Stage director Kenny Leon is one of the most sought-after creative talents on Broadway today, even if he isn't a household name. He's guided Denzel Washington and Viola Davis to Tony Awards in a Tony-winning revival of August Wilson's Fences, he directed Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in The Mountaintop and he's got two Broadway shows opening within three months of each other.
You've got to have an ego, to be a director, sitting in rehearsal rooms with talented, opinionated actors. But Kenny Leon's productions are kind of ego-less, says Atlanta-based playwright Pearl Cleage, who's worked with the director on several new plays.
"He isn't really someone who's trying to superimpose a flashy vision, so that people will gasp and say 'Oh, the director was this and the director was that,' " says Cleage. "He's actually trying to get to the heart — the real heart — of these people that the playwright has created."
Ten years ago, Kenny Leon made his Broadway debut with characters created by Lorraine Hansberry; he directed A Raisin in the Sun with Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad. Now, he's back on Broadway, with a completely different production of the same play.
"You know, 10 years later, I'm a better artist," says Leon. "There are things that have happened in America in the last 10 years; you know, an African-American president, racism, in terms of Trayvon Martin and the likes, the housing market bubble. We're an international world now; we really have to understand the entire world, which Lorraine was writing about in 1958. So, it's an exciting time to do a revival of this particular play."
This time, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo star as the leads. For the role of Beneatha Younger, the character Lorraine Hansberry based on herself, Leon cast Tony-winner Anika Noni Rose. She previously worked with Leon on a television movie and says his style is very intuitive.
"Kenny works differently than other directors that I've worked with. He likes to put you on your feet very early. I find that disconcerting," Rose says, laughing. "But, you know, you work with people who work differently all the time."
By putting actors on their feet, Leon dispenses with what's known as "table work," where the actors and director spend several days sitting around a table analyzing the text.
"I would rather find out if you can't deliver it and then we can adjust to what you can do," says Leon. "Let's not talk theoretically about the play. I like actors to go home, do your homework, come into the rehearsal hall and bump your ideas against each other, and then it's like we discover something that nobody had."
A Raisin in the Sun is about a poor, working-class Chicago family that wants to move from a cramped apartment to a small house. In this production, David Cromer plays the character who tries convince the family not to move into his all-white neighborhood. Cromer's also an award-winning director, on- and off-Broadway, and says he's enjoyed watching Leon at work.
"He's very open, he's very interested in what people have to say," says Cromer. "He doesn't hold forth about things. Kenny's not going to give a long lecture on what it means, but by the end of the conversation, everybody knows we're all talking about the same thing."
Even before Leon started directing on Broadway, he had a long history in the theater. He's worked as an actor — and still does — and he ran the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from 1988 to 2000. He was one of the first African-American artistic directors of a major regional theater, says Cleage.
"He really took on the burden of changing that institution in the best possible way," says Cleage. "He opened it up to people who had never really felt welcome there; artists, audience members, people from within the Atlanta community, people from outside of Atlanta who had never really thought about coming here to do theater."
The director left the Alliance to found his own company: Atlanta's True Colors Theatre. Leon says he has two criteria: Does the play tell a good story? And will it appeal to a wide audience?
"I've always liked that idea of a diverse group of audience members sitting together, rubbing up against each other and taking on the life of a culture that doesn't belong to either one of them," says Leon.
Leon's next Broadway project is Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical based on the songs and poetry of Tupac Shakur. The controversial rapper was killed in a drive-by shooting almost two decades ago. Leon calls him a prophet, but knows his music will be a hard sell on Broadway.
"And we're gonna be at the Palace Theatre, which is where Annie was. And so, to me, to have Holler If Ya Hear Me in the same place that Annie played, it's like, that's what America is about," says Leon. "And I just want folks to give us half a chance. And if they give us half a chance, if they come through the doors, it's gonna be a powerful evening of theater."
Kenny Leon has precious little downtime in the next few months. A Raisin in the Sun is currently up and running. He'll have a Hallmark movie, In My Dreams, on ABC TV on April 20. Holler If Ya Hear Me opens on June 19. And in July, Leon stars with actress Phylicia Rashad in Same Time, Next Year in Atlanta.