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20 Questions for Kenny Leon

An interview with the director Kenny Leon.

Kenny Leon directed Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop on Broadway with Angela Bassett and Samuel L. Jackson, and brings the play to his own True Colors Theatre Company in Atlanta this month for a new staging, directed by Jasmine Guy. His remake of Steel Magnolias, with an all-black cast, aired on Lifetime in October.

Where are you from?

I grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., born in Tallahassee. But I call Atlanta home, even though about 70 percent of the time I’m in New York.

What was your first memorable theatrical experience?

I went to Asolo Theatre in Sarasota. Angela Bassett and I grew up in the same town, and we both were a part of the Upward Bound program for lower-income families who had college potential. We would take part in art, from ninth grade on.

The Mountaintop is coming to True Colors, but Jasmine Guy is directing it. What’s difference between hers and yours, would you say?

Everything. Different people, different director. She’s a woman. It’s interesting just to see the things she pulls out. As artistic director, my only question is: Are those valid choices? I’m never trying to encourage my directors to do what I would do. Of course, the Broadway scenic budget was $300,000 or whatever—at True Colors we probably have a third of that.

You did Fool for Love with Jasmine Guy a few years ago. Are you in favor of color-blind casting?

You do research and dramaturgy and find out what was the intention of the writer, and if you feel that your choices heighten his intentions, then I think it’s all valid. It’s like doing the Steel Magnolias movie; I see that as a classic, and to see Alfre Woodard and Queen Latifah and Phylicia Rashad tackle those roles, it’s no different than trying to do Hamlet or Richard III.

Do you have a list of plays you want to do that way?

I don’t think of it like that—“Let me do this play written by a white author with a black cast.” I think of plays that I like: The Glass Menagerie, A Moon for the Misbegotten. In America, most of our African-American works are twofold: They’re artistically sound, but they also are trying to say something socially and politically. So some of our plays come off as didactic, because they were written for a specific time.

The Negro Ensemble Company had a season at Signature Theatre Company in 2008, but those works aren’t revived very often.

When I started True Colors, I wanted to preserve the African-American classics, even recent classics like George Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. If you embrace that and treat that as the classic that it is, then a new generation of people get to see it.

Who taught you the most about life and about theatre?

In life, it’s definitely my grandmother and my mother. In theatre, I would say my success today is directly attributable to the regional theatre movement. When I was artistic director of the Alliance, I was one of the youngest artistic directors of a major theatre, and the Alliance agreed to let me go away once a year—to Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Arena Stage, the Huntington Theatre Company, the Goodman Theatre. So by the time I left the Alliance, I had worked at all of the major regional theatres. I also met board members and audiences from all over the country. In Oregon, I saw a guy with a sign that said, “Need two for Othello.” I’ll never forget that—a guy scalping tickets for Shakespeare! That’s how important our theatre is.

If you could change one thing about the American theatre, what would it be?

The regional theatre movement was begun by people like Zelda Fichandler to get away from the commercialization of the theatre in New York. I think we’ve lost some of that. The regional theatre is supposed to be tied to the community, to tell stories to that community, to give local actors jobs, to express their artistry. A lot of regional theatres now sort of resemble a holding place for the development of commercial property. But if I could change one thing, it would be to go back to the original reason that we had these nonprofit regional theatres.

Are we going to lose you to Hollywood?

I’m a storyteller. I love Broadway, I love regional theatre, I love film, I love television. I want to do it all, but the only thing that I can’t live without is live theatre. Live theatre—it doesn’t get better than that, you know what I mean? You don’t get actors better than that. Audiences that come and sit in the dark to see it live—that moves and builds communities.

What is your guilty pleasure?

I do, every once in a while, enjoy a glass of Woodford Reserve. And anyone who knows me knows that if I’m not in rehearsal or in church, I’m on the golf course.

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