A LIFE IN THE THEATRE: Director Kenny Leon on Lorraine Hansberry, Tupac Shakur and Diversity in the Theatre

Meet Tony nominee Kenny Leon, currently at the helm of A Raisin in the Sun and the upcoming production of Holler If Ya Hear Me.

Kenny Leon
Kenny Leon (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

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"I've always been interested in diversity," director Kenny Leon said. "Especially Americans different in age and race and culture sitting next to each other watching the same story." And he gets "to see how they leave the theatre, see what kind of questions they're asking each other at intermission."

Leon, 58, has spent his career fulfilling that interest.

On Broadway, he has directed three August Wilson plays — Fences, Radio Golf and Gem of the Ocean. His other Broadway credits include the Tony Award–nominated 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun starring Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad. For over a decade, he was artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre and is co-founding artistic director of Atlanta's True Colors Theatre Company.

This year finds him serving double duty on Broadway. First, he's directing a new Broadway revival of Raisin, starring Denzel Washington, at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. He begins previews at Broadway's Palace Theatre later this month for Holler If Ya Hear Me, featuring a score of songs by the late rap star Tupac Shakur. "We're using the music of Tupac, we're not telling the story of Tupac," he explained.

Leon was born in Tallahassee, Florida. "I had two very strong women in my life, my grandmother and my mother," he said.

In high school, he was in a federal Upward Bound program that prepared students from low-income families for college. "My mother and stepfather were making $10,000 a year, so college was not a reality for me. But Upward Bound made it a reality."

He went to Clark Atlanta University, minoring in theatre while majoring in political science and tried law school, but returned to Atlanta to focus on the stage. He "started as an actor, but fell in love with directing." In 1987 he became a National Endowment for the Arts and Theatre Communications Group Directing Fellow.

"It gave me a chance to visit almost any theatre I wanted." He "met August Wilson, who became one of my inspirations. I met George C. Wolfe. It gave me full confidence that this is what I wanted to do."

He did theatre workshops with prisoners and nursing home residents. He and writer Barbara Lebow did a play featuring homeless people as actors. "I was a political science major," he says. "I was always interested in social impact."

In 1988 he became associate artistic director at Alliance, and was soon named artistic director. "Not many African-Americans were running theatre companies. I'm not one to spend my life asking the question, 'Is there racism in America?' Certainly there is. But I want to do something about it... The challenge was to diversify the programming, have it be a place where everyone could tell their stories regardless of background or culture." This is the sixth time he's doing Raisin, as director or actor — "It's a piece of literature that keeps on giving. What we did ten years ago [on Broadway] was really special," he said. But "as artists, we keep growing. We keep learning."

Consider what has happened since, like "Trayvon Martin and other racial incidents. [We have] an African-American president. We thought we were one place — but are we really? Lorraine was talking about all those things in 1959." In fact, referencing his next project, Leon says one of Tupac's inspirations was Raisin. "Holler is asking the same questions but for a different age group, a different community. It's where are we in terms of dreams for young people? What's the future like for them? It's all about access to America for everyone."