He was one of the few African-American artists to assume the top spot at a major nonprofit. During his 10 years there, the profile of the company rose, as did its endowment, from $1 million to $5 million. It hosted premieres by Alfred Uhry, Athol Fugard and Pearl Cleage, as well as Disney's Aida. Since leaving the Alliance in 2001, Leon has quickly established himself as arguably Broadway's leading African-American director, thanks to back-to-back productions of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. The former, starring Sean Combs, was a box office phenomenon; the latter set up Leon as the successor of Lloyd Richards and Marion McClinton as appointed shepherd of Wilson premieres. Currently, Leon is directing the Broadway-bound, Goodman Theatre staging of Wilson's final play, Radio Golf. Leon spoke to Playbill.com about Wilson's legacy and Raisin's future as a television movie.
Playbill.com: Radio Golf is the only August Wilson play that won't benefit from having its author present to make changes and rewrites during the production's zig-zagging journey across the U.S. Does that present an additional challenge for you?
Kenny Leon: No. Only in the personal sense, because I miss him. We worked together on the Broadway production of Gem of the Ocean. This is also different because, when he was writing it, he knew his fate. He only had one shot at really landing this play, so he had more rewrites at an earlier stage than with any other plays. The play was finished. He did the last rewrite the last week in September, which is almost a week before he passed. Really, it's just the cast and myself catching up to August.
Playbill.com: What was your relationship with Wilson like?
KL: It was probably one of the greatest relationships I've ever been a part of. I still feel that he's not far away, that he's still here. Theatre is the most powerful art form, and the greatest relationship is between the writer and the director — so you have that relationship. Then you have something like a friend relationship; and you have a father-like relationship. I grew from the plays, but I grew more just sitting around listening to him talk about life and talking about successful African-American artists, and trying to learn from his example. So, [our relationship] served many purposes over many years. I've had the opportunity to work on nine of the ten [Wilson] plays. I've acted in four of them. He was the first person that made it clear to me that my mother's rituals and myths were worthy of being raised on a stage. From the first time I saw Fences, I heard a rhythm that was true to me, which was an American rhythm, but it was an African rhythm as well.
Playbill.com: Lloyd Richards directed many of the first productions of Wilson's plays. After that Marion McClinton directed a few, and now you have assumed the role of originating director. Do you think it's important that an African-American direct Wilson's plays?
KL: I think that as human beings we all have the leap of imagination to direct work by almost any playwright, as long as we have the respect for that culture and we do our homework. I think with August's plays it's easier if you're from that specific culture because then you won't have to take those extra steps of trying to research the culture. I think it was easier for him to have an African-American who knew what he was talking about and didn't have to spend the rehearsal trying to figure it out. He and I had a lot of different shortcuts to the work, because we knew the tempo and the pace of an African-American funeral; we knew the culture of doing one's hair in the living room; we knew the relationship of the black man to the community. If you can have less conversation about those things, you can work more expeditiously. But I think that there are non-African-Americans who are certainly capable of doing the work. Irene Lewis of Center Stage has done some of his work. I think one of the things that August was trying to say to America is that race is one of the biggest issues in the country and we haven't dealt with that. He would always wonder why African-American directors weren't brought up to do, say, for instance, [ Tennessee Williams]. I've studied Tennessee Williams all my life, but when Broadway produced five or six of Williams' plays in a two-year period, they did not call out to an African-American director to direct them. August was always hoping for a fair community.
Playbill.com: Radio Golf takes place in the 1990s, a decade that—as opposed to the 1900s of Gem of the Ocean—you actually lived through. Does the play resonate more for you because of that?
KL: Oh yeah. Because he wrote these two plays at the end, they absolutely have a lot to do with each other. I think that all of the plays are cut from the same cloth. Gem of the Ocean is cut from the same cloth as Radio Golf. If you look at 1904 in Gem of the Ocean, you'll see it was the end of slavery, but black Americans had no jobs and nowhere to go. You flash forward to 1997 and now you have economic success and you can go to most golf courses in the country and you can buy radio stations, but what are we doing about the total community? Are we caring about each other like we did in 1904? Where are we as Americans? Playbill.com: After the Goodman run, Radio Golf goes to the McCarter Theatre in Princeton.
KL: Right, which is in essence the Broadway rehearsal period. Then it has a week to load into Broadway.
Playbill.com: Have you picked an opening night?
KL: May 5, and we'll preview for three weeks.
Playbill.com: You just completed filming of the television movie of Raisin in the Sun in Toronto. How did that go?
KL: I think America is really going to be surprised and thrilled. I think we've remade a classic in a way that will draw a new audience to it… I couldn't be more thrilled with the cast and the work. It's not like the original film, it's not like the Broadway production; it's something else that has take a little of all of that. It will be a three-hour movie event. It's going to be on ABC, looks like sometime in September.
Playbill.com: Do you know what your next project will be after Radio Gold?
KL: Yes. I'm going to be directing a new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway. It will have an all African-American cast.
Playbill.com: Will it have an out-of-town preview beforehand?
KL: No. It's going to come straight to Broadway. It'll probably be like a 20-week run.
Playbill.com: Do you have a cast yet?
KL: No, but I'm very excited to get to that.
Playbill.com: So I guess you're going to direct Tennessee Williams on Broadway after all.
KL: (Laughs) Yes, it looks like it!
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. He can be reached at email@example.com.)