News Column

Kenny Leon revels in his role in bringing Emmy and Tony-worthy turns out of actresses

September 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 11--Atlantan Kenny Leon is building a track record for directing actresses to award-worthy performances.

Leon directed Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald to 2004 Tonys, and Viola Davis scored a 2010 statuette in the Leon-helmed revival of "Fences" (so did an actor you may have heard of, Denzel Washington). And next weekend, nominee Alfre Woodard will find out if she gets to take home a best supporting actress Emmy for her performance in Leon's Atlanta-filmed TV adaptation of "Steel Magnolias" (the ceremony airs 8 p.m. Sept. 22 on CBS).

We talked to the director, who has yet another Atlanta-filmed TV movie, "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," premiering on the Hallmark Channel on Sept. 20, about working with female stars.

On leading his actresses to awards: "I don't know if I can take the credit for that, but I've had the blessing to have worked with some amazing actresses -- and actors. Some of my favorite actresses to work with are Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Alfre (Woodard). And Queen Latifa (who starred in "Steel Magnolias" but was not nominated for an Emmy). I think the world has not seen what she has to offer. I want to find another way to work together.

So I think it just turned out that I had some women who were really talented and at this point in their life they were looking for a director like me. ...

On the quality in a director those actresses are seeking: No. 1, I see the talent that's there, I recognize talent. But also I think these are actresses who have not had as many opportunities as their talent warrants. You talk about Alfre Woodard, come on, she's one of the most amazing actresses in the country.So I'm always looking for actresses to find roles that are equal to their talent.

And I think they like me because they know I'm going to tell them the truth. They know that I'm going to push them toward their greatness.

On how he visualizes his role in their performances: For me, it's not about putting a stamp on a project. It's almost trying to make myself as a director seem invisible to the audience. On the set or in the rehearsal hall, I am really in your face. But when the viewers or audience see it, I don't want them to see my hand. I want them to see the seamless beauty of what the (actress or actor) is bringing to it. So most artists know it's not about me, it's always about the work.

On how his stage experience feeds his work behind the camera: "In theater, you have four or five weeks of rehearsal, and for film you might get a chance to read, play around two or three days, then you're working on scenes in 15 minute spurts. So I'm giving them the knowledge I have, an understanding of how rehearsal works for four or five weeks, but I'm doing it in 15 minutes.

"And they say, 'Wow, he really cares about my relationship to this other character. And how the last shot I had, even though we shot it a week ago, how that related to this.'

"So I'm working with the continuity of it, but I'm also explaining to them how I'm shooting, what tempo the whole scene is moving by. I'm really just trying to make them see everything in my head while I try to push them as well."

KEEPING UP WITH KENNY

Here's a glance at what Leon, who is adept at juggling multiple projects in different cities, is up to in coming months:

-- "The Watsons Go to Birmingham," directed by Leon and starring Anika Noni Rose and David Alan Grier, premieres on the Hallmark Channel at 8 pm. Sept. 20. The drama follows a Michigan family that in 1963 travels to Birmingham, Ala., winding up close to the church bombing that killed four girls. www.hallmarkchannel.com/thewatsonsgotobirmingham.

-- "Raisin in the Sun," starring Washington and Diahann Carroll, will receive a Leon-directed remount on Broadway, at the Ethyl Barrymore Theatre, with previews beginning March 8, 2014. Tickets go on sale to the general public Sept. 21.

-- "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," which Leon directed for his Atlanta-based True Colors Theatre Company last season, gets a Leon remount at Washington's Arena Stage. Malcolm Jamal Warner stars, with Atlantans Tom Key and Tess Malis Kincaid reprising their roles, in a run Nov. 29 through Jan. 5, 2014. www.arenastage.org/shows-tickets/the-season.

-- "Holler If Ya Hear Me," a musical built around the songs of the late Atlantan Tupac Shakur , is ready for its Broadway premiere and waiting for a theater to become available, Leon said. He directed an extended workshop production this summer that featured Chadwick Boseman (Jackie Robinson in "42") and Atlanta-raised Saycon Sengbloh ("Fela").

-- "Spunk," a blues-stoked adaption of Zora Neale Hurston stories directed by Hilda Willis, launches True Colors' season, Sept. 17-Oct. 13 at 14th Street Playhouse. www.truecolorstheatre.org.

THEATER

'Book of Mormon' tickets on sale Sept. 22

"The Book of Mormon" is the definition of a hot ticket, still drawing capacity crowds on Broadway and with a national tour that is selling furiously.

The nine-time Tony winner visits the Fox Theatre as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta season, Jan. 28 through Feb. 9, 2014. With 16 shows in an expansive 4,678-capacity house, there is a good chance there is a ticket available for you. With single tickets going on sale at 10 a.m. Sept. 22 (advance sales for American Express card-holders continue through that same day), the question is how good a one you will score and what you will pay. (Broadway in Atlanta has instituted dynamic pricing for its shows that might raise prices closer to opening.)

Theatergoers get enhanced ticket access as a Broadway in Atlanta season subscriber or by becoming a member of the Broadway in Atlanta eClub ahead of public single ticket sale. Six-show subscriptions start at $199, single tickets at $30.

Tickets will be available at the Fox Theatre box office (660 Peachtree St. N.E.), www.foxatltix.com or 1-855-285-8499. More information: http://atlanta.broadway.com.

VISUAL ART

Artists drawings for sale at High

"Drawing Inside the Perimeter," an exhibit showcasing new drawings by metro artists in the High Museum's permanent collection, closes its well-received run Sept. 22. But before it does, a "Monster Drawing Rally," 1-5 p.m. Sept. 21, will benefit future drawing additions to the collection.

The event will feature more than 50 artists, many with works in the show, creating drawings in the High's Robinson Atrium, with the freshly completed works mounted on a wall and available for sale that day only for $75 each.

If more than one attendee would like to purchase a particular work, the winner will be determined with a card draw. The event will also feature entertainment by DJ Agent 45 and a cash bar.

Free with museum admission. 1280 Peachtree St., N.E., Atlanta. www.high.org/rallyartists.

ARTS

Emory's Creativity & Arts honorees

The Emory College Center for Creativity & Arts recently bestowed its annual Creativity & Arts Awards, recognizing university and metro community members who have made significant contributions to the arts. Among the recipients:

-- Community impact arts administrator: Cathy Fox, executive director and editor of artsatl.com.

-- Community impact artist: Marium Khalid, stage director

-- Community impact organization: The Creatives Project

-- Alumni: Yu-Kai Lin, creative director and owner of Kai-Lin Art

-- Faculty: Matthew Bernstein, professor/chair, Emory Film & Media Studies

Biographical sketches of all honorees: www.tinyurl.com/ccawards13.

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(c)2013 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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