Kenny Leon on That Time He Directed 2 Plays in 2 Cities, At the Same Time | Playbill

My Life in the Theatre Kenny Leon on That Time He Directed 2 Plays in 2 Cities, At the Same Time

The Tony-winning director just wrapped up Purlie Victorious and he's now working on Home and Our Town.

Director Kenny Leon is always in demand.

With 17 Broadway credits to his name in 20 years, the Tony winner is one of the most respected and sought after directors in the business, with a clearly recognizable style and clarifying point of view that has enchanted audiences. This season, he’s pulling double duty, directing both Home for Roundabout Theatre Company (running through July 21) and the starry revival of Our Town set to arrive this autumn. He was also recently Tony nominated for the sixth time for directing the revival of Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious starring Leslie Odom, Jr. and newly minted Tony winner Kara Young. 

Watch him walk through his many Broadway credits in the video above.

In spite of the tidal wave of work he’s produced since the pandemic shutdown, he doesn’t consider this to be his busiest period. That prize has to be given to the mid-2000s, when Leon’s work as the Artistic Director for The Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia, his deep collaboration with playwright August Wilson, and his Broadway debut with A Raisin in the Sun came one right after the other. 

“I acted in Gem of the Ocean on its way to Broadway,” Leon shares, referring to the first chronological installment in Wilson’s lauded Pittsburgh Cycle. “When it was in Chicago, I had an opportunity to work with August Wilson as an actor. But we knew I wouldn't do every city, because I was so busy as a director. So I did, like, five weeks in Chicago before I left to direct [Much Ado About Nothing] in Atlanta. Then, a year later, I got a call from August. He said, ‘We need you. We're in Boston, we need you for the show.’”

Kenny Leon photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

Leon thought that Wilson needed him to step in as an actor for Gem of the Ocean. But actually, Leon was asked to direct. There was one not-so-small problem. “I was in Boston, taking over that show and getting it ready for Broadway. And then I was doing Tambourines to Glory in Washington D.C. at the same time. I’d be rehearsing Gem of the Ocean in Boston, we’d finish rehearsal, I’d get on a plane, go to Washington, direct that play, wake up in Washington, rehearse that play, fly back to Boston, do that play. I did that for 10 days. And you know what? Both plays turned out beautiful. That's how I knew that I could do anything. So always, when people say, ‘Are you too busy?’ I say no. I did two plays in two cities at the same time. I can do anything.”

Having built a reputation as an unflagging supporter of under-sung Black playwrights, and winning a Tony for A Raisin in the Sun, Leon acknowledges why some may have scratched their head when he announced that he was directing Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

"I've wanted to do this play for like 15 years," Leon explains, eyes twinkling with mirth. "I grew up thinking it was the worst play ever. Really. And then I did a fundraiser with Scarlett Johansson for the people in Puerto Rico, when they were hit by a hurricane." 

Kenny Leon photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang

Leon cast the fundraiser with a mixture of Johansson's Marvel costars (including soon-to-be Broadway performer Robert Downey Jr., and stage veterans Mark Ruffalo and Chris Evans) and performers of color he had worked with in Atlanta. The result captured the new reality of small town life in America.

"The more people you include in this play, the more beautiful it becomes. And I fell in love with the play," Leon emphasizes. "This is the play that talks about how we spend our time together. All we have is right now. I think it's an urgent play, and we really need it for right now. It's hard to do, because people think they know it. And it's been done so much. But if you take everything in my career, and you put all of that in Our Town...It's gonna be fresh, it's gonna be beautiful, it's gonna be musical, it's gonna be funny. And it's going to be impactful and important."

My Life in the Theatre is filmed at New York’s Alchemical Studios.

Kenny Leon photographed at Alchemical Studios Vi Dang
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