Kenny Leon is a prodigiously accomplished theatre artist in his own right, boasting a marathon list of acclaimed credits in acting, directing, and producing during the past 25 years. Yet he speaks with a sense of awe when he salutes playwright August Wilson's contributions to American theatre. He's a man who should know. Leon has acted in several of Wilson's plays and holds the rare—possibly singular—distinction of directing all of the works in the playwright's monumental cycle of 10 plays chronicling the black American experience. Leon is currently helming the Mark Taper Forum's West Coast premiere of Radio Golf, the concluding work in Wilson's series, and he will stay with the production as it moves to Broadway.
Now that the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Wilson has finished this epic 21-year effort, Leon says, "Without question, [Wilson] is America's greatest living playwright. I wish there was some way to properly honor him—perhaps something like doing all of the plays in the cycle within one week. Most writers have two or three successful plays, but I can't think of anyone who has come close to what August has done. Aside from the importance of the plays themselves, there are so many African-American actors and directors who would not be working if it weren't for him. Many actors I can think of—from Samuel Jackson to Angela Bassett to myself—owe a lot in being able to work today to his writing of these plays."
Each play—Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Fences, Two Trains Running, Jitney, King Hedley II, and now Radio Golf—covers a decade of the 20th century. Some characters reappear in the plays, and many are repeatedly referenced. Radio Golf is set in 1997 and takes a look at black characters who have achieved great professional success. According to Leon, "In the 10 plays, August examines the African-American presence and integration into this country, as well as the historical, spiritual, and political contexts. He always works on four or five different levels, illuminating the challenges of our own culture within the broader culture. The speech is always poetic. It sounds Shakespearean because the characters are simple people talking about big issues."
Leon has enjoyed a longtime professional relationship with Wilson, having directed the cycle plays at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company, which Leon founded and headed for 13 years. He directed a Broadway premiere of a Wilson work for the first time last year with Gem of the Ocean, netting five Tony nominations. Wilson works closely with Leon on the productions, and they collaborate on casting decisions. The cast the two selected for this mounting includes several veterans from previous cycle plays. "Not every actor can do August's plays," Leon asserts. "August has been giving me rewrites every couple of days, so you need actors who can forget a monologue, throw it out the window, and relearn another one. They also have to understand his rhythms. I'm fortunate to have a group who can do that. August has been in rehearsal for a play in Seattle, and I've been flying up there once a week so we can sit down and talk about it."
Leon's professional honors range from two Tonys for last year's Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, which he directed, to a nod as one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 2004. He lists many impressive acting credits on film, stage, and television, and he continues to blaze trails as a theatre director-producer. Three years ago Leon broke away from Alliance, where he pioneered policies on diversity in staffing and casting.
He left to form a new organization, True Colors Theatre Company. He describes its aims: "Our plan is for a quarter of our work to honor African-American classics like James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry. Those plays are not being done, because the larger theatres want to do what's popular that's coming out of New York or going into New York. So I want our group to really explore diversity. Besides the African-American works, I want to look at interesting ways to have cultures interact. We did Steel Magnolias last year with four white women and two black women. We did a play called Brass Birds Don't Sing, by an African-American writer-producer, Samm-Art Williams, but there are no black characters in it; they are all Jewish. I'm always looking for ways to do things like that, and I want to stage the plays in more than one city, because it's hard for one community to sustain a theatre company. So we produce about three or four plays per year, in Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; and New York. I'm always interested in understanding the African-American culture but, at the same time, the integration of all cultures."
With the aesthetic values Leon holds high, it's little wonder he has found a kindred artistic spirit in Wilson, a contemporary master at humane and incisive social drama exploring cultural assimilation.
"Radio Golf" will be presented by Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m. Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Also Wed. 2:30 p.m. Sep. 14. (Dark Sun. 7:30 p.m. Sep. 18.) Aug. 11-Sep. 18. $24-52. (213) 628-2772.