Kenny Leon Takes On Seven Questions About American Son, Actors as Activists, & His Aida Dream
December 11th, 2018
by Josh Ferri
Tony Award-winning director Kenny Leon is at the helm of the powerful, tense, and acclaimed new drama American Son. The author of the new memoir Take You Wherever You Go directs Kerry Washington, Steven Pasquale, Eugene Lee, & Jeremy Jordan in the timely play running at the Booth Theatre through January 27. Scroll on as BroadwayBox talks with Kenny about a few of his 10 Broadway shows, the role of theatre in today's political climate, and bringing back Elton John's Aida.
1. How do you know when a project is right for you? What goes into choosing your work?
First, I think about the impact it will have on the world. If it's saying something that I think would benefit us all. Secondly, I think about who's involved in the project. Then I put those two together: people I want to work with saying something that I think is relevant and important.
2. What was your biggest challenge in directing American Son?
This is one of the most exciting things I've ever worked on. Certainly, it's timely, and I thought it was well-written. But the major challenge of it, going in, was that I needed four great actors, and I needed to get all four actors on the same page. They had to have the same tone. This play is so fragile.
You don't have to make it be funny; you just have to let it be funny, in the places where it's funny. And you can't over push the drama. It's in real time, so it's 90 minutes of authenticity. So, the greatest challenge was getting four actors who could keep that tone, ride into this 90 minutes together, and control the audience's engagement. I think it's important for the audience to lean forward in this production and never to sit back until it's over.
3. What do you think is an important discussion theatre artists should be having right now?
Our role in society. The other day I was sitting chatting with the great Harry Belafonte, and he's 91 years old. And I realize, with Harry, that actor was synonymous with activism. The role of the artist and the politics were all as one. As artists, we're always giving the world and the community something to think about. I think we can't ever forget our responsibility there. We don't need the political climate to change, we just have to understand that's our role, always. It is always to look at the world around us and put questions on a raised stage in front of the community, in front of the world.
4. What’s the most vital thing your tenture as Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta taught you?
During my time at the Alliance, I learned the importance of the role of an audience. I'm not one of those directors that would be satisfied if half the audience left. I'm always trying to reach people; some people might think they might not want to be reached.
I'm all about how the last play that I worked on is related to the play that I'm working on now. When you're at a regional theater, you're interested in how the plays talk to each other. How the writers talk to each other. In the commercial world, the last play I worked on was Children of a Lesser God, and that was a play about how we really don't listen to each other. And then this one is a continuation of that, just in a different way. You have four people very different from each other, who all have something to say, and we can learn something from all four of them.
That’s what's so amazing about this play. I find myself saying uh-huh to something I thought I was not going to agree with, to a person I thought I would not like. I think that teaches us—especially right now in terms of the climate in the country—if we just had a little humility and a little respect for everybody's opinion, we may be able to move a lot further.
5. Speaking of the audience, tell me about one of your favorite nights in the theater as an audience member. Is there anything that really struck you?
Oh man. It sounds funny, but probably for the most memorable evening in the theater as an audience member, I have to give credit to the great Julie Taymor and the first time when I saw The Lion King. I sat there in the dark and then I have a big, giant giraffe puppet going past me, and immediately I'm so engaged in the wonderful world of theater. I was like, "Only theater. Only theater can do that."
6. Is there an instance when you had an idea for a character and someone came in the room and turned it upside down?
No, because I always am trying to build a show based on who I have cast in the show. That's what makes the play unique. One of the first Broadway plays that I saw was August Wilson's Fences with James Earl Jones. But certainly, in 2010, when Denzel Washington is playing the role, I'm not looking for Denzel to resemble James Earl Jones at all. I was really impressed at Denzel's attack on that character. I was impressed at the humor he found in the character. And that teaches me that there are many truths to different characters. You always have to be flexible to see where the truth is in the particular actor that you hired to do the job.
7. Finally, you've directed two hit live musicals for television, The Wiz and Hairspray. Is there a dream musical you'd like to explore in that live TV format?
Aida. I would love that.
See Kenny Leon's American Son at Broadway's Booth Theatre through January 27, 2019.