LeVar Burton has been reading to children for nearly 40?years, but tonight his story is for the grown-ups.
On a Friday evening in April, tens of thousands of Burton’s fans — the ones who can still sing every word of the theme song from his beloved public television program, “Reading Rainbow” — are ending another weary week of pandemic isolation. They’ve put their kids to bed, and they’re pulling out their phones or laptops, curling up on couches or crawling into bed, ready for the voice of their childhoods to carry them elsewhere for a little while.
“Sorry for the delay,” Burton says when his Twitter live stream begins, 20?minutes past the announced start time. It is his first broadcast on this platform, and the inaugural attempt is glitchy. “But here we are! And here we go.”
Since the middle of March, when the familiar rhythms of American life were upended by the coronavirus pandemic, Burton has felt determined to do something to help, “to fill in some of the time while we’re all shut in here at home,” he explains to his Twitter audience. He announced a new reading series, live-streaming three times each week — once for kids, once for young readers and once for adults. For all the time he had spent on sets and stages, in director’s chairs and recording booths, it was at his family’s home in the hills above Los Angeles, in the midst of a historic catastrophe, that his life’s work had been suddenly distilled to its fundamental essence.
Burton, 63, has always had a particular love for the simple act of reading aloud, he says, a form of human connection that he views as vital, especially in times like these. Confined as we are, unsettled as we feel — when has the sense of possibility, the transportive power of stories, felt more necessary?
On his first night of what would ultimately become a month of readings, Burton begins with “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” a dark work of speculative fiction by English author Neil Gaiman. Burton delivers the story with polish and precision, expressive but never distractingly so, careful to make the voices of characters feel distinctive, not over the top.
But then the live stream shudders and freezes. (“A technological disaster,” Burton says later, though the opening-night hiccups were swiftly resolved.) Confused viewers tap out worried messages: “Did LeVar break the Twitter because so many people love him?”
When the screen comes alive again several minutes later, Burton’s audience is abruptly returned to a reading that never stopped. There is a wave of disorientation — a feeling that has become all too familiar of late: Where are we in this story? How did we get here, and how will this end?
But for now, those questions are quieted by Burton’s calm, steady voice, still guiding us through whatever happens next.
Burton is sitting in his crimson-walled home office, the room where he has been hosting most of his live streams. One of the 13 Emmys he won for "Reading Rainbow" gleams on a small table behind him, below the framed cover art of his 1997 debut sci-fi novel, "Aftermath." Burton wears a black T-shirt with a silver pendant around his neck, his look of choice for his recent online appearances, though on this particular afternoon, he is speaking only to a reporter on the other side of the screen.
“It’s one of my favorite ways of storytelling, reading aloud. I love it. I am aware that it’s something that I don’t suck at,” he says. His laugh is a rich, slow-building crescendo. “It brings me joy to know that I am in my purpose.”
“Reading Rainbow” ended its 26-year run in 2009, but fans who grew up watching have since flocked to Burton’s popular podcast, “LeVar Burton Reads,” which he launched in 2017. In recent years, he’s heard from many who have been listening to him for decades, and he’s come to realize “just how powerful that seems to be for people,” he says. “They love hearing my voice. It brings them calm. And I think at this time, more than any other, I felt a responsibility to step up, to step into the moment because I could.”
Burton’s new live-stream series has been helpful for him, too, he says, as he adjusts to his own transformed lifestyle. He refers to himself as an “itinerant storyteller,” a constant traveler who is typically only home for a week or two at a time, when he might dine out with friends or soak in his favorite local hot spring. Now he is homebound, along with his wife of 27?years, Stephanie Cozart Burton, their 25-year-old daughter, Michaela Burton, and his mother-in-law. In the absence of his usual routine, Burton has found structure and meaning in his weekly Twitter readings, which regularly draw an international audience of more than a million viewers.
“Stories are so innately part of the human condition,” he says. “And stories, like music, have the power to bring us together, and I think it’s that magnetizing property that is really important right now, especially in this situation where isolation is so much a part of how we are being required to live.”
For as long as he can remember, Burton has known that he wanted to be someone who helps others think about the deeper questions: Who are we? What is our purpose here? What will we do in the time we have? He credits his mother, Erma Gene Christian, a schoolteacher, social worker and voracious reader, with instilling a clear sense of purpose in her three children. “I was raised in a family where your life is meant to be about service,” Burton says.
At 13, he decided he wanted to become a priest, and he entered a Catholic youth seminary near his family’s home in Sacramento. He studied there for four years, reading the works of Soren Kierkegaard, Lao Tzu and Franz Kafka. “It was the books that I was reading that led me out of the decision to be a priest,” Burton says. “All of a sudden, the world became so much larger, so much more grand than the Catholic parochial point of view, and I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, there’s a big, wide world of ideas out there that I feel like I need to explore.’?”
He won a scholarship to study drama at the University of Southern California, and his first audition as an undergraduate made him a household name, landing him the starring role of Kunta Kinte in the television miniseries based on Alex Haley’s “Roots.” By the time Burton made his 1987 debut as chief of engineering Geordi La Forge on “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” he was the most famous of the show’s cast members, already established as the iconic host of PBS’s “Reading Rainbow” and well on the way to becoming a formative role model to an entire generation of children.
Those earliest fans are now in their 30s and 40s, many of them parents themselves, and they write to Burton all the time on social media. He has been thinking about those messages recently, and what it means to reach a multigenerational audience — which in turn makes him think of his own mother, who taught him to love language, who played such a defining role in his own story.
“You know, I think my mother would really love —” he stops, pressing his palm against his chest. His eyes fill with tears. He waits a moment before he continues: “— the direction that my career is going. To know that education, and my love of literature through the inheritance from my mother, that’s a lasting gift; it’s a lifelong thing.”
This isn’t the first time he’s found himself unexpectedly emotional amid this pandemic, Burton says. As he prepared for a Friday-night reading of fantasy writer Cat Rambo’s short story “Magnificent Pigs,” he practiced the performance aloud, alone. When he reached the ending — a beautifully surreal gut-punch — he was suddenly overcome. It was the impact of the writing, he says, but it felt especially pronounced against the backdrop of our existence right now, the constant awareness of our own fragility in a situation we cannot control. Stories take us beyond our own lives, but they also return us to ourselves.
So when he read that story for his audience a few hours later, Burton says he wanted to deliver that same opportunity for emotional release.
“We are so busy, we are so distracted from these truths about ourselves most of the time, but we can’t hide now,” he says. “We have been forced into this state of vulnerability by our circumstances, and that’s not a bad thing. I’m trying to embrace it. We’re unsettled, and the future is uncertain; it’s appropriate that we feel this way.”
To be a conduit to connect others to those deeper truths — that is, fundamentally, what he has always wanted, he says.
“I started out my life wanting to be a priest, and what that meant to me — once I was able to get some distance from it and break it down — was I wanted to be an influence in people’s lives, one that gave them spiritual succor,” he says. “And I feel like I have achieved that through my career, that I am in fact performing what I once interpreted to be a priestly duty.”
Throughout April, Burton reads to the children every Monday morning on Twitter, introducing old and new favorites — "Amazing Grace" by Mary Hoffman, "How to Be a Pirate" by Isaac Fitzgerald. Almost always, Burton ends with "The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm," the book he wrote with co-author Susan Schaefer Bernardo and illustrator Courtenay Fletcher.
It is a story within a story, about a little mouse who is scared of a storm outside, and so her father comforts her by telling her the tale of a rhino who survived a raging tempest: The storm crashed through his world and tore it apart, and took away everything dear to his heart. The rhino swallows the storm itself, repressing its destructive power deep within, until a cast of wise new friends teaches him that he must express himself to heal.
“I think it’s the perfect book for these times,” Burton says, introducing the story during one recent live stream. “It really illustrates for us how we all go through tough times, like we are now, and how we all need help getting through those tough times.”
This story is for the kids, but the parents are watching, too. Their messages rise in colorful text boxes across the screen as Burton reads, greetings and gratitude pouring in from families watching together in San Francisco and Calgary, in Georgia and Germany:
“Your voice was my childhood.”
“You made so many of us fall in love with books and reading!”
“The world needs LeVar more than ever.”
But the needs of the world are a lot to shoulder, and after a month of hosting the readings, he would decide in early May to stop the series, at least for a while. The project, which he had first intended to continue throughout the pandemic, had come to dominate his time — the live streams, the preparation, the barrage of inquiries about related appearances on podcasts and PSAs — and he wanted a break. The recordings would remain archived on his Twitter page, still there for anyone who might need them.
On the morning of his last reading, he tells the story of the heartbroken rhino one more time. When Burton arrives at the end of his book, he holds it carefully toward the camera, so the children watching at home can clearly see the page. The most salient line in the story is delivered by a mouse, but when Burton reads the words, he may as well be speaking directly to every one of his listeners:
“You’re never really alone when bad things happen.”
This story has been updated to reflect Burton’s decision to discontinue his Twitter reading series.