Leupold '68 bridges racial divide to forge career

Frank Leupold '68 graduated from Cornell the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was an entirely different world.

"The United States is moving toward a point where it no longer has a majority culture, with less than 50 percent during the last census identifying as 'white,' in many states," he says. "And the Internet is a tool that connects the world in ways unimaginable in 1968. One can only remain culturally isolated if one chooses to, and that with great difficulty."

Valuing the "ethnic salad" model and not the "melting pot," Leupold believes in encouraging students to be true to themselves as individuals who represent only themselves.

"There is value to attempting to create the world on campus, but I feel much more valuable is foreign study, travel, and immersive experiences, and a 'foreign' environment might range from rural Appalachia to South Los Angeles, as well as overseas locations," he says. "An excellent education of both scholastic and open social awareness coupled with respect for the individual, including self, will serve anyone well anywhere."

Leupold arrived at Cornell as a biology major determined to become a neurosurgeon, but his path veered when he decided to pursue theater and became involved in the Cornell Players, attending the 1966 Yale Festival of Undergraduate Drama.

After receiving his MFA from the University of Texas, he worked as a resident designer and instructor at the College of the Holy Cross, followed by a summer designing lights for the Boston Summer Opera Theatre's production of "Carmen."

"The director suggested I apply for a design position at the National Center for African American Artists," he recalls. "Being of basic Caucasian heritage, I didn't think it was a good idea. It was the era of Black Power. African-American institutions had mostly pulled away from 'paternal care' by the founding Caucasoid power structure. It was a time when black voices in all media were being heard for the first time unfiltered through a majority culture producer."

However, believing that the most vital common denominator between people is "the feeling of interconnectedness through a power beyond our human dimension," Leupold sought the job. Hired as resident designer, Leupold designed more than 150 shows and became immersed in African- American arts, highlights including meeting Eubie Blake, lighting Billy Taylor, encouraging the mime troupe to move beyond the proscenium, and designing for almost every major black American choreographer of the 1970s. In 1983, Leupold received the Frederick Douglass Award from Boston's Friends of Frederick Douglass Square for encouraging inter-racial harmony.

"I truly believe it has been the simplicity of genuineness in my approach which has allowed me to interact across the spectrum of humanity," Leupold says. "It is nothing special which I have created nor possess.  This all comes from two sources.  First my father instilling in me the importance of integrity and knowing that everyone has something to learn from, and  then, the teachings of Mr. Joe Svec '56 at Cornell concerning the use of masks and their necessary removal."

Leupold eventually migrated to California to delve into film and video. Recently, the LEL Brothas invited Leupold as documentarian to cover their history-making Arabian Peninsula tour, including the first public hip hop performance in Saudi Arabia.

"Looking out over the crowd at the Saudi Arabian performance in Riyadh," he says, "I realized the enormity and culture shaking nature of the event of which I was a part at the end of this year's Arab Spring."

 

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