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December 21, 2006


  Interview with Kenny Leon

Kenny Leon
is a highly acclaimed director, producer and actor whose experience covers the spectrum of television, stage and film.  Prior to founding True Colors Theatre Company, Kenny served as artistic director of the Atlanta-based Alliance Theatre Company for over a decade and has directed nationally at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Milwaukee Repertory Theater, NYSF/Public Theatre, Hartford Stage Company and the Huntington Theater Company among others.  His mission is to produce a diverse group of plays from various times, cultures, and perspectives, while preserving the African American classics.  (Excerpted from True Colors Theatre Company). 

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview this veteran of stage and film, especially because he has an incredibly humble and spiritual quality.  He even invited me on set where
Kenny and cast have been (in Toronto) and recently completed production of Raisin in the Sun starring Sean Combs,
Phylicia Rashad and Sanaa Lathan, to name a few, for the special television movie adaptation, currently scheduled to be shown on the ABC Television Network in May 2007. 

Raisin in the Sun, for those that donít know, is about an African-American familyís struggles with poverty, racism, and inner conflict as they strive for a better way of life and is based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry.

How did the casting process differ for the film than for the theatre?

I guess the only difference is that you can probably spread the net a little
wider in film.  You can take longer to find the exact person.  The other ingredient, youíre trying to see whatís going to give the film the most exposure and whatís going to allow you to do the job.  Sometimes for a Broadway play in New York, I might only need one star or two stars but in film, youíre trying to get the most you can.

Theatre costs less money.  Studios have to make money and theyíre going to spend more money.  If you do a Broadway play, it might be a $2 million project or a musical, thatís $10 million.  Sometimes in film, you might have an ideal person but then you may want to find the ideal person that more people know. 

I would say ultimately that the casting process is really similar.  I think that actors cast themselves.  You have a little more involvement from the producers in film.  In this case, Neil and Craig Ė theyíve made so many films and theyíve done so much.  [
Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, Executive Producers of the Oscar-Winning Best Picture Chicago, and Executive-Producers of Raisin.]

How do you direct a relatively new actor like Sean Combs, in one of the most recognizable roles ever?  I understand also that you played that role opposite Esther Rolle.

Yes, I played that role once and directed Esther Rolle as well.  I had the opportunity of working with Sean on Broadway.  I think heís the best actor in the world to play the part.  I put a lot on me as a director in terms of giving the actor everything he needs to succeed but I also give a lot of props and credit to him for being one of the most committed people that Iíve ever met.  He is willing to go the extra mile and is ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done.  Heís a perfectionist and that goes with my personality because Iím a perfectionist.  He likes the truth and I always give him the truth and he gives me the truth.  Weíre working towards the same thing.  He likes being a part of history which is continuing the legacy of Lorraine Hansberry Ė itís a great thing.

How do you make this piece accessible to today's movie-going audience?

Thatís easy.  The casting of this project, just like on Broadway, reaches everybody.  Weíve got Sean who has a musical following, he also designs clothes, and he has perfumes.  Heís one of the most recognizable people on the planet.  He brings in that crowd. 

And then you have
Phylicia Rashad who was Clair Huxtable on the Cosby Show.  And you have Sanaa Lathan who just finished a couple of features.  You have Audra McDonald, the international music star, you have Bill Nunn whose done all of Spike Leeís movies.  Weíve added Sean Patrick Thomas who did Save the Last Dance and David Oyelowo who just did Last King of Scotland.  And then John Stamos whoís playing Lindner.

I think that we have a really good cast that is delivering.  I really respect Sidney Poitier.  I know Ruby Dee well and I knew Lloyd Richards before he passed.  All the folks associated with the original Ė they did what they did.  But this particular screenplay is very different than the original film, itís very different than the original Broadway play, itís very different than the Broadway play that we did a couple of years ago.  Itís its own thing.  Itís more cinematic, itís beautiful, it moves well.  So, when you look at it, it doesnít feel like anything you know.  I donít even think that people are going to try to compare it.  I think there will be young folk and old folks watching this.  I think itís a very universal story and Iím really proud of what weíve accomplished in producing the film. 

What are the challenges dealing with the transition from stage to the big screen? 

Iím a storyteller.  I did Toni Morrisonís opera, Iíve done musicals, Iíve done dramas.  You just have to learn the tools; you have to learn a little more about the technical aspect of telling the story because youíre working with the equipment in film.  But we have a wonderful camera operator, a great script supervisor, a good DP, a good crew.  A lot of folks from Canada on the crew.  What Iím learning is that, just as theatre is collaborative, making a film is just as collaborative.  Probably even more so because you have more people involved.  Thereís so many people doing every little thing. 

Iím really fortunate to have a blessed team so when I do my next film, it will be my main focus.  To make sure that I have a team of people that youíre going to love to be around.  Thatís the first thing.  Hiring becomes much more important.  You want to be careful about whoís on the team and make sure that they have your back and they are interested in making the same film youíre interested in making.

What first made you fall in love with theatre?

I donít know the first thing.  I know the part that excites me is the fact that you can tell peopleís stories on a stage.  Itís a chance for all human beings to sit next to each other, look at a story and find themselves in it.  The power of finding yourself in a story creates better human beings, a better way of being with each other and living with each other.  Itís almost therapeutic. 

And in theatre, it changes every night.  Depending on who went to the theatre that night and what the makeup of those people were Ė who had to get a babysitter, whoís on a date, whoís bringing a granddaughter.  All those people being in that one space at that one time Ė itís spontaneous every night so once that experience is over, you never get it back. 

On the other hand, making a film is beautiful too because itís forever.  On the stage side, itís beautiful in another way because itís never going to happen like that again.  Itís immediate and itís three-dimensional. 

You have won too many awards to mention here but was there one that stood out to you for which you are most proud of?

I guess the one that comes to mind is I received an award called the Living Legacy Award and it was given to me by a group of senior citizens.  I loved that and they were calling me a living legend.  It meant a lot because these are people who have lived life and your contribution to life meant something to them.  I have a lot of respect for elders. 

If Lorraine Hansberry saw your production, what do you hope she would say?

I hope sheís smiling down here now and says, ďYou got it right.Ē  She was ahead of her time, an intellect, very political, she was trying to bring people together, provide understanding.  I hope she would say that ďIf I was there today, all the things that you have done with the story Ė thatís what I would have approved ofĒ. 

What connection do you feel with August Wilson plays as youíve worked on so many?

August just died last year so not a day goes by that I donítí think about him and then we have his Broadway show opening in May in New York, and thatís the last play that he wrote.  I feel a lot of responsibility to deliver that play in New York the way he would have it.  Iím a spiritual person so Iím always thinking that heís looking down saying ďOK man, donít f**k up the play!Ē 

I put August Wilson and Lorraine Hansberry in the same category of being
fierce soldiers, incredible artists committed to making a difference in the world.  People like August Wilson, he could have made millions and millions of dollars.  He could have said, ďI donít want to write plays, Iím just going to do filmĒ but he didnít.  He was committed to writing those ten plays and heís had a huge impact on American life and American theatre. 

He has a universal following.  I mean I saw
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in South Africa.  I look at him as a teacher by example.

How important do you see theatre in relation to the world of entertainment?

I think it could be important to some people but I think it could have a broader reach.  I think it would be great if some producers would do more important work and less fluff.  Iím always hoping for theatre that gives us sustenance to sustain us, fuel us as humans.  I donít think thereís enough of that.  I think itís more about escaping and I think that theatre is more than that.  Itís a gathering place for us to grow and to bond and to be better humans. 

If you could work with any artist, living or past, who would they be? 

Langston Hughes
, James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka Ö because they were committed artists who found a way to make their artistry and their personal life one.  Just like Ozzie Davis and Ruby Dee Ė they were very careful about the projects they chose.  They didnít do any projects just because they needed a project.  They were living their lives that their art was talking about. 

How would you like to be remembered? 

That he was who he said he was.

Right then, the phone rang and Kenny was called back to set but I want to thank him for this opportunity in a very busy filming schedule to fit in the time with me to facilitate this interview.  I also want to thank
Samuel L. Jackson for introducing us and to Elaine Quan of eQuan Entertainment for introducing me to Mr. Jackson.