Kenny Leon’s new memoir Take You Wherever You Go tells the story of his journey from rural Florida to Atlanta and on to Broadway, film and television. The chapter “A Place to Hear Everybody’s Story” tells of the challenges he faced when he first took on the role of artistic director at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre in 1988. Leon will speak and read from his memoir in Atlanta at the Carter Center on June 26 at 7 p.m., and he will be the keynote speaker at this year’s Decatur Book Festival on Labor Day weekend. His production of Colman Domingo’s Dot, presented by his Atlanta-based theater company True Colors, opens at the Southwest Arts Center on July 17.
A Place to Hear Everybody’s Story
When I started as artistic director at the Alliance Theatre, as noted by the search committee, I probably knew about 50 percent of the job.
But I knew what I could do well. I knew I could direct plays, and I knew that I liked reaching out to the community. Early on, I planned a lot of events, such as the Lunchtime with Kenny series, which helped us engage with the local population and let them in on our plans.
Over time, I would learn about budgeting and managing people and the other vital aspects of running such a big organization.
My contract also required me to go away at least once a year to direct a play in another part of the country. I would eventually direct plays in Boston, Chicago, and Hartford. This practice allowed me to grow as a director, meet new actors and theater people from across the country, and evolve professionally by seeing how other major theaters operate. These sabbaticals of mine also spread the word about the Atlanta theater scene and the Alliance Theatre in particular.
At the time I took over, there was a priority that I would need to address, one I supported strongly. The Alliance Theatre wanted to develop and reinforce a specific mission.
Jennings Hertz said it best: “We have to strive for excellence in our pursuit of telling everybody’s story.”
When I came to the Alliance Theatre, it was more than 90 percent white and more than 90 percent people who could easily afford theater tickets. It definitely wasn’t a place to go to hear everybody’s story.
As I got settled in, I realized that I would have to make it clear what my mission was, what the mission of the theater as an entity was. I knew there would be resistance. Many people go to the theater to escape. We’d have to walk a fine line if we were to achieve our goals. I’d need to put together seasons that reflected classic entertainments that people knew and were comfortable with and other more challenging works that used different voices and perspectives. It was hard but I never forgot how important it was.
When I was first named artistic director, I got some beautiful letters of support, from all kinds of people. It was a great feeling.
I also received this one:
When we come to the theater, we come to support our own kind.
Not some uppity coon.
It concluded with a death threat.
Carol and I were a bit nervous at first. But then we both quickly came up with the same reaction.
“This is just weakness, cowardice. A weak person hiding behind a letter.”
“Right. And all we’re doing is running a theater,” said Carol. “You’re not Dr. King. Can you imagine what his life was like?”
We laughed it off together. This was before social media so the impact was less striking. Still, it reminded me that our plans for the theater would meet resistance.
We focused on the positive and the support. At that time, there was nothing I would do that I wouldn’t talk to Sam Jackson about. He was kind of the reason I was doing theater. When I told him about the offer, he said, “Oh, my brother! Go and kill it, man! You can do it!” And when I told him about the hateful letter, he said, “Fuck that. Go run your theater. Many more people want you in that job than don’t. Do your thing.”
The support was pretty overwhelming. It was all “Atlanta’s own Kenny Leon. We loved him at the Academy Theatre. We’re so happy he’ll be at the Alliance.”
I heard from white, black, Christian, and Jewish people, and they were all excited about what lay ahead for me and the Alliance Theatre.
The challenges were there to be addressed so I focused on my strengths at first. Thanks to Stan Wojewodski, I knew to think about the whole operation, not just the main stage. That training paid off immediately.
But I always knew how to engage people. When I was the associate director at the Alliance, I started an initiative called Lunchtime with Kenny. I would invite writers, actors, and the other creative people involved with a play we were presenting to come and talk to the community before we presented the play. It was a way to create interest in the play and also a chance to spread our philosophy to our audience in a way that would pay off down the road, too. I had a bit of a following with these lunches, and my first several shows were very well received. We were off to a good start in what we were trying to build. Now as artistic director, I continued that community outreach and gospel spreading.
For the first three or four years, we were on a high. There were 20,000 subscribers when I started as artistic director. There was the hoped-for influx of new people, too. We were able to integrate the theater because I was all about diversity, rewriting the mission statement to focus on inclusion and the dialogue about race in our country. I introduced new playwrights such as Pearl Cleage, the Atlanta-based writer of Blues for an Alabama Sky, which I directed at the Alliance with Phylicia Rashad and Bill Nunn. We developed a great relationship with Pearl, and I told her if she wrote a play, we’d produce it. Atlanta’s Alfred Uhry, who wrote the play and movie of Driving Miss Daisy, also worked with us at the Alliance. I directed his play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which premiered at the Alliance during the 1996 Olympics and won the Tony Award for best play in 1997. These plays and others that addressed issues of race and identity helped to integrate the theater and brought us a new audience.
In 1993, our work at the Alliance had begun to receive national notice and attention. The Reader’s Digest Foundation gave us a grant of $3 million specifically because we were taking on issues of race consistently. They wanted to support those efforts, and $3 million is a game-changing contribution to a regional theater. Things were looking good.
But about five years in, we also sensed a bit of pushback from longtime subscribers. Subscribers were down to 17,000 to 18,000 from the peak of 20,000, but those were still very respectable numbers. White middle-class theatergoers were expressing the idea that I was doing too many African American stories. We usually did eleven plays in a season, and if three of them were African American or contained a racial or an ethnic theme, then some people felt that was too many. Other people felt I was trying to force something down their throats. Looking back, I can say that I might have focused too much on bringing new people down to the Woodruff Arts Center, where the Alliance was based. I could have spent more time nurturing our existing audience and supporters.
By 1997, our subscriptions were down to about 14,000. This period was quite challenging because there was clear pushback from people who didn’t value our emphasis on diversity. Some people just didn’t embrace the changes at the Alliance. They wanted what they wanted, which was the traditional slate of familiar plays and musicals, with the occasional new show. But not three or four plays per season that were not light evenings out. I felt these people misunderstood me and what we were trying to do. Their stories and points of view were important to me. I was just trying to give voice on a regular basis to perspectives that were not commonly heard, as August Wilson said, on a raised stage.
At the same time, we had made a lot of progress. I had a huge fan base that understood what we were doing. This is what change looks like. There will be bumps along the road but the journey remains worth it. Still, the board had a decision to make.
We were losing subscribers, which is a significant issue. But other parts of the company’s overall goals were in hand. We were gaining a national reputation. Work done under my watch had led to an increase in media coverage and recognition. Generally speaking, our focus on diversity was well received and praised. People were excited by the works of Pearl Cleage, Alfred Uhry, and August Wilson. We’d done a very successful collaboration with Disney on Aida. We’d received that grant from Reader’s Digest.
My friend and board member Jennings Hertz summed it up beautifully in a meeting with the board.
“Remember what Lloyd Richards said when we were doing the search that led us to select Kenny? He said to remember the choice we made when times get tough. Those times are here. Are we going to still love Kenny Leon?”
The board decided that they did. They felt that the good of my tenure outweighed the loss of some subscribers. They wanted a national theater. They wanted black, white, Jewish, and Latino people sitting next to one another in our theater. We might lose some people, but we’d get by. They stuck with me. We never got the numbers up near 18,000 to 20,000 again, but nobody did. The recession hit and regional theaters took some losses just like every other business.
I was relieved, of course, and grateful for the support. In doing work that confronts issues and provokes people, you have to be ready for the part of the audience that simply does not want that. But our board proved themselves to be consistent and brave. They stayed true to the mission and accepted the subscriber losses as a reasonable cost of doing business the way we wanted.
Money often talks the loudest in these situations. But the board wasn’t listening this time.
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.