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DIRECTOR’S CUT: More with “Fences” director Kenny Leon

Akiba Abaka

EDITOR’S NOTE: Akiba Abaka’s with Kenny Leon, director of the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “Fences,” running through Oct. 11, covered too much ground for the Banner to print it all. Below, you’ll find more from their discussion.

You know, Kenny, in 2003, when Up You Mighty Race staged “Fences,” I will never forget an e-mail that I received a week after the show opened. It was from an audience member who made sure to point out that he was white, and that the play made him feel the need to call his father because they had not talked in years. We staged it for Father’s Day, and he just wrote to us and said, “Thank you, I need to call my father.”

But that’s what great plays do. And sometimes August gets marginalized as an African American writer, but he’s much more than that, you know. Certainly he has given African Americans plenty, but he talks about America, our place in America, and he writes about this African American family in a specific way … because he does that so well, you’re able to see the universality of the play. … How many people [do] you think aren’t dealing with a 17-year-old going into the world?

EDITOR’S NOTE: More from Leon about Bartlett Sher, who is white, directing a Wilson play on Broadway, and on introducing more black directors on Broadway:

I think, on one hand, August was always fighting for that. And if we look at the Broadway landscape — Bartlett is definitely a great director, and he has proven himself; he has won several Tonies and the like — but if you look at Broadway last year, you say to yourself, we’re in a country where African Americans are 12 percent of the population or thereabouts, and so you’d say, “Well, 12 percent of those directors would have been African Americans.” Well, if you do your research, you see there [weren’t] 12 percent of African Americans directing plays on Broadway last year. There was, in fact, zero.

Last season?

Last season.

What about “Passing Strange”? Was that an African American director?

Who directed “Passing Strange”? (EDITOR’S NOTE: The director of that critically acclaimed musical, which traces a young black musician’s journey across the world and throughout musical styles, was Annie Dorsen, who is white.)

If there was an African American director, that was probably the only one.

Yeah, and that was the season before last.

OK, yeah.

But either way … if I grow up in the South, and I have the major theater company in the South, and you produce, let’s say, in one season, Tennessee Williams was produced probably five or six times. Well, he’s a Southern playwright. I run a major theater where he lived. But it just doesn’t occur to other producers to say, “What about Kenny Leon for that?” They just don’t think of that, because most African American directors are defined by their race, and most other directors aren’t defined that way.

But I have to say that in a commercial world, producers are more comfortable with directors that they know. So they usually get an opportunity to do that. So what I want to happen is that I want everybody to be able to do whatever work they want to do, because we certainly are defined by more than just our race. I want to tell stories about love, I want to tell stories about families, I want to tell about mysteries, and romance, and [so on]. … I want to see more women on Broadway directing.

And all I say is that if you want to do August Wilson’s work — 50 years from now, there is no doubt in my mind that he will be thought of as one of the greatest [playwrights] ever, and that’s because his work is so fresh — you would hope that we would get a chance to establish all of those 10 plays in a way that would make him proud, so that they can go on and live a fuller life. And I think that when you do his work, regardless of your race or your gender, you have to do your research, make sure you do your homework. And that’s the most important thing, because there [are] so many elements that are important to his plays that have to do with the culture that must be present in all of his plays. And when we miss that … you can’t miss that.

That has nothing to do with a directorial interpretation. It calls for us to do our homework, you know. … African American culture is real, reality, it’s based on the way people live, its not made up. There are certain things that, for instance, that African American mothers would put up with and not put up with — the way that she ordered her kitchen and her living space in a way that we must honor it …

I just did a master class with [Russian theater director] Kama Ginkas on understanding [playwright Anton] Chekhov, and I would never have imagined the level of intricacies in that play, and understanding even that culture, and then understanding the culture of the writer. And to approach Chekhov, it’s a very meticulous approach, and … people are very reverent as to how — at least, professional directors are very reverent as to how they approach Chekhov. It’s more than interpretation. There are givens in a playwright’s dramaturgy, and I think that directors have to develop their personal dramaturgy — not just rely on dramaturge from an institution, but they should develop their dramaturgical bag as well. So I think that point is made very clear.

EDITOR’S NOTE: More from Leon about how he views August Wilson’s plays now that the revered playwright is no longer alive:

… Sometimes, as working artists, we say, “Oh, that play is too old.” I remember when I approached actors across the country about “A Raisin in the Sun” — before the television film, but for Broadway. Some of the actors said, “Oh, that play is too old.” It’s because we make it old. We make it, “Well, it’s really a ’60s story, an angry black man and a big mama,” as opposed to, “Let’s look at what its saying to us now.” Which is why I cast Phylicia Rashad the way I did. She is full of life, and she was sexy …

Kenny, you know something? I hate to cut you off, but I have to say this: When I saw that production, your production of “A Raisin in the Sun”, I turned to my aunt and I said, “Phylicia is going to win the Tony for this.” She said, “You think so?” I said, “She’s going to win the Tony because she makes me believe that she was made love to, to have those children.” … She was no longer this matriarchal ‘mammy’ figure that she had been, and I don’t think that Lorraine Hansberry necessarily tried to create that figure.

… When I am asked what it will take to keep black theater alive, I always say we have to re-educate our artists. These artists don’t even know the value of our literary real estate in American theater. We don’t know, so we are obviously going to interpret, but I have to tell you thank you, because they were able to make me believe that this woman once made love to somebody, and that was brand new.

[laughs]

In popular culture, black women are not represented that way.

It’s interesting, because I respect women so much. Even in doing “Fences” this time … I want the audience to understand why Troy goes down to Alberta, and it is not because he is not getting what he needs from a woman at home. Therefore, if you cast Rose as unattractive, arguing all the time, that’s a different thing [than] if you cast her as sexy full of life, maternal, giving you everything you need. So I’ve been very careful to lead the actress to a place that will make you say, “What would make him leave Rose?” Then it’s a different thing if you have to leave because the home is drying up than if you have the best thing at home and you go to Alberta. Then it’s about something else.

And if you talk with Mr. Wilson, that’s about that baseball thing. That racism has got so deep in him that he’s only lived to know the joys of the good times he’s had in the Negro baseball league, but Rose has heard those stories all the time. But he can go down to her [Alberta] home and talk and relive those memories, and that’s why he can’t stop.

Kenny, you’re right. It’s in the text … I tell actors all the time, “You don’t even [have to] know how to act, you just need to know how to read, because everything you need is in the text.” And that makes perfect sense …

I like that, and I’mma use that in rehearsals one day. You ain’t [need] to know how to act, you just have to know how to read.

If we continue to do theater and represent these images that we’ve already seen, you know, sometimes theater by black artists feels more like theater in blackface.

Also, what you said earlier — because I’m not mad at anybody, white or black, for getting jobs, you know what I mean — but one thing we’ve got to be careful of is who is telling our stories,. So if you look at a story by an African American [artist], and you say, “Well, if we’re not going to be able to tell the African American story, then we’re not going to be able to tell any story,” the other side of that is that we’re not working anywhere.

So … say you have “Ruined,” a play that takes place in the Congo, that was directed by a non-African American, or if you look at the encore production of “The Wiz” that was directed by a non-African American, you look at “Joe Turner’s [Come and Gone],” and you look at everything, we’re not even telling our own stories.

I want to talk about where you are in the trajectory of directors, particularly black American directors. … Having being tapped by August Wilson, you are in line with the great Lloyd Richards, and you seem to have taken that baton while developing your own legacy … as well. There are a couple of productions that I noticed that you have been working on: the first [being the opera] “Margaret Garner” and the other is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” Can you talk to us about those projects?

Yeah, I directed the opera “Margaret Garner,” which is [written] by Toni Morrison. We presented it at three opera houses, and then in Chicago with Denise Graves, and it was definitely a privilege to be working on something by Toni Morrison [and] also to be working in a different area, which is opera, which I have a huge appreciation for now.

I’m no longer doing “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” but my idea was to get “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” up before Barack became president, because I felt like he was going to win and I felt like the play was saying something about hypocrisy … and not really that much about interracial dating.

But I also have some projects, Broadway projects, that we are working on, you know. Like, we are working on “Drumline” the musical. We’re in development of that, and hopefully that will hit Broadway next year. And also, I did the tour for “Flashdance.” I directed a tour for “Flashdance” in the U.K. that ran for a year … And we are working on a musical called “Ivory Joe Cole,” which is a 1950s big band musical about an interracial relationship. So those are the projects that we’re working on right now that are set to come into New York.

And also, I am doing more film work. I’m directing “Ghost Whisperer” for CBS, and an episode of “Private Practice” for ABC, so I’m trying to work on some TV projects, some film projects and Broadway. Broadway still is my heart.

And of course, we have True Colors Theatre Company. I didn’t plan to start that, but when I walked away from the Alliance, you know, I found myself 18 months later starting this company just because I felt that there was a need and a void in America for a company that was gonna commit itself to producing what I call the “African American classics.” And when you talk to people about the African American classics, they can just name “A Raisin in the Sun,” but they can’t name anything else, and I found that after African American writers are dead and gone on, their work is overlooked as well. So I want a company where at the heart of what we do is [work] by Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston, and Leslie Lee, and Melvin Van Peebles. So you know, we want to just keep those people alive, and then, 10 years from now, we want folks to know who August Wilson is. And in this country, when the traditional regional theater setup [of] those institutions … I ran one for a while, when I was at the Alliance …

And you were the youngest artistic director at the Alliance?

At that time. … But the idea was that those regional companies, now they’re looking for the most exciting new project, so they’re not embracing the African American plays that we want to re-vist and re-interpret. So we need to keep our history and our culture alive. It’s not just doing the newest thing out. So what “True Colors” is committed to doing is producing and preserving African American classics. And then around that, we want to do plays by all cultures and all people.

So we ended up doing “Steel Magnolias” — well, we diversified that and you know we diversified that cast in terms of racial makeup. And then we did “Brass Brds Don’t Sing,” a play written by Samm-Art Williams, and then the characters in the play were all non-African American, I felt that was interesting. And then we do a multiracial, [multi]generational production of “The Wiz,” which is really good. But at the center of it, I want to do these African American classics. Last year, we did “Ceremonies and Dark Old Men” by Lonnie Elder, and had Glenn Thurman come in to perform in that. And then we did “For Colored Girls [Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf]” this year with Jasmine Guy directing it. We’re doing “Sty of the Blind Pig” with Andrea Frye directing it.

And what we are also finding is that there are some older actors from the Negro Ensemble Company, and also some successful TV stars like Jasmine Guy and Phylicia Rashad, who also need an artistic home. So I am trying to make True Colors to be the place [for] Hollywood’s discards … I want us to have a home to tell our stories, and I think there are thousands of actors, people like Keith David, and all the folks that were on shows like “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” who are still alive and energetic and full of artistic ideas, but [have] no place to tell their stories, and that’s what True Colors is. We produce about four shows a year, and we have an annual budget of about $2 million, and all is well right now.

And I see you are directing Thorton Wilder’s “Our Town”?

Yeah, yeah, I want to diversify that play. And we did a reading of it across the genders, and I finally got a chance to really hear that play, and I was like, “Wow, this is a really beautiful morality play. This is a great, great play.” All these years, I have seen that play and it never hit me, that wow, just by adjusting the world of that play you can really hear the structure of what they are trying to say.

And it makes perfect sense, what you’re doing. You’re opening the world of theater, of classic theater, to African American audiences, but it’s a two-way door. You’re opening African American stories to an audience that hasn’t always been inclusive of those stories. And then the plays you choose — I remember the first time I saw “Steel Magnolias,” I saw myself in that play.

I wanted ask you about True Colors. I know it’s more of a black classics company, but in the spirit of August Wilson, are you planning on developing new plays, or taking any revivals from True Colors to Broadway?

Not taking anything to New York. But I mean, like, for instance, “Ivory Joe Cole” was a play that a Broadway producer had us try out at True Colors. But basically, the Broadway shows that I’m involved in have a home at True Colors, and every year we have a new play reading series in April, where we read not only new, brand new plays, but [also] the forgotten ones, and that’s where we decide … Then we go on to produce a new play next season, so we usually do a new play a year, a classic play every season, you know, a variety and mix of other places.

Can you tell me about the August Wilson monologue competition that you have going around the country?

We started that when August died. Of course, his best friend and dramaturge, Todd Kreidler, he and I were really involved with August, working on the last couple of plays, and then when he passed away, me and him got together and we thought … “Wow, what’s the greatest thing we can do?” And we thought [if] we can get August Wilson into the school system, into the curriculum, that would be the great gift, and still in the responsibility of that we started off.

I named Todd Kreidler my associate artistic director, and it’s very interesting, because he’s a 35-year-old white man who is my associate artistic director and I’m a black man running this black company. … I think he is a great mind, and what we have in common is August Wilson, so when August left, we just got closer together.

… We started in Atlanta with three schools and then we made it a public event. Three years later, now we have it in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, D.C. and New York. And this year, on August’s birthday, April 21, we had the nationals in New York, at the August Wilson Theatre. So we have the finalists from each city — for example, in Atlanta, there were 28 schools this year. There can be one monologue, and we judge them on creativity, articulation, judgment, believability, and in each city, we organize a set of local celebrities — so it might be a local anchorperson, or it might be an actor, or some teacher, or some weatherman — on that stage to serves as judges and mentors. … As we teach them about life, these roles are close to the people that they know, the people that they see in their lives.

So, long and short, we had that competition last year, and I invited people like Gayle King … Samuel L. Jackson’s son, and Phylicia Rashad, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and ll of them came and shared what they had. They served as mentors to tell young people how they got to where they were before the competition began.