Seeing & Being Seen
Theater director Kenny Leon and children’s author Sophie Blackall use real life as fodder for their creations. Despite the risks, both are celebrated for making honest works for the masses.
Kenny Leon is an award-winning actor and director. He won the 2014 Tony Award for best director for a revival of A Raisin in the Sun.
Leon was born in 1956 in Tallahassee, FL, and studied at Clark Atlanta University. In 1990, he became one of the first African Americans to head a major regional theater company when he was named artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company. In 2002, he founded True Colors Theatre Company to premiere and preserve plays by diverse playwrights.
He directed his first Broadway play in 2004, with a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun starring Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. He won a Drama Desk Award in 2010 for his direction of August Wilson’s Fences starring Denzel Washington; it was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won three. His 2020 production of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play was nominated for seven Tonys, including for best director.
Leon has also acted and directed for television. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2017 for Hairspray Live!
He published an autobiography, Take You Wherever You Go, in 2018.
Sophie Blackall is an award-winning illustrator whose art has appeared in over thirty children’s books, including Big Red Lollipop, a New York Times top ten picture book for 2010, which she also wrote.
Born in Australia in 1970, Blackall moved to the United States in 2000 after she and her family won a green card lottery.
Blackall has collaborated with many notable authors, including Judith Viorst, Jane Yolen, and Meg Rosoff. Her Ivy and Bean series with writer Annie Barrows has over one million copies in print. Blackall received the prestigious Caldecott Medal for picture books twice, for Finding Winnie: The True Story of the World’s Most Famous Bear (2015) by Lindsay Mattick and for her own children’s book Hello Lighthouse (2018).
Her 2011 work for adults, Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found, illustrated anonymous messages posted online by lovelorn strangers. The same year, she published a picture book version of Aldous Huxley’s children’s story The Crows of Pearblossom.
- Art & Design
- Stage & Screen
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how really creative people understand the world. I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, “Seeing and Being Seen.”
Kenny Leon grew up a self-described country boy in Tallahassee, Florida. Today, the Tony Award-winning theater director is helping to change Broadway, one story at a time.
Kenny Leon: I’m trying to lead people to a different kind of understanding about each other. Then they say, “You know what? We’re all the same, we let the stupid stuff get in between us.”
Children’s author and illustrator, Sophie Blackall, creates honest stories for curious kids, the world over. She’s learned that stepping into other people’s lives requires not only courage but humility.
Sophie Blackall: I think children are capable of digesting an awful lot more than we give them credit for. In their own way, at their own time.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
A person’s character can be concealed or revealed in any number of settings. But to get to a person’s heart all the Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon needs is a round of golf.
Kenny Leon: If you’re a person that can’t deal with anger, it’ll show up on the golf course. If you’re a person that disrespects women or disrespects the gay community, it’ll show up in your jokes or the things you talk about. If you don’t respect nature, it’ll show up on the golf course. If you have humility, if you can laugh at yourself when you make mistakes, it’ll show up on the golf course.
Leon is best known for directing shows that highlight the African American experience, from a struggling family in post-World War II Chicago to a son growing up in mid-20th century America who learns to accept his selfish father’s failings. Leon is particularly skilled at showing how people of different generations can help each other grow. “Everyone from 9 to 90,” he says, “has something unique to share.”
Leon: When you’re ten there’s no one else that has the beauty of a ten-year-old, but a ten-year-old. Every decade you have something to offer. There’s nothing more beautiful than to listen to a 90-year-old man who has his wits about him, tell you about life, or tell you what’s important. You can’t do that when you’re 60 or when you’re 40, but when you’re 90, that’s a beautiful thing.
This respect for the wisdom of age was instilled early. Leon was born in rural Florida in 1956, to a 15-year-old girl, Annie Ruth, and an absentee father, Leroy. While his mother was away working, Kenny stayed with his grandmother, Maime Wilson. She was a wise, thoughtful, and kind woman with a strong moral code. Kenny adored her and faithfully adhered to her belief that all people should be treated equally. Of the many important lessons he learned from her, one, in particular, has defined Leon’s life: take you wherever you go.
Leon: What she was saying was that you are enough. You don’t ever have to be anyone else, you don’t ever have to be a woman or you don’t have to be white. You can just be a good country boy from Tallahassee, Florida and that is enough.
AJC: What were the conversations like, or do you even remember how she imparted these ideas of values and of meaning, and how that would apply to your life?
Leon: We never had it and my grandmother was not the type to sit down, “Let me tell you the lesson of life.” She would say sometimes just in passing, “Oh, you got to keep laughing.” She always told me, “If you always tell me the truth, you don’t have to worry about anything. It’s always easier, to tell the truth than it is a lie.”
AJC: And did she ever say to you, “There will be people who will put impediments in your way because of the color of your skin?” Did that ever come up?
Leon: She wouldn’t say it in a teaching way, you know what I mean? She worked for a family, I remember, she was taking care of white families and their name was Mr. and Mrs. White. And she loved them, you know what I mean? So by example, she would just say, “Oh no, baby, you don’t hate nobody because they’re whatever.” You know what I mean? ‘Cause, she had people in her life that she respected and that she loved. And she had a strong spiritual belief. So she believed everything that is in that little black book. You know what I mean? So she’s always said, “No, don’t judge people, don’t judge people, no. You got to worry about yourself.”
AJC: This was an incredibly positive woman.
Leon: Oh, absolutely.
AJC: She didn’t have to use fear to teach you, she didn’t us bad outcomes. It was always about, “Go do the right thing.”
Leon: Living life to its fullest, taking every moment in. And there’ll be a time that you won’t be here and that’s not a sad or bad day. It’s like, live life, respect everybody. Be as strong, be as good as you can.
At age nine, Leon was uprooted from grandma Maime to live with his mother and new stepdad, Johnny, in St. Petersburg. Johnny was controlling and cruel and would beat Kenny and his four younger siblings with a leather belt. But the young Kenny would not be broken or bowed, and later in life, he would come to understand that Johnny and other lackluster male role models had been instructive in their own way.
Leon: In terms of what not to do. I don’t wanna be like that. I don’t think it would serve me to have an alcoholic beverage every day. I have a couple of grandchildren. I have a couple of nieces and nephews. I have a wonderful stepdaughter. I love young people. So I love treating young people the way I wanna be treated. And that was probably lacking in my upbringing.
As he grew, Leon continued to live the values his grandmother had instilled in him, even when it felt impossible to do so. Kindness over force, love over fear. His character was tested once again in 1969 when his school district was selected to begin integrating. Leon and his peers were bused from their familiar surroundings to the other side of town. It was a tumultuous, sometimes violent transition.
(Excerpt from Take You Wherever You Go)
We didn’t wanna be there and they didn’t really want us there. We resented these rich kids and I had friends who would throw these white kids’ bikes and motorcycles into the school swimming pools. The white kids hated us. Attention was everywhere at school. In the theater program, they would only consider black kids for roles like maids, butlers, and chauffeurs. You couldn’t play a politician or a teacher or a lawyer. You couldn’t even play yourself. As a result, I boycotted theater. Still, I was a guy who believed in coming together and overcoming differences. I was looking to make friends and figure out this new place. My mother and my grandmother would not have put up with us getting into trouble, anyway. I knew I had to be part of the solution.
Becoming part of the solution meant joining student council, helping unite a fragmented school community, constantly pushing the idea that everyone was equal, that everyone deserved to be seen and heard. After high school, Leon went to Clark Atlanta University to study political science but soon found a place in theater, where, surrounded by other radically creative minds like Spike Lee and now lifelong friend, Samuel L. Jackson, he soon realized that storytelling was serious work.
Leon: Those artists that I met, sort of kind of steered me away from politics and law and more into storytelling. And then you sort of put the politics with my storytelling, there’s gonna be some politics in my storytelling.
Kenny Leon would spend the next four decades directing theater, plays that provided insight into often ignored stories. His goal, just as it had been in high school, was to forge understanding among people from different backgrounds. His approach, as always: measured, meticulous.
Leon: I always do the research to know what environment I’m in. For instance, if I’m in the Broadway community, it’s common sense tells me that it’s not diverse enough. There are not enough women telling stories, there are not enough women behind stage. There are not enough black and brown people directing and telling the stories. So I can complain and say, “The world is bad and America is racist.” Or I can say, “I wanna do something about the bad in the world. I wanna do something about the racism in the world.” So then you have to do your research, you have to go, “Okay, on Broadway, there are 41 theaters. Those 41 theaters are controlled by four groups of people. They’re just people. So you got to let those people, they got to get to know you. They got to understand you before they wanna tell your stories and to be a part of your stories.” Instead of just complaining and screaming, “Oh, they won’t let me do this.” So I’m always thinking about how to do that. If I’m working with a group of actors, I’m trying to lead them to somewhere good and positive so my general spirit comes from I’m trying to get them somewhere. Even with my shows, I would die if half the audience walked out at intermission of one of my shows. So I’m always doing it for the people in the room: white, black, brown, it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to get people to deal with their own racism.
In the summer of 2019, Leon directed an all-black cast in Shakespeare’s, Much Ado About Nothing. And in early 2020, he brought Charles Fuller’s, 20th-century murder mystery, A Soldiers Play, to Broadway. It documents how internalized prejudice derails one African American serviceman, in the segregated US army of the 1940s.
Throughout his career, Kenny Leon has constantly had to exceed expectations. And this is what he demands from everyone who works with him. The stakes are high, show up late and the entire company does pushups. But Kenny Leon mostly leads not by stick, but by carrot, the fact that’s helped him thrive where many have fought just to survive. Today, the 65-year-old has established himself as one of theater’s most respected directors, forever driven by a fearless optimism and a simple unifying belief.
Leon: So I’m always trying to make it gentle and engaging for everybody in the audience. I’m trying to lead people to a different kind of understanding about each other. Then they say, “You know what? We’re all the same, we’re all the same. We let the stupid stuff get in between us.” And so all of my stories whether it’s on stage, TV, film it’s one story. And maybe that one story comes from my grandma, Maime, maybe she’s saying, like, “You’re enough and you’re just as equal to anybody else.” And I love all people. I’m telling that same story, over and over again.
Sophie Blackall steals from children but in a nice, literary sort of way. In exchange, she reflects back at them, the big grown-up world.
Sophie Blackall: I don’t want to just make books and hope that children like that. I make books for children and if grown-ups like them as well, then that’s great. So I depend heavily on stealing as much as I possibly can from children.
Blackall creates worlds where children’s innate curiosity comes to face with grown-up honesty.
Blackall: I’ve always had the policy of answering any question any child will ask me, whether they’re mine or someone else’s honestly. And I think, “Well if they’re asking me, they’re asking me because they want an answer. And who am I to not give it to them?” But I’ve given them the truth, and what’s wrong with that?
Born in Australia in 1970, Sophie Blackall spent much of her childhood reading in trees near the sea. She was always up for a good seafaring tale and imagined her own voyages at an early age. She decided to become a children’s book illustrator at the wise old age of seven, after reading Winnie the Pooh. Nearly 40 years later and half a world away, in a call back to her childhood, Blackall would win the prestigious Caldecott Medal, a sort of Pulitzer Prize for picture books, for her illustrations in Lindsay Mattick’s, Finding Winnie.
Though later in life, a stroke of bad luck would cause her a debilitating injury, curiosity, and an inner need to seek and see the world, drove Blackall to a game of chance in 2000. After winning a visa lottery, she transplanted her young family to Brooklyn, a daring move for someone with no job. But she did have a degree in design and a portfolio full of pictures, and an unquenchable sense of curiosity about how other people lived.
Blackall: There’s not a door that I don’t want to open and look into, which also gets me into trouble sometimes. That’s somebody’s house, you can’t just walk in there. But I want to know what’s happening behind all the doors and I want to know what’s happening inside people’s heads. And I wanna talk to strangers and I think kids are like that.
Blackall walked through what would become her own door, a rundown rental in Brooklyn, where over the next 20 years, she would write and illustrated more than 30 books. She won a second Caldecott Medal in 2019, for, Hello Lighthouse, which she both wrote and illustrated.
Blackall: When I was starting out, I was so grateful to have any books sent my way and the opportunity to illustrate anybody’s story. But then I began to realize I could write my own. And then it was, “Oh, I could think of the thing that I want to draw and then find the story that goes with it.” And that was both exhilarating and paralyzing. So now I’ve calmed down a little bit and the stories that come to me are tied to things that I want to draw. But they become stories that I can’t not tell in some way.
She hit upon one such story on the New York subway, a good place for eavesdropping. She heard a little boy ask his mother a question that Blackall has often been asked. The subway car immediately came to attention.
Blackall: He turned to his mother and said, “Where did she get that baby?” Essentially, where do babies come from? And you could see the mother froze. She’s like, “I have to answer this in public.” Of course, we’re all like, “Oh great, yeah.” And she said, “Well, from the baby tree.” I thought, “No, she’s actually, she’s going with the baby tree.” But then I thought, “Oh, she’s not alone. There are many people who just don’t quite wanna have that conversation on public transport, or, yet, they don’t wanna have it yet.” And so I wrote a book.
The Baby Tree was a clever and age-appropriate book. In it, Blackall reveals the basics of reproduction, naming both the male and female reproductive organs. Her editors feared she was crossing a line.
Blackall: Well, what else are we gonna call them? That’s what they’re called. So my concession was to put them at the back of the book in boring, small writing. So a kid who really wants to find that out and who can read themselves, really probably deserves to know at that point, anyway, they can go ahead and find it. I think children are capable of digesting an awful lot more than we give them credit for, in their own way, at their own time. But I think they’re open to hearing it and they’ll take what they want and need from that.
Blackall’s own understanding of the childhood experience took a profound turn in 2012. At the request of UNICEF, she traveled to Africa and India for the Measles & Rubella Initiative, a global partnership committed to vaccinating children. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 140,000 people die each year around the world from these deadly diseases. Blackall made the trip so she could craft posters and educational literature for the initiative. It turned out to be much more than a work trip.
Blackall: Though, I thought measles was, if you’re in a country where you don’t get vaccinated, you maybe get some spots and a fever and you can stay home. And in the 50s, there were measles parties. It felt like this sort of this childhood disease. But here was real evidence of the heartbreak and the loss. It was going to a village and being greeted by the chief and his wife two days after they’d lost their two-year-old to measles. They knew we were coming, they had planned a celebration, but instead the whole village was in mourning because he had carried his daughter on foot to the nearest clinic, which was two days walk away and they didn’t get there in time. And to watch this entire village in the mourning, it was something I’ll never forget.
Sophie Blackall was acutely aware of being an outsider as she witnessed such an intimate and significant moment within the village. And she’s conscious that every time she steps into other people’s lives, it is an honor for which she must be worthy.
Blackall: I’m with my white, privileged, Australian lens, I’m going to draw you and then show you back to yourselves. And I just hope that your trust is deserved. That these drawings I’m gonna make of your village and your community, that you feel that they’re true.
So, Blackall has always tried to immerse herself in the community she visits, to become privy to moments of joy as well as resilience. And, she has come to discover that children the world over, share much in common.
Blackall: There’s something about spending time with kids in a village, in the middle of a jungle in Congo, and in a crowded little corner of a village in India, where they’re playing the same game. They call it different things. And what my kids in a school in Brooklyn played and they called it traffic light but they didn’t call it traffic light in the village in Congo. But it’s, you know the way you run and then somebody says “Stop.” So, seeing kids play this all over the world is again just one of 1,000 things that reminded me that there’s so much similarity in the way that human beings make their way through the world. And there’s a vast disparity in where, how much access children have to food and clean water and safe homes and all of those things. But children’s curiosity feels quite universal.
Blackall traveled to Bhutan with the humanitarian organization Save the Children to help promote literacy. After trekking up a Himalayan mountain path, she met a small group of students in a tiny one-room schoolhouse. The kids drew pictures for her, and she showed them books. It was then that it dawned on Blackall that her body of work might be missing something.
Blackall: I thought, “I have a book about a lighthouse, I have a book about the bear that inspired Winnie the Pooh, neither of those books are at all useful to you.” Children who have never seen the sea, who have never seen a bear, who certainly don’t know anything about Winnie the Pooh. So I want a book that might be about all of us and the planet we share.
As a result, If You Come to Earth, is a child’s letter to a visitor from another planet explaining the world. It shows that earth is wide and diverse and it asks us to take care of one another, as well as our planet.
Blackall: It feels like I was the lucky one to visit all of these places and meet these kids. I think about them in some way or form every single day and they’ve certainly affected my work and the way I see things.
Blackall wrote the book in one sitting, but it was seven years in the making. The illustrations reflect real people and families that she has met on her travels. And when she sat down to draw, Blackall approached her work more thoughtfully and with greater humility.
Blackall: I wanted to avoid making up people and there are so many people to see, so I just started keeping a little list of, “Oh, there’s a family over there. There, I’m gonna put them in the family page.” It was really to honor the people that I was seeing. And if I’m gonna show a whole lot of different families, then who am I to presume, to make up these families, let me put real families in there.
(Excerpt from If You Come to Earth)
If you come to earth, here’s what you need to know. We live in all kinds of places, in all kinds of homes, and in all kinds of families. Each of us is different, but all of us are amazing. And together we share this one beautiful planet.
Blackall has long known that running with kids can be hazardous. This fact was made real for her several years ago when she badly injured her hand while chasing kids towards a camp pig roast.
Blackall: And it was this kind of mass exodus of—every child wanted to see this pig being buried and they were in pajamas and there was just something kind of Lord of the Flies about the whole thing, that I ran with them ’cause I just wanted to see this spectacle of them seeing the pig and all that that promised. And I went flying over a rock ’cause it was dusk and I didn’t see it and I fell on my hand.
But after years of physical therapy, her hand has not healed properly. Soon, she will have to stop drawing altogether. She’s facing her new reality with characteristic curiosity and optimism.
Blackall: I think about people whose work changes because of something out of their control. And there’s always something interesting in that metamorphosis.
When one door closes…
Blackall: I’ve been teaching myself how to make a dry stone wall. And so kind of doing big physical things with large lumpy objects. We have this farmhouse in upstate New York that we’re turning into a retreat for writers and artists. I like the idea of using a bigger brush. Maybe I’ll write more.
In Sophie Blackall’s world, there are many doors still to open. Her curiosity about the world and her hunger to explore it will surely lead Sophie Blackall into whole new realms of discovery. And when she gets there, she will no doubt find unique ways to share them with us.