Few working in theatre don’t know his name. Kenny Leon has directed shows at almost every major U.S. theatre, including on Broadway, served as artistic director at the Tony-winning Alliance Theatre for more than a decade, and co-founded his own theatre company, True Colors, in the predominantly African American middle-class neighborhood of Atlanta’s College Park, home to rapper 2Chainz, the city’s mayor, and playwright Pearl Cleage. Leon opened his latest Broadway play, American Son, last November, shortly after announcing he would step down from True Colors (American Son will be filmed by Netflix with Leon directing). His replacement is his associate artistic director, Jamil Jude (though the theatre will continue to be called Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company). With a number of film and TV projects slated for this year, Leon is not slowing down any time soon.
KELUNDRA SMITH: What motivated you to start True Colors after leading the Alliance?
KENNY LEON: I had no idea of starting a theatre company. I was approached by two gentlemen—Rodney Temple, president of the Arena Stage board in Washington, D.C., and Chris Manos, who was running Theater of the Stars in Atlanta. They suggested that I start a national Black theatre company. I said I didn’t want to do that, but as an exercise I started writing down what I would do if I did start one. Most LORT theatres are centered around Anglo-American work, mostly by men, and then there was cultural and gender diversity around the edges. What if I flipped that model and at the center we had what we call African American classics? If you asked someone in 1999 what that was, they would have said A Raisin in the Sun, but it’s more than Lorraine Hansberry. There’s Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Leslie Lee, and all these writers that this generation doesn’t know about. So that became the nucleus of what I built True Colors around. We embrace all cultures, but at the center of it we have African American storytelling.
I also looked around the country and saw that most of these theatres were started by two artists, but there was no one who loved the financial side as much as the artistic side. The first thing I did was seek out someone I knew was very good with numbers and loved the financial side as much as I love being an artist, and that was Jane Bishop, who had been the general manager at the Alliance. We came together to start True Colors; she had retired and told me she would only be with me for three to four years, and in the fourth year she passed away. We were great buddies. Our core values were boldness, laughter, respect, and abundance, and now it’s 16 years later.
What was your first production?
Fences by August Wilson. It’s so funny, because when I came to the Alliance as associate artistic director, my first job was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone; it was still in manuscript form. Two years later, when I was named artistic director at the Alliance, we did Fences. Flash forward to when I started True Colors, I called August and asked him to toast our theatre into life, and he stood on the stage and we breathed life into this company. August Wilson marks my firsts in almost all of my endeavors. A Raisin in the Sun in 2004 was my first Broadway production, but I’ve done three August Wilson shows on Broadway.
How would you describe Atlanta’s theatre scene, and how has it changed since you started True Colors?
Atlanta’s scene is exciting, especially for actors who choose to make their livelihood there because you have more film and television, so an actor can make more of a decent living. But I would love to see some of the movies and shows use the local talent in larger roles. The city is still a city of potential. Cities like Chicago and Minneapolis still have a greater reach when it comes to the importance of arts to the community. I wish there was an area of town, like a mini-Broadway on Peachtree Street, with nine theatres supported by the city, county, and state—that would be great.
At True Colors this year, we moved our production of Dot by Colman Domingo to Brooklyn, which wasn’t happening a few years ago. They took the entire cast from Atlanta; those things make you very proud. The Alliance has The Prom on Broadway. I’m directing American Son. Atlanta is fertile ground. My successor, Jamil Jude, is an incredible director, and I am encouraging him to spread his wings around the country.
What do you want the True Colors Theatre legacy to be for the Atlanta community?
I want it to be a place where we hear everybody’s stories. I want people to have the mindset that hearing a story at True Colors will only make me better—help me become a better person in my community. I want people to not be fearful of each other. I want people to understand that if there’s strong African American storytelling then we’re a strong community, city, and nation. We have to stop being afraid of each other and our stories. I want all of Atlanta to understand that True Colors is a major theatre in the cultural life of the city. It’s important that our artistic institutions become important to our communities so that we sustain them over time.
Speaking of storytelling, tell me about your book Take You Wherever You Go.
The title comes from something my grandmother used to say to me: “You can’t be anybody else, so take you wherever you go.” That’s what I try to do. Whether I’m in a board meeting where no one looks like me or walking the red carpet for a movie premiere, I try my best to take me. I’m encouraging people to dig into their true, authentic selves, because that’s where you find success. Everything I’ve learned in life is based on my mother, grandmother, and August Wilson, and I can always trace back to one of those people.
What else are you up to now?
I’m going to Yale Rep to direct Good Faith by Karen Hartman [through Feb. 23]; it’s a play based on a true story in New Haven, Conn., about promotions for African American firefighters. The case went to the Supreme Court in 2009, Ricci v. DeStefano, and it’s interesting to me because all of those people are still living in New Haven. After that, I’ll direct two episodes of a television show produced by Will Packer for the Oprah Winfrey Network called “Ambitions.” Then in the summer I’ll direct my first feature film, and then I’ll direct Much Ado About Nothing for the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. I want to be relevant, I want to work, and I believe that my best work is yet ahead.
A previous version of this article stated that Kenny Leon led the Alliance Theatre when the company won a Regional Tony Award in 2007, but the company was under the direction of Susan Booth at that time.