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Actor In Metro Theater's Adaptation Of 'Ghost' Aims To Change Perceptions Of Albinism

Ernest Emmanuel Peeples as Lu in Ghost
Jennifer A. Lin | Metro Theater Company
Ernest Emmanuel Peeples sprints around the Grandel stage while portraying the character Lu in Metro Theater Company's production of "Ghost."

As an actor, Ernest Emmanuel Peeples has portrayed a real range of characters — from Hamlet to the Ghost of Christmas Present. But in recent months, one particular theatrical role stands out from the rest: the opportunity to portray Lu, one of the adolescents at the center of Jason Reynolds’ wildly popular young adult novels, one of which is now also a play.

Like Peeples, the character Lu has albinism, a genetic condition involving a lack of pigment that affects one’s skin, hair and eyes. Having this in common with a character is a first for Peeples, and a meaningful one.

“This is the first play that I have worked on or to my knowledge has been published where a character is explicitly written to have albinism and is also an African American,” he said Tuesday. “And in a world where perception is everything, you don’t get to see that very often.”

Peeples talked with St. Louis on the Air host Sarah Fenske about his role in Metro Theater Company’s “Ghost,” which runs now through March 1 at the Grandel Theatre. The production is directed by Jacqueline Thompson, who also joined the on-air discussion. She noted that when it came to the character of Lu, it was important to her that Metro cast an actor who has albinism.

“For all the work that I do, I want to be authentic, and [when] you have a topic that covers unrepresented voices, it is important to do your due diligence to find those voices,” Thompson said. “There are actors with albinism … and so I think a lot of times, you know, sometimes we get into these discussions behind the scenes, and I’m always going to fight to make sure those voices are honored and are present.”

Jacqueline Thompson, at left, and Ernest Emmanuel Peeples joined Tuesday's talk show.
Credit Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Jacqueline Thompson, at left, and Ernest Emmanuel Peeples joined Tuesday's talk show.

Peeples opened up about his own experience growing up as well as the connections he has observed between his own life and that of Lu in the play and Reynolds’ novels.

“My mother, and all my family, they were very supportive, and I remember my mom had this book … this children’s picture book that talked about complexions and loving the skin that you’re in,” he said. “And she was very poignant about letting me know that, understanding my condition and understanding who I was, but then also understanding that it didn’t matter.

“And in fact, you know, my first word wasn’t ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ or anything like that. It was ‘hi’ mirrored with a waving motion, because she didn’t like the fact that people would just always stare at me. So, you know, as soon as I could talk, I was just waving at people and saying ‘hi’ to let them know that I see them seeing me.”

Peeples said there were times when he felt perceived by others as a monster as a kid, and even internalized some of that.

One of the things about Lu’s character in “Ghost” that especially resonates with Peeples is the fact that while Lu’s albinism does come up in the play, the character is written as a full-bodied, everyday person rather than being drawn as either overly sympathetic or cartoonish.

Thompson said she thinks it’s no accident that Peeples is able to bring this character to life for Metro’s audiences.

“It’s not by chance that he’s here at this moment for this particular role in time,” she said.

Listen to the conversation:

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.