Kenny Leon: Leading the Artistic Front
Actor. Director. Producer. Motivational speaker. Kenny Leon has done it all. His work spans classical theater, modern drama, musicals, revues, and film, and his list of accomplishments is equally exhaustive.
Leon's relationship with theater began at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college in Atlanta, Georgia. While majoring in political science with a concentration in pre-law, he was influenced by acting instructor Joan Lewis. He became involved with her stage productions and street theater, which awakened a love for acting. Some years later, he left law school in Los Angeles and returned to Atlanta, where he performed at Academy Theater.
At 34, Leon became the youngest person - and the first African-American - to hold the position of artistic director at Alliance Theater in Atlanta. The theater flourished during his 11 years. Leon, along with Managing Director Edith Love, incorporated ethnically diverse and challenging works that attracted a larger and more diverse audience. They also produced new works by leading playwrights, including Pearl Cleage's Flyin' West, Blues for an Alabama Sky, and Bourbon at the Border, as well as premieres of Debbie Allenís Soul Possessed and Elton John's Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida, which subsequently went to Broadway under the new title Aida. Under Leonís leadership, Alliance Theater became a leading nonprofit theater in the country and garnered international acclaim.
Leon left Alliance Theater in 2002 to pursue his "personal and professional mission of creating a space to preserve and refresh African-American classics in addition to producing works by and for all Americans." In October 2003, he launched True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta, a theater that "reflects a promise to search for truth and clarity." In line with this mission, Leon joins Arena Stage to direct Stick Fly by Lydia Diamond.
Leon has also directed three Broadway plays, including the 2004 Revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. Featuring an all-star cast including Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald, and Phylicia Rashad, the show won two Tony Awards and earned Leon a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Director. It also became one of the highest-grossing dramas in Broadway history. Two years later, Leon directed the film adaptation featuring the same cast.
Leon also directed the pre-Broadway and Broadway productions of Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf, the last two plays of August Wilson's epic, 10-play canon. Despite his stardom, Leon has not forgotten about the community. Each year, he directs a multicultural youth production of The Wiz at True Colors Theater. He is a member of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, an organization of prominent men dedicated to educational and community programs in Atlanta, and he has had several motivational and inspirational speaking engagements at civic, arts, and corporate associations nationwide.
- David Dower