Tony Award-winning Director Kenny Leon Talks Atlanta's Theater Scene

The accomplished director talks about Broadway's "Raisin in the Sun" and why Atlanta's theater scene has room to grow.

Celebrated stage and film director Kenny Leon recently finished back-to-back Broadway shows ("Raisin in the Sun" and "Holler If Ya Hear Me"), just one his first Tony Award ("Raisin in the Sun"), has worked with some of the biggest stars in the business (Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson …), founded and runs his own theater company (True Colors Theatre Company) and this month, takes the stage with Phylicia Rashad in “Same Time Next Year” (July 8-Aug. 3), And did we mention he can also boast People magazine Most Beautiful status (2004). And somehow in all that, he found time to catch up with Where:

Congrats on your Tony! How did you find out you were nominated?

I was getting ready to go to rehearsals for my musical ("Holler If You Hear Me") and I was watching “CBS This Morning.“ They made the announcement and they didn’t announce Denzel so I got mad and turned the TV off. Then my agent called me and asked if I was watching and told me I got nominated. In my mind, I was the last person that should get it, but I did feel great about the show.

The show you won for, "Raisin in the Sun," closed June 15—how did that go?

There were a lot of Atlanta fans in the audience. We had the most diverse line of patrons on Broadway every night.

I heard the Obamas saw it.

It was good to know that they are fans and that they follow my work. It’s important for everyone to have art in their lives.

And "Holler“ opened right after that?

We were pulling 16-hour days. Both theaters are on 47th Street. "Raisin" is at 47th and Broadway and "Holler" is at 47th and 8th. I could stand on the corner and see both marquis.

Tell us about "Holler If You Hear Me," which was inspired by the lyrics of Tupac Shakur.

It was written by Todd Kreidler. It incorporates all of Tupac’s music and sets it into a story we created. If you listen to Tupac’s music, he was a prophet, an artist along the lines of Shakespeare and August Wilson. The question is how to get the rest of the world to recognize his genius? I feel a great responsibility to show that to his family and his fans.

And did you succeed?

People who love his music will definitely love it. For those who don’t, it will open your eyes, inspire you and make you respect his voice. At the end of the day, he is a voice for young people. It is a story of non-violence, about love of family and country.

You’ve done work on film and stage ... how do you pick your projects?

I’m a storyteller, I just look for unique stories. Sometimes it’s behind the camera, sometimes it’s an opera—I did Tony Morrison’s opera, “Margaret Garner“—and sometimes a musical on Broadway. I just consider myself a storyteller.

And this summer you’re back on stage as an actor.

I have not done a lot of acting lately but Ms. (Phylicia) Rashad talked me into getting back on stage.

Kenny Leon and Phylicia Rashad
Kenny Leon and Phylicia Rashad (Courtesy True Colors Theatre Company)

Where will you take her when she’s in town?

I’ll take her to Kevin Rathbun’s restaurant on Krog Street, Kevin Rathbun Steak (154 Krog St. NE, 404.524.5600). He’s a great chef and I want her to meet him. She really likes Indian and Thai food, so I’m sure we’ll do that.

Do you have any opening night rituals?

That is the hardest time for me. If I’m directing I stand in the back of the house with my yo-yo. I collect them—it calms me down. If it goes well, then I’ll just stay back there. If something goes wrong, then I’m down the street having my Woodford Reserve!

How would you describe Atlanta’s theater scene?

I think it’s solid. Atlanta is a city of potential, but the audience has to grow at the same time as business and the community; people have to understand the role of art in community.

And what is that role?

You want to have an actor be able to do a film, then a play and back again. You need to create that culture and create a place for artists. When I was shooting my movie here [a remake of “Steel Magnolia” for Lifetime], there were 22 other movies shooting in Atlanta at the same time. We haven’t quite hit it yet, but it could be great. It’s getting to that place, a place where an artist would want to live.

Director Kenny Leon plays golf
Leon on the greens—one of the director's other loves besides theater. (Courtesy True Colors Theatre Company)

What is the biggest misconception about Atlanta?

Most people don’t realize how hip Atlanta is, how international we’re becoming, and what a very diverse group of citizens we have. It’s a very exciting and futuristic place to be. It’s the type of city you really need to spend some time in to get to know it.

Do you have any dream projects or talent you’d like to work with?

So many. I like Hugh Jackman a lot and would love to work with him. Katie Holmes and I did a workshop together and have been talking about working togetther. I’d love to do another show with Denzel [Washington], another show with Samuel Jackson, anything with Helen Mirren. I’d love to do more big musicals ....

You’ve had such a busy year already. What’s next?

A good vacation. I’ve never been to the South of France and this is my perfect chance. I’m just excited to get away. I like to be busy. I get nervous when I have too much time on my hands, but I’m going to take some time off to refuel.


Get there: “Same Time Next Year“ is at the Southwest Arts Center July 8-Aug. 3. Tickets $15-60. 915 New Hope Rd., 404.532.1901,