Stage Directions: Kenny Leon and His Priority of Making Impactful Theatre

Interview   Stage Directions: Kenny Leon and His Priority of Making Impactful Theatre
 
The Tony-winning director of A Raisin in the Sun, Fences, and more reveals how Children of a Lesser God came to be the most important play he’s ever done.
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Kenny Leon Joseph Marzullo/WENN

“I’m hoping that people walk away saying, I need to listen, and I need to include more people in my circle of beauty,” says Kenny Leon. “Because if we don’t, we leave a lot of peripheral beauty against a wall. And that beauty may be because it’s black or white or Deaf or blind or Democrat or Republican. I see the play as a very unifying, beautiful love story—love of people and love of country.”

Children of a Lesser God Playbill - Opening Night
Children of a Lesser God Playbill - Opening Night

The Tony-winning director is talking about the first Broadway revival of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, which opens April 11 at Studio 54. The drama, which stars Joshua Jackson (Second Stage’s Smart People, Dawson’s Creek, The Affair), stage newcomer Lauren Ridloff, and Anthony Edwards, deals with the relationship between a Deaf woman and a teacher at a school for the Deaf. The original won the 1980 Tony Award for Best Play and now Leon hopes for a successful reception for his new mounting.

Leon, 62, won his Tony for the 2014 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, starring Denzel Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson. His other Broadway credits include Stick Fly, The Mountaintop, August Wilson’s Fences, Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean and a 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun that starred Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sean Combs. He spoke about his career, his directing techniques, the new revival, and his future plans.

Why he became a director:
“I started out as an actor for a long time. I was a successful actor, and then had the first opportunity to direct. I felt something special I hadn’t felt before. I felt that God had blessed me to direct, and just gave me the luxury of acting. I act every now and then so I can understand better what the actors are going through so I can communicate to the actors better as a director.

“But when you’re acting you’re only a slice of the pie. When you’re directing, you’re all of the pie. You have to know the ingredients. You have to know what the crust is made of. You have to know what kind of pan it’s going to go into. You have to know everything about it. Ultimately that’s a metaphor for the collaborative nature of directing. You want to get inside your composer’s head. For Children of a Lesser God I talked to Stevie Wonder because I’m opening the show with a song he wrote in the ’70s called “Love’s In Need of Love Today,” which is about feeding love. To be a director and have Stevie Wonder call your cell phone and talk to him about art and changing the world—you have that. And I have Branford Marsalis creating all new music for the show to tie the transitions together. As a director, you get a chance to come up with that. I can put Stevie’s music with Branford Marsalis’ music, and I can cast these actors who are so different from each other, and I work with [scenic designer] Derek McLane, who designed the Oscars this year. And I can put all that together.”

His principles of directing:
“I’m more interested as a director in what I don’t know instead of what I do know. If you get a bunch of people in a room and you deal with all their talents and you’re open to go somewhere, you come out of that process with something that no one had. I’m not a director who likes to go in and say, ‘You’re my pawn.’ I set parameters, I set tones, I set directions, I set the way we’re going to discover things. I point to where we want to go, and I paint the shade of color I want us to go in, and then I’m open to ideas. I love creativity, I love discovery, and—at the end of the day—I’m interested in making sure the audience takes home what I intended them to get.

“[In this play] I have a way of moving actors onstage and directing them in geometric shapes that keep the eye and the heart alive during the course of two hours. And then I’m working with other designers to make sure the audience goes home feeling like they don’t listen and they want to do a better job of listening.”

An actor in his rehearsal room—an example of how he directs:
“In the first seven days, I don’t like sitting around and doing a lot of table talk. I find that all actors can talk a good game, but I’m only interested in what they can do. I sit around and talk for one day.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the 2010 Broadway production <i>Fences</i>.
Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in the 2010 Broadway production Fences. Joan Marcus

“Those next six days I’m trying to ascertain how the company processes information. Because people are different. When I did [August Wilson’s] Fences with Denzel Washington I couldn’t go to Denzel and say, ‘I want you to do the same thing that James Earl Jones did in 1987.’ Those were two different men but doing the same play, and they had different strengths and different weaknesses. I’m always trying to find the strengths of the actors I’ve cast and what the truth is in their representation of the character they are in search of. I’m on my feet a lot, because I want to get inside what the actors are hearing and feeling. So I’m the most true, rawest audience member for them from day one. Over the course of four or five weeks, you keep telling them the truth (‘This is horrible, this is not working, this is how we get it better, this is how we shape it.’) and then one day, I’m going to sit in there and I’m going to laugh and I’m going to cry and I’m going to behave like their perfect audience member.

“This show I end every rehearsal in a circle, because during the course of the day you may scream at actors, you may get on each other’s nerves, but at the end of the day I want to remind everybody why we’re doing what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do, so I want to contextualize where we’re going every day. I make everybody in the circle sign three words or more. With the hearing actors, ... they’re forced to put themselves in the position of the Deaf actors. We build each other up that way. I may end on a prayer or something, but it’s all bonding. I’m building an ensemble."

A mistake he made that he learned from:
“What I learned early in my career is you have to early on get the team of actors and designers and artists that are going to go with you up that hill. You can’t just cast a bunch of unknowns just because three or four people gave great auditions on one day. You need someone at the center of it who has worked with you before, who understands the way you work, so they can reinforce the way you work.

"I have at the most two X-factors in a production. Most of the time I want one X-factor, when it comes to casting. Actors spend more time together with each other than they do with the director. If you have two or three X-factors, then they can get in each other’s heads, and they say, ‘I don’t know if he knows what he’s talking about.’ In my style, I’m setting up my behavior in a way that lets them know that I don’t have time for two or three X-factors that are going to disagree with the direction that I want to go. I’m sensitive to negative things that may show up early that I need to deal with early.”

A decision he made that paid off—and that he learned from:
“The greatest decision that paid off was for me to go with a Deaf actress that never acted before in a revival of a Broadway show who did not look like anybody in the previous Broadway production. That’s paying off.

David Cromer, Bryce Kyle Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo  in the 2014 Broadway production <i>A Raisin in the Sun</i>.
David Cromer, Bryce Kyle Jenkins, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo in the 2014 Broadway production A Raisin in the Sun. Brigitte Lacombe

“Or when Denzel Washington and I got together on A Raisin in the Sun. I had done A Raisin in the Sun as my first Broadway show, and now I was doing it ten years later with an actor who was older than most folks thought his character was. But in my mind, Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun has one opportunity, and one dream and one shot to do this. I’m trying to say something to impact them when they leave the theatre. I didn’t want to just recreate a revival and a character where, OK, you’ve got this 30-year-old guy. Because in today’s world, if you’re 30, you’ve got time to screw up, and then you’ve got another dream, another opportunity. And I felt, that’s not what the play is saying. It made the play more immediate, more timely, more meaningful.”

Children of a Lesser God:
“When I first was approached to do it I thought of it strictly in the sense that as an African-American Broadway director I was being approached to direct something that was not just defined in racial terms. So I thought, I’m going to do this wonderful love story between a Deaf woman and a hearing American Sign Language teacher.

And I started to take lessons because I knew that at least a couple of actors in the play would be Deaf or hard-of-hearing. I took lessons from this woman, Lauren Ridloff, who was Deaf from birth. I met her at a bar in Brooklyn, and she started teaching me sign language. In my own prejudice, I was looking for an older, 65-year-old white woman with glasses, introverted. And I walked in and I see Lauren, who’s African-American, 36 years old [now 39], beautiful, looks like a model. Lauren is Deaf, and she doesn’t speak. It was so thrilling for me to take ASL from her. We had our first class in that bar, and then every week we would meet in a public place to have our classes. And I did that for a year, once a week.

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Lauren Ridloff and Joshua Jackson Joseph Marzullo/WENN

I also watched the way strangers in these public places would watch us, once they found out Lauren was Deaf. And then I saw how people would start talking with us and when they figured out she was Deaf they would just try to talk with me, and Lauren would make them converse with her. And I thought, ‘Wow, this woman is so strong, and so confident, and she’s sexy, and she’s charismatic and she’s powerful.’ That’s the character in the play. I approached the producers to do a workshop of the play because I had worked with Joshua Jackson the year before on a play called Smart People [by Lydia R. Diamond] and we had a great experience. Children of a Lesser God just happened to be the next play I was working on for Broadway, and I thought, perfect role for Joshua.

It was instant chemistry [for Joshua and Lauren] and it was world-changing for me. So I cast Lauren, and then I said, her mother’s probably African-American. And then I thought the lawyer could probably be Asian. I wanted to see what a second-generation Asian-American lawyer could do representing an African-American Deaf woman. The play started getting more and more levels.

Nearly 40 years ago, when the play was first done, it was to introduce to the hearing community the challenges that the Deaf community faces. Mark Medoff wrote a wonderful play, but as with all great plays, how do they stand the test of time? Once you cast it this way, it starts speaking to us in a different way. It’s that love story, but it’s about how all of us, all Americans, we think of ourselves as gods and we try to make other people over in our image and we try to pass that off as communication. It spoke to my heart in a much larger, universal way—that’s what’s happening in this political climate. No one’s listening to each other. That’s what’s happening with high school students trying to speak out on gun violence—no one’s listening to young people. The play has become probably the most important play I’ve ever done.”

The future:
“I want to do more of the same, have more impact. I want to do a big musical. [I hope the Broadway community provides] an opportunity for me to do this nice big, beautiful musical. It could be a revival, it could be a new musical.

“I loved working with Samuel L. Jackson, I’d like to get him back onstage, and soon. And when I was watching Black Panther it made me think how beautiful it was to see Angela Bassett and Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan, to see all of those actors in the same story. I would like to do a live play or musical for Broadway that would allow me to have the great Viola Davis, Audra McDonald, Kerry Washington, Denzel Washington, Sam Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Chad Boseman. I’d like to have all of that great African-American talent onstage together.”

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