Kenny Leon on directing the Avengers-studded Our Town reading

The one-night-only reading, which will benefit hurricane relief in Puerto Rico, takes place Monday night at the Fox Theatre
Kenny Leon Our Town
Kenny Leon

Photograph courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

Not long ago, Kenny Leon, the prolific Atlanta director and artistic director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company, got a phone call from Scarlett Johansson. The two share an agent and had met previously on Broadway. Johansson, who has been in Atlanta for the past several months filming the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War, wanted to do something to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico, which remains ravaged from Hurricane Maria’s powerful strike on September 20. The pair decided a charity theater reading was the way to go. But which play? Johansson suggested Our Town. With a few other options on the table, the two agreed to sleep on it.

“But then I dreamt about Our Town,” Leon said on the phone Wednesday while sitting in traffic, “And then she dreamt about Our Town. We told each other we’d both been dreaming about Our Town, so we said, ‘That’s it! Let’s get the rights to do that.'”

On Monday night, Leon will direct Johansson and her Avengers co-stars Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Jeremy Renner, and Maximiliano Hernández (who had a role in the first Avengers film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier) in the 1938 Thornton Wilder classic during a special one-night-only performance at the Fox Theatre. All of the proceeds from the event will go to the Hurricane Maria Relief and Recovery Fund at the Center for Popular Democracy, where the money will “support immediate relief, recovery, and equitable rebuilding in Puerto Rico for low-income communities of color hit hardest by the storm,” according to a press release.

“Every time something horrible happens in our world, I’m thinking about what we can do,” Leon says. “The human spirit is so resilient. Evil and hate cannot win and will not win. So this is an opportunity for us to come together, love on each other, and do something positive for each other.”

Leon is no stranger to the source material—he previously directed a production of Our Town for True Colors in 2010.

“Before [that production], I thought the play wasn’t for me,” he says. “But then I cast it in a really diverse way in Atlanta, and it opened my eyes to the genius of the play. It really talks about our value as human beings and how all life should have equal value.”

The show, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1938, lends itself well to a reading, as is generally staged with minimal props and sets. Downey Jr. will take the role of the narrating Stage Manager, while Johnasson and Ruffalo play Emily and George, a young couple growing up in the small town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. In addition to the celebrities, the cast will also feature eight local actors (including Tess Malis Kincaid and Rob Demery) and a local crew. On Sunday, the team will rehearse for the entire afternoon—the only rehearsal for this reading—and on Monday, Leon says, the Avengers team will actually be on set shooting before they arrive for the 8:30 p.m. performance. Leon says the quick turn-around reminds him of his experience directing live musicals such as Hairspray and The Wiz for NBC.

“It feels like a drama, live,” he says, “We have a little rehearsal, but we’re still flying without a net and we know it. We know the audience will meet us halfway. [Thematically] I’m hoping there will be a lot of humor, and maybe a few tears, but more than anything people will see how the story of Our Town is symbolic of what we need to do for the people of Puerto Rico.”

Leon says that because Our Town is about the human experience as a whole—the cycle of life, the preciousness of ordinary moments—it strikes a chord when thinking about something like disaster relief. “How do we love each other? Live with each other? Honor the time we have on the planet together? It’s the perfect play [for us] because any place can be Our Town—we’re all on this planet together.”

“[This show] previews, opens, and closes in the same night,” Leon says, “And when it’s over, I want the people in that audience to feel not only that we’ve done something positive for this group of Americans, but it should also say something to each individual about their own lives and how we should all spend our time helping and loving each other.”

As for what’s next for the director, the recent Atlanta production of his Tupac Shakur musical Holler if Ya Hear Me was well-received, and Leon says various producers are discussing either taking the show to London or on a national tour. He’s directing Children of a Lesser God on Broadway this spring, and he’s working with Hairspray Live producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron on a 10-part mini-series for Fox about the Harlem’s Cotton Club during the 1920s.

Tickets for Our Town start at $65 and can be purchased here.