August's Disciple

Special Features   August's Disciple Director Kenny Leon returns to August Wilson's Fences for a Broadway production starring Denzel Washington.
Kenny Leon with Fences star Viola Davis
Kenny Leon with Fences star Viola Davis Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Kenny Leon's toughest hurdle in turning Broadway director was talking the glamorous Phylicia Rashad into playing a matriarch in A Raisin in the Sun.

"She told me, 'No. I don't see myself as this woman,'" he recalls vividly. "I said, 'Look. Read this script again. She is sexy. In the text, it says that she's full of life.' Once we started working on it, she redefined for a new generation the way that woman looked and the way she should be played." The pep talk paid off handsomely for Rashad, in the form of a Tony.

When he then asked her to play a faith-healing clairvoyant pushing 300 in Gem of the Ocean, she had no problem with it at all — and made the Tony running again.

Six of Leon's actors and all three of his Broadway plays — Lorraine Hansberry’s first and August Wilson's last two — have been in Tony contention, but Leon has escaped uncited — so far. That could change with the Fences he has constructed at the Cort Theatre, with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in roles that made James Earl Jones and Mary Alice first-time Tony winners in 1987. "There's not a better American actor who can play this role," Leon says of Washington. "He's at a perfect space, a perfect age, a perfect everything."

For Leon, a circle of sorts is completed with Fences. It was the first Wilson play he ever saw, and it was followed by meeting the playwright. At the time (1987), Leon was a National Endowment for the Arts directing fellow. A year later he was associate artistic director of Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and two years later, its artistic director. "August agreed to let me do all his plays [at the Alliance], even if they were on Broadway, so I ended up doing them all. The first was Joe Turner's Come and Gone — in manuscript form. Then, every year when a play was ready, I got to do it." Marion McClinton, who replaced Lloyd Richards as Wilson's go-to director, invited Leon into the inner fold as an actor in Gem — and, when McClinton fell ill, Wilson asked Leon to helm it. The night before its Broadway opening, the playwright gave Leon the assignment to direct his last play, Radio Golf.

Now, Leon is back at Fences. "I've done this play four times. This will be different than all of the others, because I'm different and because the body of work is finished.

"I'm interested, as part of my mission and part of what I do professionally, to make sure that our next generation really knows who August Wilson was — that they understand not only the content of his plays but the poetry and craftsmanship in them as well. He was an amazing American and an amazing writer."

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