region on Nov. 26, 2018 to tour his podcast, "LeVar Burton Reads."
LeVar Burton will visit the region on Nov. 26, 2018 to tour his podcast, "LeVar Burton Reads."Read moreCourtesy of LeVar Burton

Before earning a dozen Emmys, a Grammy, a Peabody, multiple Image Awards, and a host of other recognitions, actor, director, and author LeVar Burton grew up in a household where education was king.

“Education was pretty much the family business if you were a Burton," he said.

With such a pronounced foundation in learning, it makes sense that education developed as the connective thread through Burton’s work.

Best known for his groundbreaking roles on Reading Rainbow, Roots, and Star Trek, his career reaches spans four decades. Now, he’s moved into the world of podcasting. In his weekly podcast LeVar Burton Reads he reads a short fiction story from authors from all over the world.

In each episode, Burton puts his voice acting chops on full display, using different voices to represent each character, giving the stories a unique dynamic.

He’s taking his talents on the road with a national tour and will make an appearance Tuesday, Nov. 27, at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood. He’ll read a story followed by a discussion with Samuel R. Delany. Pianist and composer Kendrah E. Butler will be the musical guest.

Burton talked with the Inquirer and Daily News about his career and podcast. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

When did you realize you had an interest in the written word?

I’ve been aware of the written word my whole life, really. My mom was an English teacher, so I was always being made aware of the proper use of grammar. My mom was also an avid reader, so I always saw her reading for her own personal enjoyment. The importance of the written word in our lives was just always visibly and physically reinforced.

Who are some of the authors you read growing up?

I read a lot of science-fiction. Of course I read Richard Wright, James Baldwin, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read the masters: Robert A. Heinlein, [Philly native] Ben Bova. I’m a pretty avid reader.

What made you want to create and tour for your podcast?

It was a way to be creative and exercise some creative aspects of myself without asking for permission from anyone else. There was no studio executive or network head who could say no. All that was required was me, a microphone, and a good story. I was really looking for something purely, selfishly creative.

How do you choose which stories to read each week?

Well, as you know, I focus on short fiction, so that really narrows all of literature down to a specific category. Between my producer and I, we read a lot of stories. I choose the ones for the podcast that I really have a big passion for reading out loud. There’s something in the story that makes me want to read it out loud, either the character, the setting, the twist, the writing. There’s something that has caused me to say, ‘Oh, this would be fun to share with an audience.’ And when I say fun, I mean fun for me.

What separates a good story from a great story?

I don’t know that there is a formula. I just know that it’s very difficult; that it requires a certain amount of mastery to deliver a satisfying beginning, middle, and end with compelling characters in a situation that you’re interested in for 35 pages or less. It’s a lot more difficult than it would seem.

Are you reading any books now?

Well, in Philadelphia, we’re about to finish the fall tour. So I’m giving myself a break and I’ll start reading again in January.

What gave Reading Rainbow its 25-year endurance?

Storytelling is an intrinsic part of the human experience. Reading Rainbow was all about making kids who could read readers for life.

Why did the show end?

There’s been plenty written about that. The show ended in 2009 because of funding. Then I revised and resurrected the brand in 2012. I did a Kickstarter in 2014. And last year, I finally stepped away from the Reading Rainbow brand and gave it back to WNED.

One of your most renowned endeavors is starring in the 1977 television mini-series Roots. What’s the importance of understanding the concept of lineage?

It’s important for everybody to get a sense of their history, their lineage, their family’s story. It’s important for black people because our [history] was robbed from us for so many generations. And now with the Human Genome Project, we can fill in those missing gaps. Our history was taken away by slavery. Part of the point of slavery was to disunite families as a way of control. So it’s important for black people in America to know their history.

What’s your day-to-day like? Are you able to go to the supermarket without being recognized?

I live in the world. I go to the supermarket. Part of my reality is that people recognize me. I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve learned how to incorporate that energy to my life.

Finish this sentence: I’m most happy when ...

... my family is happy.

I’m inspired by ....

... a myriad of things. I can be inspired by almost anything if it’s genuine.

I’m most proud of ...

... being a storyteller and having relevance over a long period of time in American culture.


LeVar Burton Reads

8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 27, Scottish Rite Auditorium, 315 White Horse Pike, Collingswood, $30, 856-858-1000,