Award-winning and Tony-nominated director Kenny Leon is one of the most exciting and acclaimed directors in American theatre today. In July 2010, his Tony Award-winning Broadway show “Fences” garnered the most nominations ever for a play revival: ten, which included a nomination for Mr. Leon as Best Director. “Fences” set box office records and received Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Play, Best Actor (Denzel Washington), and Best Actress (Viola Davis). As well, each of Leon’s previous Broadway productions were lauded with multiple Tony nominations and wins: “Radio Golf”, “Gem of the Ocean” and “A Raisin In The Sun” which featured Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald. A familiar face on Broadway, Leon is currently directing two shows on Broadway, which are running concurrently into the winter. He is directing Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in “The Mountaintop”, by Katori Hall, winner of London’s 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. And, Mr. Leon is also directing “Stick Fly”, by Lydia Diamond, produced by Alicia Keys.
Leon founded his Atlanta-based non-profit regional theatre, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, in 2002. True Colors’ mission is to create a theatre that looks like the world, serving a multi-cultural audience by refreshing the classics, and nurturing tomorrow’s voices today. True Colors is also home to the Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition, a multi-city competition for high school students designed to invigorate learning of one of our nation’s most proliferate playwrights. The competition culminates in the final competition at The August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. Prior to founding True Colors, Leon served eleven years as Artistic Director of the Tony-Award winning Alliance Theatre, also in Atlanta.
Leon was born in Tallahassee, Florida. He attended college in Atlanta, Georgia, and while he is on the road quite a lot, he still calls Atlanta home.
Urban Cusp: Your work as a Stage and Film Director is very inspiring. I really appreciate the platform you have created for African-American playwrights and actors to create and present new work on Broadway. What is your life’s mission?
Kenny Leon: To use story-telling as a vehicle to get people to understand their connectedness to each other. It’s a diversity mission. My personal mission in life is about culture sharing with each other so that we can better understand our connectedness to each other as it relates to life – we’re all human and we’re all going to live and die. Through the stories that I agree to direct, it’s with that in mind – it provides understanding, clarity and commonality – from a “Raisin in the Sun” to “Fences” to the August Wilson plays to “The Mountaintop” to “Stick Fly.” They were all the same idea – rather I’m bringing young people to Broadway who never thought their stories were worthy of being on the higher stage, or if it’s looking at an iconic figure that we sort of put on the shelf instead of making him human and something young people can reach to.
UC: I absolutely loved “The Mountaintop” and was literally speechless at the end of the play – but felt very empowered and motivated. What inspired you to direct it?
KL: I wanted to do “The Mountaintop” because I ran into a 15 year-old and asked him – do you know who Dr. King is? His response was “it’s that civil rights dude.” That was not acceptable to me. I wanted people to really embrace Dr. King’s values. I recently asked someone in the audience what does the play mean to you? He said “we need to take that baton and do something in our neighborhood, country and get motivated.” I think by using Dr. King that way, we are able to inspire people now [in relation to] their lives.
UC: In your words, what is “The Mountaintop” about?
KL: “The Mountaintop” is about God’s humor, grace and love. Dr. Martin Luther King is only the central character.
UC: What advice would you give young people interested in pursuing a career as a stage director?
KL: Put yourself in the position of observership in a professional setting. Get involved with projects such as SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) or TCG (Theatre Communications Group). They have programs set up for directors. Learn what the career is about. See how regional theater is related to commercial theater. Gain an understanding of the whole structure.
UC: What will be your next play on Broadway?
KL: My next play will be either Tupac Shakur, the revival of The Wiz, or The Great White Hope.
Have you already seen these shows? What did you think?
As founder of Utopia Model Agency and FashionAFRICANA, Demeatria Gibson Boccella is focused on broadening the standard of beauty and cultivating a more life-giving and globally aware approach to African-inspired fashion and culture. Boccella conceived of Utopia as a response to limiting and narrow portrayals of black beauty and fashion. Boccella provides the artistic vision for FashionAFRICANA, which has grown from a regional event to one with national and international reach and appeal, celebrating 10 years this year. Visit Demeatria Gibson Boccella’s website for more information about her work: www.broadening-the-standard.com and follow @FashionAFRICANA.