There aren’t many American stage directors who can also boast of People magazine Most Beautiful status. But Kenny Leon has always had a knack for straddling two worlds. The Tony-nominated Atlantan has balanced high-art material like the MLK Jr. drama The Mountaintop with mainstream fare like a forthcoming remake of Steel Magnolias with an all-black cast. Leon’s latest project is the stage debut of the 1967 race issue film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, premiering July 10 to 29 at the Rialto Center and featuring Phylicia Rashad and Mekhi Phifer.
What’s your take on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which in its time was billed as "a love story of today"? It’s still set in the sixties, but we have the blessing of seeing it through the lens of 2012.
We’re a little more sophisticated about race . . .I don’t think we are. We still have much to learn about race relations in the country as evidenced by the experience of having a black president for the first time. You see what happened in Florida a couple of weeks ago with that kid [Trayvon Martin] being killed. I think our issues with race really go back hundreds of years and we’ve never dealt adequately with those issues. They still sort of haunt us. But the story is about more than that. It’s about how you say one thing, but you live another way. I find Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is about hypocrisy.
Do you have any opening-night rituals? Absolutely. I always have a prayer circle for whatever play I’m doing. A lot of rituals. I carry a yo-yo with me, in my left pocket, on opening night as a way of relieving stress.
You were raised by your grandmother, who was employed in service to white families in Tallahassee. Did The Help resonate with you? I thought The Help was okay. I just wish there was more variety in what we do. That’s one story to tell. I wish there were more stories . . . I’m looking forward to Quentin Tarantino’s movie Django Unchained. It’s a slave revenge story.
What’s the Southern thing you miss the most when you’re in New York? Our restaurants, our golf courses, our churches.
Illustration by David Despau