Director Kenny Leon won his first Tony Award for directing the 2014 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, part of a career on Broadway bringing African-American stories to the forefront, from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, Radio Golf, and Fences to Katori Hall’s Martin Luther King narrative The Mountaintop, from Lydia R. Diamond’s play Stick Fly to the Tupac Shakur musical Holler If Ya Hear Me. With his most recent outing, a revival of Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, he cast actor Lauren Ridloff (who is half Mexican American and half African American) in the leading role of Sarah, adding the layer of a biracial relationship to the love story about a Deaf woman and her hearing teacher.
Leon always looks for the way to illuminate marginalized stories, to showcase diversity, as he did with the launch of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta. Here, we read about the founding of True Colors in a chapter from his upcoming memoir Take You Wherever You Go out June 5. The director-cum-author will be in conversation with Tom Santopietreo June 7 at 7PM at the Barnes & Noble at 150 East 86th Street
Back in 1991, the Alliance Theatre had received a $3 million grant from the DeWitt Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation in recognition of our willingness to explore diversity. The head of the foundation came down to talk to the board to explain why they recognized our work so generously.
After the meeting, he mentioned he was going back to New York the next day. I said I was going there, too.
“What time does your flight leave?” I asked.
“Well, my flight leaves whenever I want it to leave.”
I joined him on his plane and we started a conversation. Then he said something a bit shocking.
“Kenny, I know this is year three but what are you going to do next?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “I just got this job. I’m a black man running a major theater company in the South that is not really a black theater company. I’m diversifying it, I’m giving writers and actors jobs. I’m bringing new people into that theater.”
“I disagree. I’ve learned in this life that every seven to ten years, you should leave a job or at least learn to make yourself over if you’re going to stay in the same place. You should be thinking about that.”
I thought about it and realized I’d left the Academy Theatre after about ten years. Without a plan but just because it felt right. And I got the NEA grant position, which rolled into my jobs at the Alliance. I kept his idea in the back of my mind.
In 1999 or so, coming up on my being artistic director at the Alliance for ten years, the company was looking to replace the managing director, the person with whom I would co-run the theater. I handled the creative aspect and the managing director handled the money. The closer that marriage is, the better.
The board knew that and assured me they would select someone that matched up well with me, but in the end I didn’t agree with their choice, and it occurred to me that this might be a sign that it was time for me to move on.
When I took stock of my time at the Alliance, I realized that we had achieved many of our most important goals. We’d diversified the board. We’d diversified the staff, and I’d created meaningful new positions to help out, such as the community relations director, who was African American. And the work on the stage was diverse. We had developed a strong national reputation as well. I had achieved what I’d set out to do. I wasn’t sure I was the one to take it further. Maybe the next artistic director needed to be a white woman or man or a Latino person to take the Alliance to the next level.
Around this time, I was on the golf course with some friends, all of whom happened to be white businessmen. I told them I was thinking about leaving my job.
“What do you mean you’re leaving? You have the best job in town.”
“I’m ready to move on.”
“Well, give yourself a year to figure out what you are going to do next. Get that figured out and then you can leave.”
The next day I went in and gave my one-year notice. It was cordial and all business. I just said it was time. And that was the truth.
It was in the paper the next day, and my golf buddies were surprised. But I told them that I didn’t want to wait to set myself up and then leave. You leave when it’s time as I had done at the Academy. I ended up at the Alliance for eleven years because I gave them the time to set up a national search and take care of business as they saw fit. But when I left, I did not know what was in store for me.
Not surprisingly, I began to hear from people in the theater world. I was in the running for three big jobs, including one at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. That didn’t work out and I’m glad because I ended up with something better than I could have imagined.
Riley Temple of the Arena Stage told me I should start a national black theater company. I was hesitant because I wasn’t looking to start a theater company from scratch. Then I had a great conversation with Chris Manos, an important figure in theater in Atlanta who ran Theater of the Stars and all the plays produced at the Fox Theatre.
“Kenny, we don’t want you to leave Atlanta,” said Chris. “You should start a company here in Atlanta that focuses on black writers and their plays.”
Riley and Chris are two people I respect deeply so I listened to their advice. I still didn’t want to start a theater company, but I wrote down some ideas about a theater company I’d like to run.
It would not be a black theater.
It would not be a white theater.
It would be a theater of diversity.
At the center of it, we would produce African American classics. Which is a bit of an oxymoron because if you asked what the classic African American theater works are, the only answer is A Raisin in the Sun. You can’t name another play from the African American canon that is produced on a regular basis. And I took that as a personal challenge.
The reason was that we black artists don’t revisit our work and make it fresh for a new generation. Our work has tended to be tied to whatever is happening politically and socially in the current moment. Or what is happening spiritually in the church. This condition makes theater something different in the black community than it is in the white community. Wonderful writers like James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Leslie Lee fade in prominence because their work is not revisited and produced after they die.
The company I was contemplating would flip the model. We would produce plays by African American writers while around the edges we would diversify. We would do plays from all cultures.
But the goal would be to revive black theater by producing work by black writers so that their work could be analyzed and made relevant again by modern and updated productions.
That’s how it got started, with my little manifesto. But the idea attracted serious attention. I gathered a group around me and we went to work. We would call it True Colors because it would be about truth and clarity. Later on, we decided to put my name on it because it would help us in Atlanta, where I had developed a name in the cultural community at large.
Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company.
I have always been grateful to both Riley Temple and Chris Manos. They nudged me in this direction, and their faith in me is what led me to sit down that day and develop my vision for what has become True Colors.
But Chris Manos expressed his support even more forcefully. Chris truly believed in me and my idea for this company. He quietly gave me seed money to get the theater off the ground. That funding proved to be extremely important.
In the last few years, Chris has left public life. Theater of the Stars went under and he took it to heart even though the fortunes of that company were not his fault. He felt he had let the community down. He had not. What he has given to the greater Atlanta community cannot be measured. He is a wonderful and accomplished man of the arts. I learned a lot about this business from watching him. We never worked directly together, but I looked up to him from afar. I think about him every day and I miss him. When I imagine a picture of the people who helped me achieve my success in the theater, Chris Manos is prominent.
Upon giving me the money, he said, “I don’t want any credit for this.” I’m sorry, Chris, but this is one time I’ll go against your counsel.
We started True Colors in 2001, and while the business was being put together by Jane Bishop, our cofounder, and others, I stayed busy.
I got a chance to direct A Raisin in the Sun and Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004, which I could never have done if I were still running the Alliance. I did that Toni Morrison opera. Those projects started in 2003 or earlier, but I had freed myself to accept opportunities like them.
The first production of Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company was in October 2003.
Fences by August Wilson.
I asked August to come to Atlanta to help us give birth to this theater based on ideas and convictions I’d learned from him.
August came down to celebrate with us. His voice was a little hoarse. All those cigarettes. But he walked onto the stage and toasted our company into existence.
He blew life into Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company in 2003 just as he and his work had invigorated my life and work in 1987. And the True Colors Theatre Company would be the home of my effort to keep August’s work and spirit alive in our country and culture.
Excerpted from TAKE YOU WHEREVER YOU GO by Kenny Leon with John Hassan, Foreword by Samuel L. Jackson. Copyright © 2018 by KL Productions LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.