Taking Kenny Leon Wherever He Goes
Kenny Leon grew up a country boy in Tallahassee. Today, the Tony Award-winning theater director is helping to change the face of Broadway, one story at a time.
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.
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.