Kenny Leon believes in hard work. He does not, apparently, believe in sleep. Consider his current list of projects: There’s Holler If Ya Hear Me, a musical inspired by the lyrics of late rapper Tupac Shakur, which Leon is directing at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company through early October. Then there’s Children of a Lesser God, which he’s working to bring to Broadway in December. Somewhere in between, he’ll direct a ten-part FOX miniseries on the origins of Harlem’s famed Cotton Club and shoot an episode of the Dynasty reboot. And that’s just this year.
In March, Leon was honored with the Abbott Award, his industry’s salute to a lifetime of achievement. So why continue to push at full throttle? “My goal every day is to remain relevant,” says Leon, sixty-one. “Relevant in community, relevant in heart, relevant in life.”
Leon was born in Tallahassee, Florida, where he lived until he was nine, when his family moved south to St. Petersburg. Money was tight, but he joined the federally funded Upward Bound program, which afforded him cultural opportunities such as trips to the theater. After he graduated from high school, the program helped subsidize his tuition at Atlanta’s Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University).
It was during those college years in the seventies that Leon became friends with fellow Atlantans Maynard Jackson, Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson. He still plays golf with Samuel Jackson at Atlanta’s Canongate Golf Clubs, where they boast about their swings and reminisce about old times.
Leon’s first job after college was with Atlanta’s Academy Theatre, where he worked on a program that recruited homeless people for drama classes and encouraged them to tell their stories on stage. “It’s where I came to understand the beauty of acting,” he says.
In 1988, he started at Alliance Theatre, where he quickly worked his way up to the top of the Atlanta company. His influence on the Alliance was profound: He began showcasing multiethnic plays—including the world premier of Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida—which helped put the theater on the map. Minority attendance skyrocketed, as did the Alliance’s endowment, which jumped from $1 million to $5 million annually during Leon’s tenure.
After eleven years at the Alliance, Leon left to form True Colors in 2002. His goal? To expose audiences to African American classics while sharing new works by diverse playwrights. True Colors’s first production was August Wilson’s Fences, and Wilson himself showed up to toast the show. “That,” Leon says, “was a very memorable time in my life.”
More successes followed: In 2004, he made his Broadway debut directing Sean Combs in A Raisin in the Sun (ten years later, his revival of this play would earn Leon a Tony). And in 2010, he directed Fences on Broadway, where it earned ten Tony nominations and won three. The play’s cast, including Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, went on to appear in (and in Washington’s case, direct) Fences’s Academy Award–nominated 2016 silver-screen adaptation; Davis took home the Oscar for Actress in a Supporting Role. Leon says he’s “honored and proud” to have been on the original team that convinced Hollywood the play had widespread appeal.
Another thing he’s proud of? Atlanta’s theater scene. “The Alliance, True Colors, Academy Theatre—we’ve broken through some walls,” he says. “All the things these theaters do complement each other and help the city become a cultural destination.”
Atlanta is also the place Leon goes to relax. “When I wrap up a big project, what I envision is going home and chilling out,” he says. Leon lives in the Atlanta suburb of Vinings, in a townhouse with a cozy back porch and neighbors who stop by to say hello. “It makes me feel like I’m back in my old country house outside Tallahassee,” Leon says.
Just as he did when he was a boy, Leon attends church every Sunday he’s in town. After services at Cascade United Methodist downtown, he goes to Tassa in Marietta for “the best Caribbean food in the world.”
He also enjoys Atlanta’s seafood restaurants—his top spot is the Optimist—and he’s a fan of the tapas and drinks at Barcelona (“it’s my new favorite place”). When he wants to eat in total privacy, he goes to Eleanor’s, the hidden speakeasy behind Muss & Turner’s in Smyrna. “You have to go through a refrigerator door to get to the little bar,” he says. “I always try to hit that when I’m in town.”
But his favorite thing to do when he’s not working is hop in his convertible Porsche, put the top down, and cruise around the back roads of Georgia. A drive through the countryside reminds him of who he is and where he’s from. “It’s therapeutic,” he says. “And it makes me so glad to be home.”
The First Noel
In December, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company will stage The First Noel, a musical about family, healing, and Christmas joy. The play, which includes a number of traditional carols sung gospel-style, will be directed by actress Jasmine Guy and performed at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts in downtown Atlanta. “Man, the music is powerful and uplifting,” Leon says. “People will leave feeling good about life and connected to the broader community.” Leon says he hopes the play will become a True Colors Christmas tradition.