Kenny Leon

(b. 1956)

In his eleven years as the Alliance Theatre’s artistic director, Leon pushed its subscribers beyond the safe, feel-good fuzzies of Driving Miss Daisy—the longest-running play there before he took over in 1990—to multiethnic stagings of bold dramas, comedies, and musicals, including the groundbreaking first run of the Elton John–composed Aida. Overall subscriptions may have dropped during that period, but nonwhite subscribers rose from 3 percent to 20 percent, and by his tenure’s end, the Clark Atlanta alum had beefed up the Alliance’s endowment and brought the theater national prominence. He left the Alliance in 2001 and in 2003 started True Colors Theatre Company to stage plays by minorities of all kinds. His commitment to diversity caught the eye of Broadway, and he began commuting to the Great White Way for his 2004 Tony-winning revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Last year the Vinings resident and avid golfer received a Tony Award nomination for best director for his revival of August Wilson’s Fences, starring Denzel Washington. He’s lately moved behind the camera to direct episodes of ABC’s Private Practice. Next up: directing Halle Berry’s Broadway debut in the MLK-themed The Mountaintop.

Top of the Class In the first year of desegregation, Leon was bused into a wealthy high school in his native Tallahassee, Florida, where he protested the drama department for casting blacks only as butlers or maids. By his senior year, he was student council president.

Casting Heroes Through his staging of their plays at the Alliance, Leon became friends with two of his idols: South African playwright Athol Fugard and August Wilson. The latter cried when he saw Leon’s Alliance adaptation of The Piano Lesson, saying it was the most moving rendition he’d seen.

Dapper Director Known for his signature red tennis shoes (worn on all occasions—even black-tie), the striking Leon was once named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People” and appeared in a fashion spread in Vogue’s “Power Issue” this March.

Photograph by Billy Howard