Kenny Leon On Theater, Directing NBC's 'Hairspray,' And More

Aug 27, 2016

For Georgians who love theater, watching the career arc of Kenny Leon has been thrilling. He’s now a Tony Award-winning director with numerous Broadway and Off-Broadway productions to his credit.

He’s worked with some of the biggest names in theater and film: Samuel Jackson, Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Angela Basset, Phylicia Rashad, Viola Davis and so many more. Kenny directed the live production of “The Wiz” that aired on NBC last year, and is now preparing to go into rehearsal for this year’s NBC live holiday broadcast of “Hairspray,” which will star Broadway veterans Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short and Harvey Fierstein among a cast of other stars. The show also features a young, unknown performer who Kenny found after auditioning more than 1,000 young women for the key role of Tracy Turnblad. Watch Kenny give Maddie Baillio the news:

But Georgians got to know Kenny way back in 1990 when he was named artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, one of the country’s largest regional theater companies. As the first African-American in that role, Kenny set out to produce shows that bridged racial divides. Atlantans may live in communities that are largely segregated, but Kenny saw the Alliance as a place where we would all come together and experience the healing power of theater. At times, his choices created controversy, especially when he transformed the annual holiday show “A Christmas Carol” by hiring an integrated cast, including black and white actors playing members of the Cratchit family. It was an improbable choice, but it has endured to this day, and I think it’s fair to say we’ve come to understand what Kenny had in mind: why does color matter when we’re really all the same inside?

Kenny left the Alliance in 2001 to pursue his career in New York, but first, he founded his own Atlanta company, True Colors Theater, with a mission of “creating a moveable feast of theatre grounded in the rich canon of African-American classics and branching out to include bold interpretations of world drama.”

I’ve known Kenny for almost 20 years, and although his career has put him in the top ranks of American theater professionals, he is guided by the same values and beliefs today that he’s brought to his entire career and to his life. He is deeply spiritual and sees God’s hand in everything he does; that faith informs the plays and movies he works on and is an important element in how he creates bonds with the actors he works with. Kenny sees theater as a spiritual experience, too. He believes it can bring us together, reminds us of what it means to be human and shows us that we all have a shared humanity that transcends race, ethnicity and all of our other differences.

Kenny has always been a true inspiration to me, and I hope that after listening to our conversation, you feel the same way.

Here’s the Denzel Washington scene from August Wilson’s “Fences” that we referenced on the show: