Leon, Kenny 1957(?)—
Kenny Leon 1957(?)—
Artistic director of Alliance Theatre
Since 1990, Kenny Leon has been artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre, the largest regional theater in the Southeast. Leon has brought its work to the fore of non-profit theater and has elevated its reputation to one of international significance. Before his tenure at the Alliance, Leon had trained and gained experience on the Atlanta stage for more than 15 years. He studied with Joan Lewis at Clark Atlanta University and acted and directed under artistic director Frank Wittow at the Academy Theatre.
Leon was raised by his grandmother in rural Tallahassee, Florida. His grandmother was a servant for white families in the city. Among the boy’s chores were chopping wood for the fire and cleaning the outhouse. Bathwater was routinely shared. In his sophomore year at a newly desegregated high school, Leon boycotted the drama department because it cast African American students only as butlers or maids. Earning allies in the process, Leon was elected class president in his junior year and student council president in his senior year.
In the mid-1970s Leon attended Clark Atlanta University, where he studied political science as a pre-law student, met his future wife, and developed his love of the theater. Joan Lewis, Leon’s theater teacher, would become the most influential person in his life. He acted in Lewis’s stage productions, as well as in street theater. Years later, Leon would leave law school in Los Angeles to return to theater in Atlanta. While acting with the the city’s Academy Theatre, Leon became romantically involved with a college friend, Carol Mitchell, who was also acting at the Academy. They married in 1987—on the main stage of the Academy Theatre—and for years after, continued acting together.
After a decade at the Academy, Leon moved on to the Alliance Theatre as artistic director. In so doing he became the first African American and, at 34, the youngest person to hold the position. He also joined only two other African Americans in leading a major American regional theater. Since then he has distinguished himself and the theater both nationally and internationally. He has not succeeded, however, without controversy, setbacks, and struggle.
At a Glance…
Born c. 1957; raised by his grandmother in Tallahassee, FL; married Carol Mitchell (an actress), 1987. Education: Clark Atlanta University, B.A., mid-1970s; studied with Joan Lewis.
Academy Theatre, Atlanta, GA, actor and director, 1980–90; director of touring shows, Center Stage Theatre, Baltimore, MD, San Jose Repertory Theatre, San Jose, CA, Huntington Theatre Company, Boston University Theatre, Boston, MA, Goodman Theatre, Chicago, IL, late 1980s—; artistic director, Alliance Theatre Company, Atlanta, GA, 1990—.
Member: Theatre Communications Group Directors Fellow Program; Georgia Council for the Arts; Minneapolis Playwriting Center; southeast liaison, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers; AFTRA, SAG, Actors Equity (trade unions).
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts/Theatre Communications Group Directing fellow, 1986; Bronze Jubilee Award for Theatre Excellence Drum Major for Justice Award in the Arts, Southern Christian Leadership Council.
Addresses: Office —Alliance Theatre Company, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta, GA 30309.
In American Theatre, Dan Hulbert described the Alliance as “historically, a conservative institution only mildly responsive to the city’s black majority.” The theater was known for its replays of Broadway hits and classics. Hulbert interpreted the 1990 appointment of Leon as “the newest manifestation of the city’s special role in the 30-year drama of the Civil Rights Movement.”
For his part, though, Leon viewed his impact as squarely within the tradition established by past Alliance directors. “We’re part of a continuum of Alliance directors,” Leon was quoted as saying in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. “They tried to balance their repertoires. Their work allows me to open up even further in diversity, making the Alliance not just a place for entertainment but a community resource.” In Essence, Leon explained how the theater could serve as such a resource, remarking, “I am an African American, and my work will reflect that. I’ve got to maintain a high profile in the community. To keep reminding black people that I’m here for them, and at the same time I’m reaching out to Jewish America, gay America, Asian and Hispanic America, and women.”
Despite his overall success, Leon failed to please everyone. Some critics grumbled about his musical programming. Perhaps more telling—but not wholly unexpected—others questioned his choice as head of the historically conservative and predominantly white institution. But Leon’s early triumphs with diverse audiences helped to silence these voices. Leon reflected in the Chicago Tribune on his first production, recalling, “I opened with a play about black men and syphilis, two challenging, some might say threatening, topics. And I got letters. There was a lot of concern about whether I was going to turn the theater into an African-American one.” Instead, the play, Miss Evers’ Boys —a true-life drama about the Tuskegee Institute study from 1932 to 1972 in which a number of black men were allowed to suffer and die from treatable syphilis simply to measure the effects of the disease in black men—attracted a broad and varied audience and won national critical acclaim.
With continued growling over “too many black plays,” subscriptions fell from 21,000 in 1990 to 14,000 in 1993. Though single-ticket buyers continued to expand the company’s audience, only a million-dollar challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) would remedy the theater’s persisting deficit—$600,000 in 1993, up from $448,000 in 1990. In order to obtain the NEA grant, the Alliance pledged to raise $3 million in matching funds for the 1996 Cultural Olympiad. Still, whether the theater could meet the $8.5 million budget of the Alliance’s two stages—the 800-seat main stage and the 200-seat Studio Theater—would depend heavily on sales. Of this income, 60 percent came from the box office and theater classes, while 40 percent was earned from outside sources such as individual and corporate grants and government funding.
The theater’s survival was largely attributable to the dynamic team of Leon and managing director Edith Love, who rose through the ranks at the Alliance, starting in 1974 in the costume shop. In 1985 she linked the Alliance with the Atlanta Theatre Coalition, through which the Alliance established contact with the artistic renaissance occurring in previously overlooked segments of the community.
In addition to offering ethnically diverse and challenging seasons, Leon and Love led the Alliance to artistic accomplishment by producing striking new works and premieres from leading playwrights. In 1992 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson chose the Alliance as the first regional theater to stage his play The Piano Lesson.
When asked why the Alliance, Wilson answered, in the Christian Science Monitor, “Two reasons: their production of my play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Kenny Leon.” Wilson and Leon have enjoyed a close writer-director relationship ever since. In an Atlanta Journal and Constitution review of another Wilson play, Two Trains Running, Dan Hulbert praised Leon’s productions of The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone as having possessed “haunting resonance.” The Alliance had performed five Wilson plays in the same number of years.
Wilson was only one star writer hooked by Leon, however; Athol Fugard of South Africa held Leon and the Alliance Theatre in high esteem as well. Critics point to Fugard’s 1992 American premiere of his work Play-land at the Alliance Theatre as proof positive that the Alliance had reached the top of the non-profit theater movement in America. “In other words, the Alliance Theatre has finally hit the big time,” wrote Jill Jordan Sieder of Atlanta Magazine. Hulbert agreed. Chronicling the Alliance’s lag behind the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky, during the 1980s, he characterized Fugard’s premiere as the moment when “the Alliance really began to catch up with the big leagues.” After being selected in 1994 as one of only four directors to stage a regional production of Tony Kushner’s award-winning Angels in America: Part I, Millennium Approaches, Leon led the Alliance to its most successful season ever. In the 1995–96 season, the Alliance followed up by expanding its schedule from eight to an unprecedented ten productions. Presented would be Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika, the second half of Kushner’s celebrated epic.
In a review of Millennium Approaches, Hulbert called the drama “the greatest American play since [Arthur Miller’s classic] Death of a Salesman.” Hulbert lauded Leon’s staging of the show, the first on the regional circuit since its Broadway opening. “Angels in America,” he said, “is so steeped in magic that a pure white feather, floating down from the flyspace, appears to have a mind of its own. As this token of an angelwing drifts slowly down, not one person in the Alliance Theatre, it seems, can draw a breath.”
American Theatre, October 1991, pp. 48–51.
Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 18, 1990, p. A13; May 25, 1993, pp. B1, B3; September 19, 1993, p. N8; October 21, 1993, p. E5; March 8, 1994, p. C8; September 8, 1994, p. B11; February 27, 1995, p. D6.
Atlanta Magazine, October 1992, pp. 55–57, 105–12.
Boston Globe, September 17, 1993, sec. 4, p. 49.
Chicago Defender, September 3, 1991, p. 17; September 23, 1991, p. 17.
Chicago Tribune, September 22, 1991, p. 19.
Essence, January 1991, p. 28.
New York Times, June 19, 1994, p. CN19.
Time, October 10, 1994, p. 71.
Variety, February 25, 1991, p. 251.
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