Last year, Kenny Leon’s Broadway production of August Wilson’s “Fences” won three Tony Awards after garnering 10 nominations, a record for a play revival. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis won best actor and actress awards, respectively, for their roles in the play, which itself won a Tony for best revival.
But last year’s honors didn’t lead Leon to take a break this year. Leon is directing two Broadway plays this season: “The Mountaintop,” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett, and the Alicia Keys-produced “Stick Fly,” starring Dule Hill and Tracie Thoms.
“What I’ve done always has been difficult for artists and especially African-American artists, so this is easy,” Leon said about his busy schedule. “This compared to being unemployed and struggling to be seen and to be heard — I could do five plays on Broadway in the same season!”
Between directing the two shows, Leon is also in pre-production on an all-black, television remake of the classic movie “Steel Magnolias” and a musical about hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur.
Art Beat talked to Leon between rehearsals to discuss his career, upcoming projects and his mentor, August Wilson.
Throughout your career you’ve directed many of August Wilson’s plays, including last year’s “Fences,” in which Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony awards. Why is Wilson’s work so important to you?
Well, his work is important because he gave voice to the voiceless. August started writing plays about the guy that worked in the barber shop and the guy that was a garbage man and the woman that lived in a poor neighborhood and nobody knew who she was. So he gave voices to those people, and most of those people are most of America, so the fact that he gave voice to the voiceless was important. Another reason was that he provided opportunities for actors, directors and producers that hadn’t had the opportunity to work much. He gave jobs to wonderful artists and also because he gave a voice to the generation that came before us. Through August’s work I heard of the rhythms and the rituals of my mother and her grandmother, and I thought that was an important part of America to pass those stories down. I believe August Wilson is the most important force in American theater the last 25 years.
Out of his 10 play series, do you have a favorite?
No, it’s like having a favorite of 10 children. But I do like “Gem of the Ocean,” and I like “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” because those plays have more of that mythical element, and that’s a trademark of the Wilson plays.
You’ve worked in television, film and theater. Do you have a directing preference and prepare differently for each medium?
Yes, I prepare differently for each medium, but I sort of love a little bit of all of it. I always say film is art, theater is life and television is furniture. I learn something from each one of them. When I’m working in television, I’ve learned you’ve got to work fast. You don’t have time to rehearse, you don’t have time to just mess around. You’ve got to move quickly. So I pick that up from that world, and I also pick up the idea of development of character and development of situations.
In theater we have rehearsal, so I take that, and when I go to the set for television, the actors really love that because I’m concentrating on their character development and what happened on the last episode.
I love film because you have the last word. I never get that on stage because you’ve got to really believe, you’ve got to get the actors to trust you, and they have to believe in you, and then hopefully they will when you open the show. But with film, you have the responsibility of having the last word and making these actors look the best they can, because you’ve got an editing room, you’ve got to put music there, you’ve got to put the right look with it.
I like doing a little bit of all of them. I love the idea of live theater the best, because you are sitting there with the community, in the dark, looking at the light, and that’s really — you can’t get any higher than that. I don’t prefer; I love theater the best, but I love working with all the three mediums.
What drew you to the plays, “The Mountaintop” and “Stick Fly”?
“The Mountaintop” was because of the fierce and courageous efforts of Katori Hall, a 30-year-old genius of a writer, and I just didn’t know who could take an iconic figure — Dr. King — and humanize him in such a wonderful way but while at the same time embracing all those things that made him wonderful. So at the end of “The Mountain Top,” you know that Dr. King loved his wife, he loved his family, he loved his country, he loved God, but at the same time you understood that he was just he was a man that did incredible things. And I thought it took an incredible gift to be able to do that and an incredible amount of courage to tackle that in our country, because you know a lot of us don’t want to see us fool around with our iconic African-American figures. But I think that she has helped introduce him to a younger generation that will sustain who he was and embrace all the beautiful things about him, so that attracted me to that.
I’ve always been a fan of Lydia Diamond, with “Stick Fly” and all the other plays she’s written. She is just an intelligent writer who understands comedy and who understands intellect. And she’s writing a play about a group of people we usually don’t see on the American stage. She’s writing about rich black folks, and we usually don’t see that unless we’re making fun of that, but she’s written about them in an intelligent way that I think audiences will embrace and love. I’m so glad that Alicia Keys now has joined the producing team. To get her to produce this and also to work with her doing the music for this show — I couldn’t be more humbled and blessed and full of gratitude right now.
How do you choose a new production?
I usually see how the play moves me, and usually if it’s a good playwright it will move me on the first read. I usually read plays two or three times before I decide if I’m going to do it. I also want to know about the writer, and I learned that from Mr. Wilson. August Wilson was a great writer and a great mentor to many of us, so that’s the standard. So I always look up to August and I always ask myself, “Are these writers worthy to be in an army with him?”
What’s your process in choosing a cast?
Well, I always say they roles cast themselves. Sam Jackson just happened to be with me when I received an offer to do “The Mountain Top,” and we just started talking and a month a later he called me and said he would be interested in it. At that time I guess folks weren’t thinking about the age of Dr. King, and it never occurred to me that Sam was 60 and Dr. King was 39. I always saw Dr. King as older and bigger than 39, and my approach to it was always going to be somebody older was going to play that role. After the Halle Berry thing didn’t work out, Angela just walked in just claimed that role. When it’s right, you know.
And I’m good at saying, “Hey, this doesn’t work, this does work.” And I also know that 80 percent of a successful director’s work is the casting. When I worked with Denzel Washington on “Fences” — I mean, Denzel is one of the most amazing actors on the planet, and to just have the opportunity for him to play that role was an incredible blessing for me.
With “Stick Fly” coming up, I’ve never been so excited about a cast in my life, because this is a play that’s an ensemble cast and all six people have to deliver. It doesn’t center around one individual character, and so we have a wonderful, wonderful group of people. We have Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Mekhi Phifer, Condola Rashad, Tracie Thoms, Dule Hill and Rosie Benton. It’s a perfect, perfect cast. I think I’m blessed and lucky, but I always say that plays cast themselves.
And I’m looking forward to this movie I’m doing, the African-American remake of the film “Steel Magnolias.” And there are so many wonderful actresses that could be in this play. I’m curious to see what five women I end up with. The next month I’ll get on that and figure that out.
How is your version going to be different from the original?
First of all, I have a lot of respect for the original. I mean, that was a classic. There is a reason that it’s a classic. It’s well written and it’s based on a beautiful play. Those women that did that film — Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Fields — those are incredible performances, so the only reason to do it again is if you could so something that you think would add to that legacy. I think if you just think of an African-American hair salon versus a not-African-American hair salon, I think there are differences in our culture, there are differences in our humor, there difference in our emotional reaction to things that happen in our lives, so I think this will add to the body of work and it would add to the legacy of the original. I’m just looking forward to it, and it also would give some wonderful actresses a beautiful opportunity to tackle this great piece.
You’re also working on a musical based on the music of Tupac Shakur? How did you get involved in that project and when will that come out?
A long time ago, maybe eight or nine years ago, I’ve been talking about that with Tupac’s mother, Afeni, and so we’ve become fans of each other and she sort of entrusted me with her son’s music. The idea was always to make a musical inspired by his music and not to do an autobiographical approach to his life or anything like that. And because I always thought that Tupac was a prophet and I thought if everybody could hear his words and hear his stories, they would see what I see. So we are going to probably do a big workshop in New York this summer and I’m going to try to bring it to Broadway in the next Broadway season. So a year from now hopefully you’ll be seeing this world-changing musical on the Broadway stage. I couldn’t be more excited. Todd Krickler is writing the book, and with the lyrics by Tupac, it’s going to be very exciting, pretty much would sort of change the face of musical theater as we know it on Broadway, so I am looking forward to that.