Kyle Jean-Baptiste made history as the first African-American and youngest actor to play the lead role of Jean Valjean in the popular Broadway musical Les Misérables earlier this summer. He was only 21.
Hearing of this monumental achievement and wanting my high school friend to receive the press that he deserved, I asked him if I could pitch a story to EBONY about the show and his future plans.
“I’m very fortunate for the amount of press I’ve received for Les Misérables…It feels good to know people are feeling inspired,” he said.
The recent Baldwin Wallace graduate was thrilled at the possibility of being featured on the magazine's website. We both agreed that this would be a positive and uplifting story to share during a very difficult news cycle.
A few days after sending the pitch, I wrote Jean-Baptiste to update him. I had not yet received an answer yet on whether it was picked up.
“Thanks, brother. No rush. I appreciate you trying," he said.
Knowing just how hectic it can be in EBONY's New York office, where I once interned, I decided on Saturday morning that I would follow up with an editor on Monday. I was completely blindsided by the news that Kyle had tragically fallen from a four-story fire escape in Bedford-Stuyvesant the day before.
This is not the piece either of us envisioned and I wish it were not the one I had to write, but I am honored to still be able to relay his encouraging story of breaking boundaries and fulfilling one’s dreams. The young pioneer was set to join yet another Broadway revival this month—The Color Purple.
Kyle was one of the most gentle and optimistic people to walk this earth. He was a man of great character with an infectious megawatt smile to match. Some of my fondest high school performance memories are of a direct result of his actions.
At the end of my junior year at LaGuardia High School, I auditioned for Hair Spray, which was the musical being produced the following year. After not receiving a call back for the role of Seaweed, I didn’t bother pursuing the production further. Later, Kyle (who landed the role that I'd wanted) came to me and told me that one of the cast members bailed and that he recommended me to the director.
After joining the cast, he asked me to help him learn how to do vocal runs for one of his numbers, “Run and Tell That,” and we rehearsed in free practice rooms in either the vocal or dance departments of the building during lunch time.
I eventually found myself verbally lashing out, disappointed at my smaller role in the production. I came to Jean-Baptiste one day and confessed that I was bitter and ungrateful. I apologized and without hesitation he told me not to worry about it. That's the kind of guy he was, gracious, humble and caring. We continued working as if nothing had occurred. He was beyond understanding.
Kyle Jean-Baptiste, being the star he was, went on to nail that part. Every night, he reminded us all why he was chosen for that role and I was grateful to share a stage with him. Word of his success on Broadway came as no surprise to those of us who knew him. With a pure soul like his—his gift and determination—he was a force to be reckoned with. It's tragic that the world truly only saw a glimpse of his potential.
I cannot imagine how difficult his passing must be for his family but I hope they find comfort in knowing that they raised a superstar who will continue to inspire others for years to come.
The marquee of the Imperial Theater in New York City will be dimmed in Kyle Jean-Baptiste’s memory tonight at approximately 10:15 pm.