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The Legacy Series: Kenny Leon

Although much of his professional life is New York-based, Leon keeps his home in Atlanta.

Where would we be without the metaphorical campfires to which we instinctively gravitate, whether in celebration or when our sense of well-being is threatened? What would we do without art, the stylized expression of experience and the people born with a gift for making something out of nothing? Who would we be without the creatives among us who are curious, inventive, avant-garde, imaginative, bold, industrious, driven, bright and utterly inscrutable — even to themselves sometimes?

To paraphrase painter Larry Walker, “Atlanta’s landscape would be bleak without the arts.”

In recognition of artists who are making marks and elevating the ordinary in the city’s arts and culture landscape, ArtsATL will be publishing a 12-part series of profiles about the spiritual alchemists among us.

We’re calling it the Legacy Series. And we hope it will serve as a reminder to artists everywhere that Atlanta sees you, hears you and cannot imagine a world without you.

The distance Kenny Leon has traveled from his childhood home in rural Florida to Southwest Atlanta, where he is cofounder and artistic director of the True Colors Theatre Company, can be measured in light years or millimeters, depending on your perspective.

Growing up in Tallahassee, Leon attended a one-room school house and lived on Miccosukee Road with his grandmother, Maime Wilson Roberts Harris. She was an empty-nester whose 13 children had flown the coop, leaving her with all the time, love and attention needed to raise a 14th child. And he was a four-year-old whose 19-year-old mother, Annie Ruth, had to leave home in search of better opportunities for herself and her family.

In retrospect, Leon remembers the four years spent in his grandmother’s care as idyllic.

“If my life was a movie,” he says, “the opening scene would be me sitting on the porch as a kid, legs swinging, with my grandmama sitting in a rocking chair behind me, looking at me [as I] looked out at the world.”

Back then, Leon’s grandmother believed he would grow up to be a politician or a minister. But whatever his path, she insisted that he always tell the truth, laugh easily and never be afraid to cry. Those principles still infuse his mission at True Colors, where he says, “the core values are boldness, laughter, respect and abundance.”

His spiritual foundation was forged in the Southern Baptist Church, where communal aspects of the tradition shaped his desire to serve others, and bring people together as an artist.

Monica Pearson, a founding member of  True Colors’ Board of Directors, sees still another critical link between Leon’s upbringing and his calling card as a director.

“He is a great reader of people,” she says. “I think he got that from his grandmother. Old folks can do that really well. All they had to do was look at the way you walked and carried yourself, and they could tell whether or not you were a person of character. Kenny has applied that wisdom when casting his actors to great effect.”

Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett have benefited from Leon’s instinct for placing the right person in the right role on film or stage. And while the director dreams of casting Tom Hanks and Helen Mirren in a future production, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both attested to Leon’s bona fide skill as a dream-maker during their Tony Awards acceptance speeches for their performances in the 2010 revival of August Wilson’s Fences.

Six years later, when Washington directed a screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, his instinct to reassemble the same players Leon originally cast resulted in critical praise for the film, three Academy Award nominations and a first-time Oscar win for Viola Davis.

Leon started his career as an actor at the Academy Theatre in Hapeville, and still fields calls to command center stage. But once he discovered the joy of “sitting in the back of a darkened theatre . . . watching my actors become bigger than they are — even when they don’t understand where it comes from,” he knew he’d found his calling as a director. His hunch was confirmed on a national stage in 2014 when Leon won a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play for A Raisin in the Sun.

He served 11 years as artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, where he produced the premieres of Disney’s Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida, Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo. When his then-director of public relations at the Alliance, Janece Shaffer, hinted that she might have a story to tell, he encouraged her to write her first play, He Looks Great in a Hat, and subsequently produced it in 1999.

“Kenny models everything I admire,” says the now-established playwright, whose Troubadour and Cinderella and Fella recently ran on the Alliance Stage almost back-to-back. “He is collaborative, inspiring, incredibly hard-working and really invests in people. He challenges you to bring your best — and you want to [live up to his expectations].”

Kenny Leon mentoring high schoolers for the August Wilson Monologue Competition.

As cofounder of the August Wilson Monologue Competition — a free arts education program — Leon has been teaching high schoolers “your belief in yourself must be so strong that it doubles everyone else’s collective disbelief,” since 2007. And no one is more moved than Leon, himself, when witnessing his mentees living up to their promise.

“I’ve seen Kenny cry in response to a young woman’s recitation from an August Wilson play,” says Atlanta-based actor Neal Ghant, who first acted under Leon’s direction in Our Town, and who has judged past monologue competitions. “Giving back to the community by cultivating future and emerging artists is what means the most to him.”

Creating spaces where multigenerational, multicultural audiences can sit next to one another and meet the art halfway ranks high on Leon’s bucket list too.

Given the current political climate, he believes answers are as likely to come from the stage as they are from lawmakers and legislation. He favors plays that ask questions of the community. And even if the material is not to our liking, he says the question should be How can we talk about this? as opposed to trying to sugarcoat reality or rewrite history.

As a director, Leon knows his proposition is a two-way street.

He chuckles when recalling his grandmother’s deadpan response the first time she saw Fences in 1990. During intermission, he turned to her and asked, “Grandma, are you liking it?” The reply was quick and tart. “I don’t see what there is to like . . .” And given the lead character Troy Maxon’s penchant for [SPOILER ALERT] cursing, gambling and fathering a child outside of his marriage, Leon conceded the point.

By the same token, he knows that when fear governs decision-making, the art and culture scene invariably suffers.  

“I want our palate to be wider,” he says of Atlanta — where he believes a confluence of committed political, corporate and artistic leadership can help the city reach her potential as an incubator for great art and artists. “Why would you change one word of To Kill a Mockingbird, Fences or Angels in America, in an attempt to not offend [owing to language or two-timing husbands]?”

FOX recently chose Leon to direct a 10-part mini-series about the origin of Harlem’s Cotton Club. And when he directs a revival of Children of a Lesser God on Broadway later this year, he wants audiences to take away more than a story about a deaf person and a hearing person. Instead, he hopes to illuminate “how we try to play God . . . to make each other over to fit some ideal in our image in our head. And how [disinclined] we are to listen to one another.”

Upcoming highlights of True Colors’s 2017–18 season include Holler if Ya Hear Me, September 12–October 8 — which features the music of Tupac Shakur and debuted on Broadway in 2014 — and Dot, July 17–August 12, the story of a family coping with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease in their matriarch.

Leon is fond of saying that “anybody who wants to listen to a story is already headed in the right direction.”

And by curating a series of works that have the power to ignite imaginations, broaden intellectual perspectives and expand emotional bandwidths, he has unwittingly become to Atlanta what his grandmother was to him: a quiet-but-indispensable presence, inviting us to look out at the world and reimagine the possibilities — whether at home or some place far beyond the confines of our front porch.

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