Kingsley Leggs dedicated himself to a career in musical theater because he found performing fun and exciting. From his earliest experiences in the chorus of high school musicals, Leggs had been aware of the theater's ability to captivate and transport audiences. When he discovered African American theater in the early 1980s, he found a more deeply personal reason to remain in the theater—to make sure that black writing, black music, and black experience remained onstage where audiences of all colors could learn from it. As he grew as an actor and singer, he became determined to find, in each character he played, a powerful message to communicate, so that, in addition to being entertained, his audiences might be inspired as well.
Encouraged by Teacher
Leggs was born in the Midwestern city of St. Louis, Missouri, a major port on the Mississippi and a gateway between the Eastern and Western United States. When he was a teenager, his family moved to the St. Louis suburb of Normandy where Leggs attended Normandy High School. There he played snare drum in the school band, joined choral groups, and began performing in plays. His voice teacher Paul Mabury was strict and demanding, but he believed in his students' ability to succeed, and that confidence inspired Leggs to work hard to improve his performance skills.
Mabury's affection and encouragement gave Leggs the confidence to audition for roles on stage. It was while singing in the chorus of a Normandy High School production of the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Carousel that Leggs realized he wanted to make the theater his career. "I just thought, ‘This is the most fun thing I've ever done in my life,’" he told Ruth Ezell in an interview on St. Louis' public television channel, "People actually do this and make money. I want to do this."
After his graduation from Normandy High School, Leggs followed his mentor Paul Mabury to Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Mabury taught in Benedictine's music department, and Leggs majored in music, studying and training in classical singing. He planned to become an opera singer, as he performed in college concerts and in summer productions at Atchison's Municipal Theater. However, after his graduation from Benedictine in 1983, he returned to St. Louis, where he found a group of artists who would change his career direction.
St. Louis' Twenty-Third Street Theater had been founded in 1976 by producer/director Ron Himes to showcase works by and for African Americans. The theater company began as a touring group which traveled to local college theaters and festivals. By the time Leggs joined, it had established a home theater in a former St. Louis church. The Twenty-Third Street Theater soon became the St. Louis Black Repertory, or the Black Rep. The company's mission—to provide a space for the creative expression of African Americans in order to educate audiences about black culture and create social change—captivated Leggs. For almost a decade, Leggs worked with the Black Rep, appearing in many productions, including Ain't Misbehavin', Blues in the Night, and Five Guys Named Mo.
During the early 1990s, Leggs went on tour with a musical revue. The group performed in Chicago, and Leggs fell in love with the Midwestern metropolis and the exciting theatrical opportunities there. He remained in Chicago for several years, continuing to perform, and soon auditioned for a touring company production of the Tony-award winning musical Miss Saigon. Leggs landed a part in the chorus, but while he was waiting for the tour to begin, he received a life-changing call. Several actors had dropped out of the Broadway production of Miss Saigon, and the producers offered Leggs a role in the New York show. He accepted, and the name Kingsley Leggs made its first appearance in a Broadway playbill.
Following his run on Broadway, Leggs went on tour with Miss Saigon, first in the United States, then in the United Kingdom and in Asia. He also toured with other plays, including Forbidden Hollywood, It Ain't Nothing But the Blues. In Ragtime, in which he took the leading part of Coalhouse Walker, Leggs earned complimentary reviews for the warmth and sympathy he brought to the role. His long run in Ragtime introduced Leggs to one of the biggest challenges of live theater: repeat performances. Unlike film acting, in which only one good performance needs to be preserved on film, theater actors must repeat their demanding performances eight times a week, often for many weeks in a row. His classical training contributed to his strong singing voice and commanding stage presence. It also helped him to concentrate his energy and focus his attention so that he could deliver a sincere and fresh performance
Cast in The Color Purple
In 2000, Leggs' powerful work in Ragtime was honored with a nomination for the LA Stage Alliance's Ovation Award in the category of Best Actor in a Musical. In 2003, he received another nomination for his role in Dreamgirls. The same year, he auditioned for a role in a new musical production, based on Alice Walker's Pulitzer-prize winning 1982 novel The Color Purple. Leggs got the role and was chosen to go to Atlanta, Georgia, to workshop the new play. Work-shopping a theatrical production means that the cast and creators work together through discussion and improvisation to develop a show that works well onstage. The Color Purple is the powerful story of Celie, a poor, Southern, African American woman who survives and triumphs after many painful experiences, especially at the hands of the men in her life. Leggs was cast in the role of Mister, Celie's abusive husband.
After extensive pre-production work, The Color Purple opened at Atlanta's Alliance Theater on September 9, 2004. Though the show received mixed reviews, it did well enough that a group of producers, including media celebrities Quincy Jones and Oprah Winfrey, began working on a New York production. In December 2005, The Color Purple opened on Broadway, with Kingsley Leggs in the role of Mister. As it had in Atlanta, the play drew a mixed critical response, but it was an immediate hit with audiences, drawing large numbers of black theatergoers, who did not traditionally attend Broadway musicals. In 2006, the show received thirteen nominations for Broadway Audience Awards, including one for Kingsley Leggs. Though Leggs did not win the award, the show won five Audience Awards, including Favorite New Broadway Musical.
The role of Mister allowed Leggs to do what he enjoyed most about theater, to delve deep within a character to find something uplifting to the human spirit. Mister begins as an abusive, almost evil, man who ignores his children and dominates his wife. However, as the play progresses, Mister loses everyone and everything in his life. Alone and despairing, he finally finds his humanity. Leggs thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to create the complex character of Mister, both the menacing anger and the anguish that leads to his redemption. Throughout his career, Leggs had felt that art should have an empowering message. He had tried to express that principle in all of his work, and the role of Mister was especially satisfying.
At a Glance …
Born Kingsley L. Leggs in 196(?), in St. Louis, Missouri; married Dawn Stern, 1992. Education: Benedictine College, BA, music and voice, 1983.
Career: musical theater actor, 1983-; St. Louis Black Repertory Company, various productions, 1983-92.
Memberships: Actor's Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild.
Found More Work on Stage
Leggs remained with The Color Purple until November 2006, when he left to pursue other projects. He has continued to perform in a wide variety of regional productions, including Two Gentlemen of Verona at Baltimore's Centerstage, and The Full Monty at the Gateway Playhouse on Long Island. In addition to working in plays, he has also continued to develop his singing career, and in August 2006 he performed in a solo concert, which included a tribute to song-and-dance icon Sammy Davis, Jr., at the Triad Theater on Manhattan's west side. He has maintained his connection to the Black Rep, and in June 2006, he returned to St. Louis to host that theater's yearly Woodie Awards show.
Leggs married fellow actor Dawn Stern in 1992. Though the life of a theater actor means a good deal of time on the road, Leggs hopes eventually to make a home with his family in Los Angeles.
Miss Saigon, Broadway.
The Color Purple, Broadway.
Back Stage West, February 19, 1998, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1997, p. 41.
"The Color Purple: Kingsley Leggs Video Diary," Oprah.com,www.oprah.com/presents/2005/purple/video/video_leggs.jhtml (July 10, 2007).
"Kingsley Leggs," Internet Broadway Database,www.ibdb.com/person.asp?id=405710 (July 19, 2007).
"Kingsley Leggs," KETC: St. Louis Public Television,www.ketc.org/productions/productions_livingSTL_videoArchive.asp (July 19, 2007).
"‘Mister’ Comes Home to Emcee the 13th Annual Woodie Awards," Black Repertory Theater, www.theblackrep.org/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=85&Itemid=134 (July 19,2007).