Written by | Ray Cornelius
If you saw Kenny Leon walking down the streets of Manhattan, you would never know that he is a Tony-nominated director who just recently had 2 plays on Broadway at the same time.
You might also never guess that he’s the founder of an award-winning theatre company, True Colors in Atlanta or that he is gearing up to direct an African-American version of the movie, Steel Magnolias.
You also wouldn’t -know that he’s worked with everyone from Debbie Allen to Denzel Washington to Alicia Keys. For Leon this unassuming nature is what keeps him grounded and ready for the next assignment.
We recently caught up with the ‘in demand’ director to dish about his accomplishments thus far and what’s lies ahead.
RC: Congratulations on having directed 2 plays on Broadway at the same time this past year (The Mountain Top and Stick Fly) and for The Mountain recouping its 3.1 million dollars in investments. How does that feel?
KL: Well, it feels pretty wonderful because 1 in 5 plays don’t make their investment back. So just to be a part of this situation, where it’s returning money to the investors, is just a great thing for us storytellers. Last year, I did Fences with Denzel Washington and that recouped its money. And then a few years back I did A Raisin in the Sun and that recouped its money. So we have a pretty good success rate going and it makes me feel good only in the sense that it will allow us to tell more African-American stories on the Great White Way.
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(montage of Stick Fly, directed by Kenny Leon)
RC: You recently did a workshop for Holler If Ya Hear Me a musical featuring lyrics and music by the late Tupac Shakur. How did you get involved with this project?
KL: Well, for the last 10 years, I’ve been in communication with Afeni Shakur, Tupac’s mother. And she has always wanted something on a Broadway stage that would do justice to his artistry and music. I also think that Tupac was a prophet and I think his audience can be broadened to not only existing followers but others that could acknowledge his genius by just getting inside of his music. So, I found a way to deliver his music. This is not an autobiographical. It’s not about Tupac’s life. It’s not about East Coast versus West Coast. It’s just a musical that’s been inspired by his music.
RC: It was announced last fall that you are directing an African-American version of the movie, Steel Magnolias for Lifetime TV. Can you tell us who’s been cast for it?
KL: (LOL) There will be six major African-American stars playing those roles that Shirley McClain, Dolly Parton, Sally Field and Julia Roberts all made famous. We will start shooting in early March right here in Atlanta. I’m also attached to 2 more movies, Babylon and Cotton, based on the novel, Pickin Cotton.
RC: You still call Atlanta home? What do you think about it being referred to as the new “Black Hollywood?”
KL: Well it is home because my company True Colors Theatre is here and we still produce about 2 or 3 plays a year and that’s very exciting to me. Were actually getting ready to do Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hopefully it will have a life after Atlanta. I think that Atlanta is the city of potential. We have a tremendous opportunity and the potential to be Hollywood East. But I don’t think we’re there yet.
RC: The late playwright, August Wilson is one of your heroes. Why is his legacy still relevant to this present generation?
KL: August is great because he put the entire culture on his shoulders and delivered 10 incredible plays about African-American’s in America. He sacrificed a lot of his life to just write those plays for us. And with that he gave actors and directors like me jobs. Actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Rock Dutton, Lawrence Fishburn and Denzel Washington, have also had opportunities to work with his plays. He wrote about us and our lives.
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(Denzel Washington in August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Kenny Leon)
RC: What’s the story behind your signature footwear?
KL: It started with my grandmother’s passing. My tennis shoes remind me to stay grounded and remind me that it’s either all of us in the bed or all of us are on the floor. I’m now sponsored by Addidas and I only wear their attire.
RC: You’ve had an opportunity to work with some extremely talented actresses and directors. I am going to name a few and I want you to describe them in one word or phrase.
KL: Ok (LOL)
RC: Pearl Cleage
KL: Pearl Cleage is a genius. And she is so peaceful and serene. And I would work with her anywhere. Did you say one word? (LOL)
RC: Phylicia Rashad
KL: A woman of grace
RC: Jasmine Guy
KL: All I have to say is watch out for her second coming!
RC: Viola Davis
KL:Viola Davis is the Truth! The salt of the earth! The most talented woman in America
RC: Alicia Keys
KL: Alicia Keys is full of love and beauty. She is one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met and one of the most talented people I’ve ever met.
RC: How would you define the Kenny Leon style of directing?
KL: Raw, honest and truthful.
Here is the trailer of The Horne Brother’s documentary, The Start of Dreams. It chronicles three young actors who audition for Kenny Leon’s August Wilson Monologue Competition with cameos by Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Jasmine Guy and Phylicia Rashad…
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