Collaborators in Conversation: Lydia R. Diamond and Kenny Leon

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Kenny Leon

This season at the Huntington, we are telling seven distinct American stories. To tease out the connections between the shows, we've asked artists from different productions to interview each other about their work. Below, playwright Lydia R. Diamond (Stick Fly) talks with Stick Fly director Kenny Leon.

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Lydia R. Diamond

    Lydia Diamond: Kenny, I don't think you remember how we met.
    Kenny Leon: I don't remember exactly how we met, but it seems as though Iíve known you for a long time, like twenty years though I know that's not true.
    L: I'm going to tell you how I met you. It was after Gem of the Ocean at the Goodman, and it was in that restaurant attached to the Goodman. I was with [director and producer] Woodie King, Jr. and [director] Chuck Smith, and you came in and joined us for the latter half of dinner. That's how I met you.
    K: Oh wow.
    L: But, I was so young that you wouldn't know it was me. I had just my first show produced at the Goodman. The Gift Horse opened in the Owen while Regina Taylor's Drowning Crow was running, and then I think Gem was after Drowning Crow. Then, I met you [again] at the Huntington's production of Gem, at the cast party.
    K: By that time I was directing the show.
    L: The first time I got to spend time with you was when True Colors had me up to do a reading of Stick Fly before you produced it.
    K: It's like I've been knowing you all the while.
    L: Yeah, we've got it like that. . . . How did August Wilson influence your early career? Before you even got to work with him-
    K: I was a National Endowment for the Arts Directing Fellow in 1987, and I spent that time at Centerstage in Baltimore. And I had the crazy idea that this was where I'd learn to be an artistic director. What goes into the life of an artistic director, what makes a good artistic director? Up to that point, I'd had no idea; I just wanted to act and direct. And then August had Fences opening on Broadway. I actually corralled a group of Board members and folks from Baltimore to take them to New York to see this play by this new writer, August Wilson.
    L: Wow.
    K: I led a discussion on the bus. I talked about African-American stories and all that kind of stuff. Then I met August in New York and [director] Lloyd Richards as well. But after I saw Fences, it was the first time I felt like my grandmother, who raised me, and my mother's rhythms were onstage. Wow, thatís so powerful. I've never heard that before. Up to that point it was things that didn't sound like the rhythms I knew. Of course, I spent six months at Centerstage, and I spent the second six months of that fellowship on the West Coast. Then I was offered several jobs; one of them was associate artistic director at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, which is where I was living. They said they were going to do this play by another African-American playwright, but I said, "I don't know about that play. But this cat, August Wilson, is great."
    L: Kenny, would it be uncomfortable if I had been that playwright? If I were older and that was my play?
    K: I didn't know at that time how great you were, Lydia.
    L: There it is. So you said, "I need to do this August Wilson play..."
    K: He had just written Joe Turner's Come and Gone. So, as my first play as associate artistic director at Alliance, I did a production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone when it was still in manuscript form. August had agreed to come to Atlanta and be there with me throughout tech and previews. I said, "Man, give me some notes." He's like, "What? Most people don't want me to give them notes." . . . But I did. So then, he had a manila tablet of hundreds and hundreds of notes. I said, "Well maybe, just give me two or three."
    L: You opened the floodgates!
    K: Then he gave me two notes, but those were the greatest notes in the world. It was the beginning of our friendship. I always want to understand the intent of the writer; the role of the director is to interpret the intent of the writer, and from that point on, I would always approach the work of writers with the question of what did this writer mean. When they sat down to write, what were their intentions? I asked why did they write this, not how could I make it better. So in all of my work since then, I'm always trying to disappear for the audience. There's never a heavy hand in what I do, because I'm trying to tell the story that the writer imagined. . . . I remember that August always said, "Man, I always like directors that direct, and writers who can write, and dramaturgs that dramaturg." So I always kept that in mind. Later on, when I got to work with him on Gem of the Ocean, he was impressed that I was able to take an idea that he had, or a problem that he had, and I would try to solve the problem. But I wouldn't tell him how to write. I wouldn't say to rewrite a scene. I might say, "You don't really need this scene, because you already have that scene." Or, "I don't understand that." It was a beautiful relationship. It made me understand that the greatest relationship in theatre is that of the writer and the director.
    L: I agree with that. Can you talk about how that works with dramaturgs? I know August and you had that great relationship with Todd Kreidler. If the director/playwright relationship is primary, how did that work with you, August, and Todd?
    K: The way it worked with the three of us was that they were a team. Todd helped August get to the place he wanted to be with writing. I welcomed Todd into that circle, but it wasn't like a triangle. It would work like this: Todd would hear me, and he'd hear August. Then they'd go away, and come up with some stuff and bring it back to me. I liked to try things out. If we wanted to change ten things, I didn't want to wait until next week. "Let's try it out tonight." He really liked that, because he would go back the following day and write something else. So I love the role of the dramaturg, but I think it is primary to the role of the writer. Itís important they hear what the director is saying to the writer.
    L: I love that you had that relationship with such ease. I've sometimes experienced directors who feel sort of threatened by the dramaturg. My role is then to help the director know that I understand our relationship is primary and contextualize their relationship with the dramaturg. Then the playwright becomes diplomat instead of playwright.
    K: I think it also depends on the temperament of dramaturg. In my experience, sometimes the dramaturg asserts themselves in a way thatís stronger than you would want. Always with us, Todd was part of the conversation, but he understood the dynamic really had to happen between me and August. I really respected him, because sometimes heíd say things to August that would help understand what I was saying clearly. It's only when a dramaturg comes in and acts like he's an expert in the writing. He can't be; the playwright's the expert. Have you always had a dramaturg?
    L: No, but I came along at a time where institutionally, you inherit one. I try to work developmentally with my dramaturgs, and I try to keep the ones that are helpful to me and work with them over and over again. I love Ed Sobel from Steppenwolf and Ilana Brownstein who used to be with the Huntington. But, I find sometimes it is burdensome when I'm starting a new relationship with a dramaturg while I'm starting a new relationship with a director. Do you remember those two notes that August gave you?
    K: Yeah.
    L: Can you tell me?
    K: He always said that he writes as if something is going to happen, even if nothing happens. So it has to play like that, a mystery. I donít have to make sense of where everything is going at every particular time, but I always have to know that heís writing with the sense that something is going to happen. He told me once, "When you have Herald Loomis [from Joe Turner's Come and Gone], you have him taking off that hat and that coat. I see Herald having that black coat and that black hat on the entire play until he cannot have it on any longer. So if you take coat and hat off, it demystifies him." By that one note, I told the actor, "Don't take off that hat because you're having breakfast and you are a gentleman in the South. Keep it on." That ended up being a really powerful moment. When I see other productions of Joe Turner and they take it off, it undermines what heís trying to write. . . .
    L: Since August has passed away, how do you see his legacy taking shape?
    K: Of course, I dearly miss August. The last time August was healthy was the time we spent in Boston working on Gem of the Ocean. When I think of August, I think of us walking out on Huntington Avenue — starting out for a five minute conversation and talking for two hours on the way to the hotel. That was a bit of thing—I was actually directing another play at the same time in Washington D.C., but I could never say no to August. I said I would do it if they could work around my schedule. The Huntington agreed and flew me out. I would have rehearsals for Gem of the Ocean in the morning, and then I would fly to D.C. for rehearsals in the evenings of Langston Hughes' Tambourine to Glory. But we ended up cutting about an hour out of the show; we ended up refining the show, introducing two new actors, getting it ready, resizing it for Broadway.
    L: It was so exciting to see the differences, because I'd seen it in Chicago and then I got to see it at the Huntington. I got to really see editorially what had happened. I remember it was an hour shorter.
    K: Flying back and forth between cities to direct two shows told me, Kenny, you can do a lot more than you think you can do.
    L: That's empowering—
    K: It's very empowering. The next show we started working on was Radio Golf when he was sick. So then I had to fly from L.A. to Seattle on off-days to sit with him and Todd on his porch to complete Radio Golf. Everything we did with August and Todd in Boston solidified that relationship. It helped us prepare for what was to come with Radio Golf, even though we didnít know it was going to happen. We were able to work on the last play and to finish that.
    But since he has passed, there's a huge void in the American theatre scene. August is a huge hole to fill. What has been impressive about it is that August has touched so many lives. You see a lot of folks doing the work: writers, actors, directors. Todd and I have started the August Wilson monologue competition, a national competition. We had the finals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway. We had three or four different cities, and as we go forward, we'd like to add a city a year. High schools students are now competing using monologues he wrote; they're getting scholarship money and getting introduced to the things that he wrote. Boys and girls - you have some girls doing Troy monologues, girls doing Bynum. It's not gender or race specific, but it's let them know about our history, a great writer, and it's letting them know about the themes August wrote about. Since August's death, his legacy is safe because young folks are finding out about it. Younger writers and directors will continue to spread the work. How has it affected you?
    L: Really early in my career, there was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who wanted to interview me about August Wilson. So I did a crash course, because I had only been introduced to some of his work. Sadly, I graduated college in '91; he had already been celebrated and recognized, but it wasn't in the white canon. I always wished I could take a course on him. I think I will one day. To me it was empowering, what you were saying, these rhythms are just part of the world that I know and they are being celebrated onstage. Thereís nothing more powerful than being able to see yourself represented onstage. It wasn't my generation in my family, but it was my grandmother and my mother and their stories — hearing them tell their stories at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
    For me, though, the most educational and the thing that shaped me the most was his speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," the idea of your convictions being more important than your professional status. If August Wilson could be so forthright and brave and say what he thought, the least I could do is be that way, too. That was the most important lesson for me. Say it plainly with grace and intelligence, but without the fear of who might not like to hear it. I think that's also where I most feel the void. Obviously, there's an artistic void, but because I never got to work with him and I never knew him personally, I feel the political void very, very much. I feel it around some of the misunderstandings and struggles I have around being an African-American playwright and the reality of working with black directors and the way that sometimes becomes harder, depending on the venue. You know what I mean?
    K: Yeah.
    L: So, I miss him that way. Because I would call him now. There would be times now where I would have called and asked for his advice, and felt like I could do that.
    K: Some of the stuff he said the last few months of his life, sitting on his porch, and weíre talking about the play, of course, but more than that weíre talking about life. He would give me guidance about how to earn the respect in this industry, and how it was different for an African-American artist. He said, as a playwright, they had to pass the Neil Simon litmus test: "If you would do this for Neil Simon, you should do this for me. Kenny, you are a Broadway director, and everything folks would do for a Broadway director they should do for you." There are many stories that are life lessons that I'll carry on and they'll continue to guide me as I'll ask what would August say right now, what would August do right now. I don't know anybody like that or bringing that to the table in our world right now. You know where I'm going next weekend right? Before I come to Boston to start rehearsal?
    L: No. Where?
    K: I'm going to the Vineyard.
    L: Get out.
    K: I'm going back this time specifically to imagine Stick Fly. . . .
    L: Kenny, what's it like to revisit August's early work?
    K: As a person, I've done all ten plays. Fences, this will be the fourth time around. It's hard to direct a play more than once.
    L: Why?
    K: Because after a while, you feel you've exhausted it. You've exhausted the creative input in there, and I love problem solving. I love getting underneath the art and trying to elevate the intentions of the writer. I don't want to just repeat something. But with Fences, this hasn't been the case. It feels like a new play every time, and like I'm discovering something new every time.
    L: Because you change, or because his work is so complicated, or both?
    K: Both. I think, "Wow, I've missed that. Wow, that is so simple there; I missed that." But now, having known him, and understanding him better . . . I know more specifically what August would want, and I can say to myself, what would August want. I donít have to guess that, I know. Early in my career, I had to guess those things. I understand his rhythm, I understand his tempo. I know for instance, if he was doing Gem of the Ocean, one of the things he didn't want Gem to turn into was Amistad. He didn't want drums in the background. He didn't want, "It's time for the Middle Passage scene. Let's get some music out." But that's the easiest thing for directors to do. Let's put some African things, some drums—
    L: —and the light changes—
    K: Yeah. That's not what he's trying to do. He said, "This is really a personal exploration of this man." So it depends on which actor you have, what his capabilities are, and where he goes in his head, because you're trying to free him of himself. Or if you're talking about Joe Turner's Come and Gone, you know that Bynum has the power to help release your own pain, to help you free yourself - but he's not like a magical Disney person. Those type of things I understand now, and I understand better. So when I do August's plays now, I have a wealth of knowledge and understanding and because you've done all ten plays, it helps you understand the earlier plays better. So now I go back and reinterpret Jitney, reinterpret Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, because now you have a whole. You didn't understand the connection between the plays, now you do.
    L: Hey, Kenny. Can I come and watch you sometime in the rehearsal room?
    K: Absolutely.
    L: I might have to do that. I feel like I would learn a lot about the play.
    K: And probably about me and my working style. . . . How is it different working in Boston than it is other places in the country?
    L: I was talking to a colleague recently about that. When you have workshops all over the country, you tweak the play, because culturally one audience has a different way they respond to something, particularly with humor. So you tweak your play, and you find yourself in a completely different part of the country, so you tweak it again. I think what I've learned now is to not do that. I have to be okay with people responding differently, but that doesn't make it not good. My job isn't to make the laugh fall in exactly in the same place for exactly the same reason. My job is to write the play, and to know that it's good and solid. . . . It's interesting because it also has to do with being an African-American playwright and the questions centered around for whom we're writing, which I don't think about while I'm writing, because it doesn't make any sense for me to be writing for a certain kind of audience. But I'm certainly aware that people bring their own cultural assumptions and discomfort and defenses to the viewing of the play. So to the extent that I'm a political writer, I think that sometimes I am contextualizing the work that I'm doing — I just feel that it's very important that I'm being specific, which I just think is good storytelling anyway.
    K: Do you think of yourself as a political writer?
    L: I didn't use to, but yes I do. It's not because I have a political agenda when I'm writing, but because often the people and the situations I'm putting onstage, people haven't seen onstage before. So by their very nature they are received politically. The first play that I wrote that was done in a regional theatre — it was really a love story, but it [centered around] a black woman and her Latino gay best friend and issues of incest and HIV. What was interesting was that when people responded to it, they didn't know what to respond to, because they weren't used to seeing black people in plays that weren't just black people dealing with white people. My plays are about people who live in the world that I live in, which makes a lot of them black but not all of them. And [my characters are] dealing with the things we all deal with in life. Often those things don't have a specific relationship to, you know, "the foot of the white man on our necks," but, because my plays always have an awareness of the power dynamic in the world, they become political.
    K: I remember talking with August, and some dramaturgs would try to pick him apart about the history in his plays, and he would say, "I'm not a historian. I'm not trying to be specific about the history."
    L: Right, I'm telling a story.
    K: When he wrote Radio Golf, he wasn't writing specifically about golf, because he never played golf. He was writing about ideas and he tried to put it in the context that people may understand him. But, I remember Pearl Cleage, because I worked with Pearl a lot, and her first plays we wrote together, and the reason she got disappointed working at large regional theatres is because she felt that the people she wanted most to hear her stories werenít hearing her stories.
    L: Absolutely.
    K: That's why she started writing novels, because she wanted to reach young African American women. Now she's written another play; she's coming back to the stage.
    L: That's exciting.
    K: But your question about who are you writing for. What if you're writing for someone, and your audience doesn't look like the folks you're writing for —
    L: — then what does that mean? Right.
    K: The laugh isn't there where you think you think it should be, but then when you have that audience, then the laughter's there, so you have to find where it's truthful to you.
    L: Absolutely. And I feel I'm uncomfortable and inauthentic when I'm in an audience and I feel the play by an African-American writer, or anyone, is pandering for a laugh or a certain kind of response or understanding from an over-50 white audience, it makes me very uncomfortable. I've seen plays that I've liked in different venues and had completely different responses in terms of how I trusted or understood the agenda of the playwright. I've completely misunderstood plays because I saw them first in a huge regional theatre surrounded by white people and then I've seen them in an all-black theatre company with a mixed race audience and a mixed generational audience, and I've had a completely different understanding of the play. So I think context is really interesting. That's when I talk about the void that I still feel from August. As I'm reaching my playwriting maturity, or as I'm having more experiences in a different level of theatre making, I would just have questions for him. I'll ask you now. What I have found also though is I feel like people of color find, black people find my plays once they've been made aware of them. I've appreciated that. The demographic — if I do a little bit of work, I go out and I go to churches and to people, they will come and they're always very appreciative...
    K: Right, people are going to come to a good story told well. They're going to come and support.
    L: A good story told well, with respect for the characters. People can smell truth, I think...
    K: Well, the best thing about coming to Boston is working with Lydia Diamond.
    L: I like that. Can we make that title of the interview?

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