Kenny Leon is not one who needs prolonged breaks between gigs. He finishes one project and then — poof — veers off in another direction, whether it’s a TV series or a movie, a Broadway stint or work with his own Atlanta troupe, True Colors Theatre Company, where he is artistic director. He works best that way, he says.
The director has been in town for several weeks preparing the True Colors world premiere of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which opens Tuesday at the Rialto Center for the Arts. It features a great cast headlined by Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid in the roles made famous by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in the 1967 movie. Key and Kincaid play Matt and Christina Drayton, whose daughter Joanna is bringing home what seems like the ideal fiancé, Dr. John Prentice. The only hitch is that he’s black, and no one in the Drayton clan except Joanna knows that. Phylicia Rashad has a small role as John’s mother, who likewise has no idea that her son’s wife-to-be is white.
It’s a project Leon has wanted to direct for a while, envisioning it at one point for Broadway. Adapted into a play by Todd Kreidler, “Dinner” still feels topical 45 years later. “One of the reasons I have always wanted to do it is that it deals with intolerance and the hypocrisy we have in this country,” Leon says. “It’s one thing to feel one way, to raise your kids to believe things, but to have it in your face is another.” While the play is still set in the ’60s, the director says it’s told through a 2012 lens.
Leon and Rashad have forged a long professional relationship, beginning at the Alliance Theatre, where he was artistic director, in 1998 when she starred in “Medea” and reaching its peak with the 2004 Broadway version of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which earned Rashad a Tony Award for best actress in a play, making her the first African-American actress to win it.
“She is my favorite artist,” Leon declares. “She can do anything. That she would come down here for this role, with her busy schedule, says a lot about her.”
Rashad is also part of another anticipated Leon production, a remake of the Southern comedy “Steel Magnolias” that will air on Lifetime in the fall. It’s a black take of the original. Besides Rashad, tackling the role Shirley MacLaine played in the movie, the cast includes Queen Latifah, Adepero Oduye of “Pariah” and Alfre Woodward, who plays mischievous Ouiser.
“Alfre is Ouiser here,” Leon says. “The whole cast is great. When people see it they will know why we did it. We honor the original, but this is a new version. The humor is greater, the bond between the women is greater, and it touches on problems in the community, such as the issue of diabetes, which is big in the African-American community.”
This wasn’t a project he had on his to-do list. He was contacted by producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and liked the idea, shooting it in the Atlanta area. There will be a New York premiere; he doesn’t yet know whether one will happen here.
Leon became artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in 1988 and helped put it on the national map. He developed a reputation for well-received productions and world premieres of heft, but left the theater in 2000 to spread his wings. “After leaving the Alliance, the last thing I wanted to do was get back into anything administrative,” he says. But the late Jane Bishop floated the idea of a new company to him, and soon afterward, in 2002, the two launched True Colors.
Leon is proud of the company’s offerings, including a commitment to diversity and African-American casts. Star power hasn’t hurt it either. Glynn Turman has popped into town for True Colors’ “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” and Robin Givens and Nicole Ari Parker were part of Jasmine Guy’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”
Leon made history recently when he had two shows on Broadway at the same time: “The Mountaintop” with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett and “Stick Fly.” It was an honor, he says, and he understands the significance. But he takes it in stride and aims higher. “I’d love to have three shows on Broadway at the same time,” he declares.
While running True Colors, Leon has also guest-directed around the country. He directed the Broadway remounting of August Wilson’s “Fences” in 2010, which won Tony Awards for both Denzel Washington and Viola Davis and itself received a Tony for best revival of a play. In between, he has found time to direct some episodes of television’s “Private Practice.”
Later this year Leon will helm the high-profile “Fatal Attraction” on Broadway. Casting has not been finalized, so the project has yet to be officially scheduled. Another show the tireless one will work on, probably in 2013, is the Tupac Shakur musical “Holler If Ya Hear Me.”
Although he’s on the road most of the year for work, Leon has a house in Vinings and still calls Atlanta home. He loves the city and its theatrical community, which he feels has taken major strides over the last decade or so, and is grateful that True Colors is operating in the black.
If he had one wish for Atlanta, he’d love to see the artistic and corporate worlds come together. “We have a great community of artists here and some wonderful leaders in the business community,” Leon says. “But we never seem to all be on the same page. I would love to see political leaders, business leaders and artistic leaders work together so we can sustain the mid-sized theaters here in town.”