Director's Cut: Behind The Curtain With Theater Legend Kenny Leon

The Tony winner is preparing for his fifteenth Broadway show.

From thought-provoking dramas to soul-stirring musicals, Kenny Leon has consistently pushed the boundaries of storytelling, breathing life into characters and adding needed soul to Broadway. Less than a month before his fifteenth show, "Purlie Victorious," opens on Broadway, we sat down with Mr. Leon for this week's “Director’s Cut." 

Get ready to discover the creative process that drives his artistic decisions, the inspirations that fuel the Tony winner's unparalleled vision, and the sheer dedication he brings to every project. From his earlier triumphs to his latest endeavor, there's no doubt that Leon's work continues to shape modern theater.

BET: What resonated with you being behind the camera versus in front of the camera?

Kenny Leon: I was a pretty good actor -- I'm told --, but then I had the opportunity to direct a play called "The Wishing Place." I experienced something I had never felt as an actor. I just knew that's what God had meant for me to do -- working with all the other departments, working with the actors, experiencing it from the audience. I remember going to the artistic director, the head of their theater, and said, "Yeah, I like this directing thing." He said, "Well, I don't think you have the skill set to direct." That day, I left that company because I felt strongly about my future as a director. Of course, when that door closes, another door opens. Like a week later, I was part of a National Endowment for the Arts. Two years after that, I was associate artistic director of a major theatre company. A year after that, I was running a $15 million institution in Atlanta, Georgia. So I think it's all divine inspiration. [Laughs]

BET: Is there a moment you see as your big break?

Kenny Leon: I don't think of it as a big break... once I decided to be an artist and then, specifically, when I realized that I was born to be a director -- just following intuition, following that thing in your head. There are some wonderful things that happened -- to run a major theatre company at that time and being the only Black American in the country running a major theatre company. Then I did my first Broadway play in 2004 only because Lorraine Hansberry's estate demanded that the director be a Black director. It took 50 years for "A Raisin in the Sun" to return to Broadway after Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee in 1959. "A Raisin in the Sun" was the first Black drama presented on Broadway by a Black writer.

BET: When you started, there wasn't a lot of access for Black directors and content creators. Can you talk about how different it was back then versus today?

Kenny Leon: I knew it was difficult. I knew I was raised by my grandmother in the church. My heroes were people like Dr. Joseph Lowery, who was my minister in Atlanta, or Dr. King, or John Lewis, who was a friend of mine and my congressman. Those were my heroes; I remember taking over this major theatre company. All I thought was, how can I make it where I feel like I'm included in the storytelling? So, I had to diversify the staff. I had to diversify the board, and I had to diversify the programming. In the first three or four years, it was great. I was a hometown boy from Atlanta -- Atlanta loved me. But then, by year four, or five, racial sentiments surfaced. Even though we produced, let's say, 11 plays a year, if three of those plays were by Black writers, then I would get letters like, "Why is he turning this into a Black theater?" I was forcing the merger of Black audiences to sit with white audiences to look at work by a variety of writers, and that was really hard. I remember I had death threats. Who would think you would get death threats for being a storyteller? Well, now I can look back and see the power. It's power in storytelling. It's power in who tells the history. But, at that time, I was trying to make sure I was included in the storytelling and make sure I embraced all other cultures. So it was a great road, a rocky road. But ultimately, it was a beautiful thing. When in the midst of doing it, it wasn't always easy.

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BET: Your upcoming Broadway show is "Purlie Victorious," written by the late great Ossie Davis. Previews begin September 7, and the show opens on September 27 on Broadway. Tell us about this production, which stars Leslie Odom Jr.

Kenny Leon: "Purlie Victorious" is a political satire that Mr. Ossie Davis wrote while preparing to go into "A Raisin in the Sun" on Broadway -- he followed Sidney Poitier up for that role. In his mind, I think he was trying to write something about race in America, and, every time he thought about it, it was just too painful. He said, "Wait a minute, if I can use comedy, if I can use humor, if I can develop this political satire, then it'll be a way for me not to feel so painful about it while I'm working on it." Here we are, 62 years after he wrote the original, now I'm presenting his play on Broadway. I get to show that what he was writing about, he was writing about us now... once we betray the pursuit of freedom for everyone, once we start worshipping lies, once we start having people tear down all the good stuff that good white and Black folks have done together. Mr. Davis wrote the play 62 years ago about the history of our country. It is incredibly funny. You're going to laugh from the minute you sit in your seat. But the genius of Ossie Davis is that when this play is over, you go home thinking about what you just laughed at and the truth behind everything he was discussing in the play. It's an amazing play, and the fact that we got Leslie Odom Jr. -- the last time he was on Broadway was "Hamilton." You ask yourself, "What would make him come back to Broadway?" Ossie Davis and "Purlie Victorious." We have a great cast. It's a play that allows you to think and also allows you to laugh as you're processing all this wonderful content.

BET: We are all the directors of our own life. What does the director's cut of your life and journey look like thus far?

Kenny Leon: All of my stories are the same. It's the same play over and over. How do we empower ourselves? How do we redefine ourselves in our own life? How do we claim our place in America, not taking anything away from any other culture but just being who we are? We want that space of freedom, and that's what "Purlie Victorious" is about. It's about fighting for freedom for everyone. We should have the freedom to be Black, to be white, to be gay, to be trans, to be whatever you are. In all of my plays, I'm trying to remind us that this is about how we share the planet together. How do we allow everyone the beauty that is guaranteed by God?

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