Tony Winner Kenny Leon’s Secrets to Casting the Perfect Ensemble

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Photo Source: Marc J Franklin

Kenny Leon likes staying busy, and it shows. The Tony-winning director has enjoyed a prolific run over the last few years, helming a steady stream of Broadway shows, including productions of Suzan Lori-Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog,” Adrienne Kennedy’s “Ohio State Murders,” and Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play.” Now, he’s directing a revival of Ossie Davis’ 1961 play “Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch.” Until last year, he was also the chair of the theater program at Fordham College at Lincoln Center. 

“I grew up in the South, where grown folks got up and worked every day, so I look at it that way,” Leon says of why he keeps his calendar so packed. “I’m an artist, but I get up and go to work; and I have a love for that.”

He says that his passion for “fighting to make the country a better place through storytelling” has driven him at every stage of his career. 

Here, the director reflects on his process and looks ahead to his next three buzzy Broadway productions: revivals of Samm-Art Williams’ 1979 play “Home” (June 5), Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” this fall, and Shakespeare’s “Othello” in spring 2025.

Kenny Leon

Credit: Marcus Middleton

What are your biggest considerations when choosing your next project? 

The first thing I ask myself is, Does this move me or touch me? The next thing is, Will this impact people’s lives? Will they think about it long after they’ve left the theater? [I look at] basic core values like boldness, laughter, respect, and abundance. When I started True Colors Theatre Company, those became the core values of that company. I try to let those guide me: Do I think [this show is] bold? Do I think there’s some laughter? Do I think it respects other people? Do I think it’s gonna abundantly impact the world?

You’ve directed a lot of revivals recently. How do you approach those stories?

I always approach revivals like they’re new plays. That’s what I did with “Purlie Victorious,” which was one of the joys of my life. That’s the first thing. And the second thing is, there were so many brilliant writers—women, men, definitely people of color—[who] didn’t have an opportunity, because of the conditions in [this] country, to get a wide audience for their stories. Those stories deserve to be experienced. And if people give them a chance, it would inspire and impact their lives. 

What spoke to you about “Purlie Victorious”?

The first thing was Ossie Davis. People like Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ruby [Dee], and Ossie—they were artists and activists. And I was like, I want to be in that group; I want to tell stories, but I want them to be meaningful to what’s happening in our country. [Davis] came up with “Purlie Victorious,” a comedy that embraced all the contributions of Black Americans during [the late 1950s]. So then I said, How can I make it relevant to today?  

What are you looking forward to about the three productions you’ve got coming up? 

“Home” is so important because of the great artist that Samm-Art Williams is and what he’s contributed to the country. I’m excited to deliver something so joyous; America can’t deny its joy. 

I’ve been wanting to do “Our Town” for five years, to create an “Our Town” for our time. I’m trying to see: Does my vision of it hold up to the greatness of that play? And then with “Othello,” to be in a room with Denzel Washington [as Othello] and Jake Gyllenhaal [as Iago]… With the success of all the stuff I learned [from directing] “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Hamlet,” it was [a natural] next step for me. [“Othello” is] going to take everything in me to do.

CROPPED 2856_Blair Underwood, Kenny Leon for A SOLDIER'S PLAY, Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Blair Underwood, Kenny Leon for “A Soldier's Play” Credit: Jeremy Daniel

What current industry trends intrigue you?

What I find interesting is the narrative that people are putting out there about the health and wealth of the American theater—like, Oh, it’s down. And I’m like, No, no, we went through a pandemic. Everybody’s lives changed, and I think we need to reassess what works and what doesn’t work. 

What excites me is that I see a lot of younger people in the audience—so that means we gotta continue to work with our box office access point to make sure those people get in. There needs to be more variety commercially, and more trust in that. I see it happening regionally, and I see it happening Off-Broadway. 

And I think that in just a matter of time, we’re going to have more variety of storytelling. I want to see more Black and brown women directing on Broadway, as well—because it’s great to tell the stories, but I want the box office to be shared, too. There’s no harm in doing great art and people making as much money as they can.

What qualities do you look for in the actors you cast?

It depends on the play, but I’m trying to build an ensemble. It’s like building a great sports team: You have a woman that shoots the three-point shot, and you need somebody who can rebound…. So I’m always looking for folks that believe in the ensemble and believe in working together. 

I’m also looking for artists who want to be pushed. The bigger projects I deal with—what many of those stars have in common is that they still want to be better. So, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel, Phylicia Rashad—all these people I’ve worked with—they want to be pushed. Those are all people who want to take the ride. 

Are you more interested in actors who have more formal training, or more practical experience?

I don’t care. I think truth is truth. Sometimes I tell people, “You want to learn—especially after you graduate from undergrad and you don’t really have the resources to get formal training.” You know where you can get training? Sit in a courthouse. Watch people tell lies; watch them tell the truth. You want to study human behavior? Go sit on the train. Many of us can recognize what feels authentic, and you can get there in a lot of different ways. 

You’ve also worked as a teacher. What do you hope students take away from your classes?

I always tell them, “Dig into who you are.” If you think of all the greats—Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin, Meryl Streep, Hugh Jackman—you can just mention their first name and you know who we’re talking about, right? So don’t try to be anybody else. Dig into finding out how you can be the best person you can be. It’s competitive, but the best way to get there is to be you.

This story originally appeared in the Apr. 11 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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