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Straddling Fences

Director Kenny Leon balances between Atlanta and Broadway

In the middle of a February rehearsal for True Colors Theatre’s production of Our Town, a cell phone rings and director Kenny Leon orders his actors to give him ten—push-ups, that is. “It’s killing me,” says Jill Jane Clements, an Atlanta actress preparing for the role of Mrs. Webb in Leon’s unique, multiethnic take on the Thornton Wilder classic at Southwest Arts Center.

Denzel Washington, consider yourself warned.

Hometown guy Leon travels to New York to direct Washington in this month’s Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Fences. He says the two-time Oscar winner—who will play burned-out Pittsburgh trash collector and former Negro League hitter Troy Maxson—will get no special treatment when rehearsals start in March. “I’ve been doing that for years,” says Leon of the push-up ritual, as he digs into a plate of stir-fried chicken and rice at Saigon Basil, next to the theater’s makeshift rehearsal studio on Piedmont Avenue. “I did that with Phylicia Rashad when we did Gem of the Ocean on Broadway.”

But the fifty-four-year-old Leon gives as good as he takes, joining his actors on the floor for the push-ups, an exercise intended to keep the performers—and himself—alert and focused. And that focus has paid off. He’s one of the country’s most-sought-after theater artists and an increasingly busy TV director (Ghost Whisperer, Private Practice). He was also recently awarded the Drama League of New York’s Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing.

But even with his growing celebrity, Leon—who was named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2004 and is known for his trademark sneakers and shaved head—still considers Atlanta his spiritual home. After every stressful Broadway gig, he returns to his Vinings townhouse, rolls back the top of his Porsche Boxster for a drive, and hits the links. “I love Atlanta, and there is no reason for me to move,” he says, though he may need a second residence in Los Angeles or New York for work one day.

Black directors in Hollywood and Broadway are few, but for Leon, every career success seems to open yet another door. The former artistic director of the Alliance Theatre made his Broadway debut with the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, after the producer, who had followed Leon’s work, requested him. The play not only won two Tony Awards but also launched his career behind the camera; Leon’s adaptation of Raisin for ABC featured his Broadway cast—Phylicia Rashad, Sean Combs, and Audra McDonald—and was nominated for three Emmy Awards.

According to Leon, film producer Scott Rudin first approached Washington about starring in a Fences film, but the theater-loving star said he wanted to do the play first. It was Rudin and producer Carol Shorenstein Hays who tapped Leon, who had directed several of Wilson’s plays locally and on Broadway. Asked if he might direct the film, Leon deflects the question as premature. He wants to stay focused on the job ahead. Yet there’s little doubt the ambitious director would jump at such an opportunity. “When I finished Raisin in the Sun, I didn’t know I was going to like the camera so much,” he says. “But I did.”

Photograph by Randall Michelson; courtesy of Wireimage.com