Theater director Kenny Leon, winner of a 2014 Tony award for his direction of the revival of A Raisin in the Sun and whose newest production, Holler if Ya Hear Me, opened June 19 on Broadway, has been appointed Fordham Theatre Program’s Denzel Washington Endowed Chair in Theatre for 2014.
In addition to 12 years as artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company, Leon was the founder of the True Colors Theater Company. He has directed opera, television, and eight Broadway plays.
His latest, Holler, which opens today, is a musical about the late rap artist Tupac Shakur.
Leon praised his new chair’s benefactor, Denzel Washington, FCLC ’77, with whom he shares a special bond: Washington was the lead actor in Leon’s Tony-winning production of Raisin, and Leon had previously directed Washington on Broadway in the revival of August Wilson’s Fences—for which Washington earned a best actor Tony. Calling Washington a “true theater beast” and an “American treasure,” the director said that Washington built the foundation of his career “centered on the world of theater.”
“Theater allows him to expand what he does in his film work, and that’s why he wants to come back to the stage every three or four years,” said Leon. “That’s the true litmus test: Not every film actor can do theater, but most of your great theater artists can do film.”
He is in rehearsals for Same Time Next Year, where he’ll act opposite Phylicia Rashad, who in 2011 became the first to hold the Denzel Washington Chair.
“I consider myself as a director, but started out as an actor,” said Leon. “Every two or three years I act so that I can remind myself about the process and what actors are going through.”
Leon said that the opportunity to teach at Fordham couldn’t have come at a better time, since he was already looking for opportunities to “give back.”
“I’m also really looking forward to what I’m going to get from the students,” he said. “I want to see what’s in their heads, what energizes them, what’s going to be the next story on Broadway. They’re going to tell me a lot.”
He said he hopes students will benefit from his own experience, and “not have to repeat the same mistakes.” He said that while he doesn’t have the syllabus mapped out yet, he said students could expect to learn how to break down, build, and maintain a character and “how you stand in truth.”
“It’ll be probably the rawest class they’ve ever had,” he said.
Leon he does not consider himself to be a traditional teacher, he said his experience with the young cast of Holler transformed rehearsals into something of a collaborative master class, with rappers, dancers, actors, and poets learning from each other.
“You find the truth by working with the person you are opposite. I love that,” he said.
And Leon knows about learning from the masters. He worked with August Wilson when the playwright wrote Radio Golf, the last play of The Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson’s series of ten plays depicting ten decades of the African American experience. For the show’s Broadway production Leon asked the mother of Tupac Shakur, Afeni Shakur, if he could use the rapper’s “Me Against the World” for the show’s final scene.
Wilson’s dramaturge Todd Kreidler for The Pittsburgh Cycle also wrote the book for Holler. With the Tony win, the show’s opening caps off an extraordinary two weeks for the director, but it’s also a culmination of Leon’s many years in the theater.
“As an African-American artist, I’ll never forget the time I spent with August [Wilson] and to have seen the fulfillment of his completing the cycle of plays,” Leon said. “Then, to have reached out to Afeni Shakur (Tupac’s mother) and now just a few years later to be doing a show using Tupac’s words . . . you just look at Tupac’s words realize he was in the same army as August Wilson, and Lorraine Hansberry, and Shakespeare.”
“In many ways August plays, Lorraine plays, and Tupac plays are all about the same thing—access to the American Dream,” he said. “If I was making this play for a hip-hop rap concert then I’d simply play Tupac records. But I’m trying to tell a story. And in a story, you hear truth unfold.”