The unexpected death of the 21-year-old actor, who fell off the fire escape of a Brooklyn apartment Aug. 28, shocked and saddened the Broadway community as well as his classmates at Baldwin Wallace University, the Berea, Ohio, college from which Jean-Baptiste recently graduated. The loss of the performer, who last month became the first African-American actor to play “Les Miserables” protagonist Jean Valjean on Broadway as well as the youngest actor to do so, also resonated beyond the theater world, with his recent landmark achievement clearly marking him as a talent cut down well before his prime.
Approximately 200 people gathered at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain Aug. 31 — a Monday, when most Broadway shows have the night off. Mourners, many of them young performers like Jean-Baptiste and visibly emotional, hugged each other and handed out roses, sunflowers, orchids and other flowers to attendees. The event culminated in the entire crowd circling the fountain to sing the “Les Miserables” anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
The event came in the wake of the onstage tribute given to Jean-Baptiste at the curtain call of the Saturday night performance of Broadway’s “Les Miserables.” Ramin Karimloo, the actor whom Jean-Baptiste understudied in the role of Jean Valjean, led the audience in a final standing ovation for the actor. (Jean-Baptiste’s first performance as Valjean was July 23.)
At Bethesda Fountion, Baldwin Wallace graduate Sam Wolf introduced fellow actor Brandyn Day as Jean-Baptiste’s best friend, before Day addressed the crowd.
“I didn’t want to write a speech today, because I don’t think there are words for this moment,” he said. “Kyle always knew what to say to strangers. He taught me how to speak to people. He taught me how to love people. … When he did something, he did it in the biggest possible way.”
Day said that by appearing on Broadway, Jean-Baptiste had made good on a vow the actor made during their college days together. “He said it every day,” Day recalled. “He said, ‘Dude, I’m gonna be on Broadway.'” He got cast in his history-making part, Day said, the day after he graduated.
Day, who’s currently appearing in a production of “Saturday Night Fever” at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport, N.Y., never got to see Jean-Baptiste play Jean Valjean. “We always said that me not seeing it meant we were both working,” he remembered.
His Baldwin Wallace classmates, who graduated with Jean-Baptiste earlier this year, have launched a campaign to create a scholarship in Jean-Baptiste’s honor. There’s also a push for Broadway to honor the actor by dimming the marquee lights.