Kenny Leon talks about directing ‘A Soldier’s Play’

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

A conversation with Kenny Leon quickly reveals that what he does and who he is, aren’t mutually exclusive.

One of Broadway’s most prolific directors, Leon eats, sleeps, and breathes theater. It’s in his DNA. 

The triple-threat, one-time actor boasts a number of theatrical triumphs up and down Broadway, off-Broadway, regionally and on television.

He’s an Obie, NAACP Image Award, and Tony Award-winning director (2014’s “A Raisin in the Sun”). He directed “A Soldier’s Play,” which won the 2020 Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

His overall list of credits is much too long to list. Highlights include his television work: “Robin Roberts Presents Mahalia,” “Colin in Black and White” (Netflix), “4400,” “Hairspray Live,” “The Wiz Live” and more.

His Broadway hits include “Topdog/Underdog,” “American Son,” “Children of a Lesser God,” “Holler If Ya Hear Me,” “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Mountaintop,” “Stick Fly,” “Fences,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Radio Golf” and Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, “A Soldier’s Play,” starring Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier at the Roundabout Theatre Company.

The latter, which he is once again directing, will make its Los Angeles premiere at Center Theatre Group / Almanson Theatre May 23 through June 25.

Laid back and casually dressed, the towering Leon with his chiseled, leading man looks, is taking a break at a dance studio in North Hollywood to talk about “A Soldier’s Play.” He’s there, rehearsing for a different show.

A seasoned pro, Leon shakes off the director’s hat he’s wearing for one show and seamlessly readjusts his focus to talk about the upcoming military-based drama.

Leon can’t remember the first time he saw “A Soldier’s Play.” He thinks it was probably the television version with Howard Rollins.

“I had been friends with Sam (Samuel L. Jackson), Denzel (Washington), David (Alan Grier), and Eugene Lee, the guys in the original,” Leon said. “I didn’t see it, though, but I met them and I knew all about it. Then, I started doing productions of it.”

Once he became fully immersed in “A Soldier’s Play,” Leon said there was something about it that “moved” him.

“It makes me feel that all challenges in America are still in every area of our lives,” he said. “The foundation that is systemic racism. The divide between the haves and have-nots leads to self-hate. What Charles Fuller was writing is tied to what Lorraine (Hansberry) and August (Wilson) were all writing about.”

Leon believes “A Soldier’s Play” is an important piece of work.

“Think about the longevity of the story,” he said. “The connectedness of each generation to the next. When Charles (Fuller) wrote this, it was already a history play. He wrote it in the ’80s about the ’40s. All those years you can compare and see. 

“It won the Tony because people identified with it. They could see the truth in it. There are still specific issues in the military. But just look at the universal-ness of the story.”

When he brings his depth of experience to direct a show, Leon said he likes to ensure that he is presenting “impactful theater” by “always being aware of how the audience is going to be moved.”

“I don’t want to do museum pieces,” said Leon, the artistic director of the Alliance Theater in Atlanta from 1990 to 2001. “One of the most powerful places to stand is in the back of the theater with a cap on and see how they are moved. I’m looking for a controlled focus. Every head should be looking the same place. There should be nobody looking left or right. They should be looking where I have designed the show.”

Through his directing, Leon said he enjoys the notion of trying to impact people’s lives through storytelling.

“Specifically Black and white people,” said Leon, who launched a nonprofit theatre company in 2002 called True Colors. “The silly things that divide us. The humanity. We live in America and have our problems. I was talking to Belafonte [recently]. I said, ‘What can I do now? What’s the best way to serve the country?’ He said, ‘Keep telling the truth.’”

For Leon, “there’s life and then there’s storytelling.”

“Storytelling is next to life,” he said. “It’s evaluating and looking at the lives that we live. I get a chance to walk in other people’s shoes. I get to meet millions of people and try to imagine what makes their lives tick and, selfishly, it makes my life better.”

Leon, the Roundabout Theatre Company’s senior resident director, admits he’s in “a good place” in his career.

“I’m doing well,” he said. “Right now I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing — ‘A Soldier’s Play.’”

“A Soldier’s Play” is set in 1944, on a Louisiana Army base. Two shots ring out. A Black sergeant is murdered. A series of interrogations triggers a gripping barrage of questions about sacrifice, service and identity.

It was originally produced off-Broadway in 1981 by the Negro Ensemble Company.

The show opened on Broadway for the first time on Jan. 21, 2020 at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre, nearly 40 years after it was written.

The acclaimed production was nominated for seven Tony Awards and three Drama Desk Awards, winning Best Revival for both.

“Charles Fuller was a beast,” Leon said. “He was courageous. He wrote what was on his mind. He wasn’t trying to make a pretty musical. He was trying to tell the truth. He was trying to say that we are better together. This show explores so many different issues and challenges within the Black culture. It explores racism in the military and on the job space.”

“A Soldier’s Play” has many layers for Leon and the cast to explore. Leon admits there are some things he “must get right” in order for the show to work.

“People have to be engaged from the beginning to the end,” he said. “They have to be hooked until the very last moment. The show has to entertain. It has to make us think. I want to have all of the members of the audience leaning forward from the first note of the first song.”

Theater is everything to Leon, who said he learns something new about himself every time he directs a show. He’s having too much fun to even entertain slowing down.

“I’m living to learn,” he said. “I’m still having fun. I love what I do. I love being in the room. I love life. I get to walk in other people’s shoes. I’m lucky enough to have this as a passion.”

“A Soldier’s Play” stars Emmy, Tony and SAG Award-nominee Norm Lewis as Capt. Richard Davenport. Joining him is Eugene Lee (Sgt. Vernon C. Waters), Will Adams (Cpl. Bernard Cobb), Sheldon D. Brown (Pvt. C.J. Memphis), Malik Esoj Childs (Pvt. Tony Smalls), William Connell (Capt. Charles Taylor), Alex Michael Givens (Cpl. Ellis), Matthew Goodrich (Capt. Wilcox), Chattan Mayes Johnson (Lt. Byrd), Branden Davon Lindsay (Pvt. Louis Henson), Tarik Lowe (Pfc. Melvin Peterson), and Howard W. Overshown (Pvt. James Wilkie).

“A Soldier’s Play,” Ahmanson Theatre at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave, Tuesday through Friday 8 p.m., Saturday 2 and 8 p.m., Sunday 1 and 6:30 p.m., $40. For information: CenterTheatreGroup.org, Audience Services at 213-972-4400 or in person at the Center Theatre Group Box Offices at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.

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