Broadway Director Kenny Leon Opens Theater Doors To New Audiences Leon says he likes to attract diverse audiences, so different cultures rub together in the crowd. This spring, he's directing a revival of A Raisin in the Sun and a new musical inspired by Tupac.
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Broadway Director Kenny Leon Opens Theater Doors To New Audiences

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Broadway Director Kenny Leon Opens Theater Doors To New Audiences

Broadway Director Kenny Leon Opens Theater Doors To New Audiences

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Countless tourists in New York have seen the work of Kenny Leon, though they could easily overlook his name.


Leon is a director on Broadway. He's directed A-list actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett in "The Mountaintop."

INSKEEP: Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Tony Awards in Leon's revival of August Wilson's "Fences." And now he has two Broadway shows opening within a few months of each other.

Jeff Lunden has this profile.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: You've got to have an ego to be a director, sitting in rehearsal rooms with talented, opinionated actors. But Kenny Leon's productions are kind of egoless, says Atlanta-based playwright Pearl Cleage who's worked with the director on several new plays.

PEARL CLEAGE: He isn't really someone who's trying to superimpose a flashy vision, so that people will gasp and say: Oh, the director was this and the director was that. He's actually trying to get to the heart - the real heart - of these people that the playwright has created.

LUNDEN: Ten years ago, Kenny Leon made his Broadway debut with characters created by Lorraine Hansberry. He directed "A Raisin in the Sun" with Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad. Now he's back on Broadway, with a completely different production.

KENNY LEON: You know, 10 years later, I'm a better artist There are things that have happened in America in the last 10 years; you know, an African-America president, racism, in terms of Trayvon Martin and the likes, the housing market bubble. We're an international world now; we really have to understand the entire world, which Lorraine was writing about in 1958. So it's an exciting time to do a revival of this particular play.

LUNDEN: This time, it stars Denzel Washington and Sophie Okonedo as the leads.


SOPHIE OKONEDO: (as Ruth Younger) Walter, eat your eggs. It's going to get cold.

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Walter Lee Younger) See there? Man say to his woman: I got me a dream, baby. Woman says: Eat your eggs. Man says: I got to take a hold of this world. Woman says: Eat your eggs. Go to work. Man says: I got to change my life, I'm choking to death. Woman says: Your eggs are getting cold.

OKONEDO: (as Ruth Younger) Oh, that ain't none of our money.

WASHINGTON: (as Walter Lee Younger) This morning, I'm in the mirror I'm thinking: I'm 40 years old, I've been married 11 years and I got a boy who sleeps in the living room, and all I've got to give him is nothing. Nothing but stories about how rich white people live.

OKONEDO: (as Ruth Younger) Eat your eggs, Walter.

WASHINGTON: (as Walter Lee Younger) Damn, my eggs.

LUNDEN: For the role of Beneatha Younger, the character Lorraine Hansberry based on herself, Leon cast Tony winner Anika Noni Rose. She previously worked with Leon on a television movie and says his style is very intuitive.

ANIKA NONI ROSE: Kenny works differently than other directors that I've worked with. He likes to put you on your feet very early. I find that disconcerting.


ROSE: But, you know, you work with people who work differently all the time.

LUNDEN: By putting actors on their feet, Leon dispenses with what's known as table work, where the actors and director spend several days sitting around a table analyzing the text.

LEON: I would rather find out, early on, if you can't deliver it and then we can adjust to what you can do. Let's not talk theoretically about the play. I like actors to go home, do your homework, come into the rehearsal hall and bump your ideas against each other. And then, it's like, we discover something that nobody had.


ROSE: (as Beneatha Younger) The ambulance came and they took him to the hospital. And they fixed up the broken bones and they sewed it all up. And the next time I saw Rufus, he just had a little line down the middle of his face. I never got over that.

SEAN PATRICK THOMAS: (as Joseph Asagai) What?

ROSE: (as Beneatha Younger) That was what one human being could do for another, Fix him up. You know, and sew up the problem, make him all right again. It was the most marvelous thing in the world and I wanted to do that.

LUNDEN: "A Raisin in the Sun" is about a poor working-class Chicago family that wants to move from a cramped apartment to a small house. In this production, David Cromer, plays the character who tries convince the family not to move into his all-white neighborhood. Cromer's also an award-winning director, on and off Broadway, and says he's enjoyed watching Leon at work.

DAVID CROMER: He's very open. He's very interested in what people have to say. He doesn't, like, hold forth about things. Kenny is not going to give, like, a long lecture on what it means. But by the end of the conversation, everybody knows we're all talking about the same thing.

LUNDEN: Even before Kenny Leon started directing on Broadway, he had a long history in the theater. He's worked as an actor, and still does, and ran the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta from 1988 to 2000. He was one of the first African-American artistic directors of a major regional theater, says playwright Pearl Cleage.

CLEAGE: He really took on the burden of changing that institution in the best possible way. He opened it up to people who had never really felt welcome there; artists, audience members, people from within the Atlanta community, people from outside of Atlanta who had never really thought about coming here to do theater.

LUNDEN: The director left the alliance to found his own company: Atlanta's True Colors Theatre. Leon says he has two criteria: does the play tell a good story and will it appeal to a wide audience?

LEON: I've always liked that idea of a diverse group of audience members sitting together, rubbing up against each other, and taking on the life of a culture that doesn't belong to either one of them.

LUNDEN: Leon's next Broadway project is "Holla If Ya Hear Me," a musical based on the songs and poetry of Tupac Shakur.


TUPAC SHAKUR: Here we go, turn it up, let's start. From block to block, we snatching hearts and jacking marks...

LUNDEN: The controversial rapper was killed in a drive-by shooting, almost two decades ago. Leon calls him a prophet, but knows his music will be a hard sell on Broadway.

LEON: We're going to be at the Palace Theatre, which is where "Annie" was. And so, to me, to have "Holla If Ya Hear Me" in the same place that "Annie" played, that's what America is about. And I just want folks to give us half a chance. And if they give us half a chance, if they come through the doors, it's going to be a powerful evening of theater.

LUNDEN: Kenny Leon has precious little downtime in the next few months. "A Raisin in the Sun" is currently up and running. He'll have a Hallmark movie on ABC TV on April 20th. "Holla If Ya Hear Me" opens on June 19th. And in July, Leon stars with actress Phylicia Rashad in "Same Time, Next Year" in Atlanta.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


SHAKUR: (Rapping) Holla if you hear me, the rebel. Holla if you hear me. Hard...

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.


SHAKUR: (Rapping) Hard, the rebel. Holla, if you hear me. Hard, the rebel. Holla if you hear me. Will I quit? Will I quit? They claim that I'm violent, but still I keep representing, never give up, on a good thing. Wouldn't stop it if we could, it's a hood thing. And now I'm like a major threat 'cause I remind you of the things you were made to forget. Bring the noise, to all my boys. Know the real from the bustas and the decoys. And if you hustle like a real G, pump your fists if you feel me, holla if ya hear me...

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