According to popular legend, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon discovered the state of Florida while searching for the Fountain of Youth – the mythical spring said to promise longevity to anyone who drinks its waters. Tony Award-nominated director Kenny Leon appears to have found the secret for endurance on Broadway – choose to work with impeccable playwrights and extraordinary actors. When asked about his selection processes on choosing which plays he will work with, Leon states, “When I choose a project to spend time with, I first have to make sure that it will make a contribution to the world. At one time, in my career I had to say yes to anything and now I ask myself, ‘Is me doing this project going to make a difference? Is it going to touch people’s lives?’ I pray on it and wait for the answer to come back. Then I usually move forward with it knowing that it’s not what the critics say about it, it’s what the people say about it.”
Leon definitely has the ear of the people and the critics. Early this fall Leon’s brilliance was seen on Broadway when playwright Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop brought new meaning to the term British Invasion. After having a successful run on London’s West End, the play that provides a fictional account of the night before Dr. King’s assassination is now playing at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre with Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in the lead roles and Kenny Leon as director. The play has been a hit with critics and audiences alike. One might have found the notion of tackling Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as subject matter for a stage production an insurmountable task, but Katori, Leon, Jackson and Bassett wove a new stitch in the tapestry of Dr. King’s legacy with out blemishing the fabric of the man or his dream. “Originally when I received the offer to do [The Mountaintop] my first thought was I didn’t want to do anything that was destructive of the iconic nature of Dr. King. My agent said it’s about Dr. King and a sexy maid, and it’s like wait a minute,” he says. “Then I said to myself, if it’s a fictitious account it might work, but if it’s trying to be realistic then that may not work. Then when I read the script, what really convinced me was how I felt at the end. At the end of the script I knew Dr. King was a man who loved his family, who loved his wife, who loved his country and who loved God and those were the things that brought me to it because those were the things that uplifted Dr. King. And Katori had a way of making this man be human but at the same time showing those values that made him great.”
This Thanksgiving, Leon will have two plays on the Great White Way. Stick Fly began previews November 18, and has a scheduled opening date for December 8. Written by Lydia R. Diamond and produced by Alycia Keys, the play stars Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Tracie Thoms, Mekhi Phifer, Dule Hill, Rosie Benton and Condola Rashad and is about a family that comes to terms with themselves one weekend on Martha’s Vineyard. Right after The Mountaintop debuted on Broadway, Leon was hard at work at the Cort Theatre helping to bring this script to life. “Stick Fly is such a great project because Lydia Diamond is such a great writer,” he says. She is an intelligent writer and she’s very funny.”
Leon is widely known as one of the foremost African American directors, with the majority of his acclaim coming from the projects he has done on stage. And it seems to me that Leon has charted a course that keeps him loyal to the theater, despite the more lucrative mediums of television and film. “I have a T-shirt that says, ‘Film is art, theatre is life, television is furniture.’ That sort of summarizes it for me,” he affirms. “I love television and I love film; they all have there ups and downs and pros and cons. I’m getting ready to do a Lifetime movie for cable and I’m very excited about it. We’re going to be able to reach a millions of people with that story. In the theater you’re only able to reach a thousand people per night. It is the ultimate 3D experience. You don’t have to put on any funny looking glasses, you can just sit there and you can see Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett or Denzel Washington. It’s the closest thing to life that we have.”
With all the successes and accolades that Leon has achieved, one thing has eluded him – a Tony win for Best Direction in a Play. I wondered if not bringing home a Tony still mattered to him. “It does, but you keep going you know,” he says. In certain ways, a director is similar to an explorer. A director is given a map – the script and is told to take it, get a crew together, go off and make a great discovery. Kenny Leon has allowed his innate sense of understanding the beauty and frailty of human nature to guide him in participating in productions that are great discoveries to theatergoers each night. In 2012, Leon promises to keep the tradition of surprising himself and his fans going by continuing to work with meaningful projects. I am sure any project he works with will feature Kenny Leon’s ability to bring the soul out of the work and rejuvenate the soul of the audience in the process.
Photos: Wire Image and stickflybroadway.com