Kenny Leon’s Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” has drawn overwhelming audience support, critical acclaim and awards recognition. Nominated for a best director Tony award for the show, Leon in directing a stellar cast led by Denzel Washington and Viola Davis shows deep understanding of Wilson’s language and characters. The production leaves no doubt that he is the foremost interpreter of Wilson’s work. The recipient of 10 Tony award nominations, including best actor and actress for Washingon and Davis, the play continues for several weeks at the Cort Theater on West 48th Street in Manhattan.
Previously in charge of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, Leon splits his time as a director in New York with life in Atlanta as head of the True Colors Theatre Co. From a core interest on plays exploring the black experience, True Colors reaches toward a broader audience. The company’s production of Wilson’s “Jitney,” directed by Derrick Sanders, moves to the Alliance Theater Saturday, June 5.
En route to New York from Atlanta to do some pre-Tony Awards appearances, Leon paused to give a brief interview to Southern Bookman.
- Are you at all surprised at the success of “Fences?” That such a serious, traditional play has achieved such popularity on Broadway must be gratifying. I’m not surprised. It’s a very American play that has a great balance of humor and drama. I pulled all the humor out of it that I could. I’m very proud of it, proud to have such a wonderful cast. August Wilson would be proud of what’s on the stage.
- You have a special affinity for August Wilson’s work. The “Fences” revival reflects his stature as a major American playwright. What do you find significant in his work?He writes historical plays but doesn’t write history. He writes about specific decades, but they have universal impact. His genius was to focus on the specific but give it universal appeal and reach for all.
- In a recent interview, you expressed satisfaction that the revival of “Fences” that you directed has the most diverse audience on Broadway. When I saw the play, I was also struck by the diversity of the audience. Why does the play have such a broad appeal? Just about everybody has a family. Sometimes it may not be a traditional family. But every one has some sort of family, some sort of brother or friend, who may be facing challenges. All of us have parents. Any American alive with a beating heart should be able to open a door to visit that play.
- Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’ performances (along with those of the the rest of the cast) were wonderful. How as a director did you help build such chemistry between them, especially since they didn’t know each other well previously? They had worked together on “Antwone Fisher,” the film. But this was a new thing for them. Their approach to the theater is very honest and very real. With them in this place, it was very easy for me navigate their performances. In rehearsal, I encouraged them to go deeper into the play. Denzel’s approach is very honest and truthful, and Viola has the same approach.
- Your True Colors Theatre takes its production of Wilson’s “Jitney” to Atlanta’s Alliance Theater on Saturday, June 5. Do you see the production, directed by Derrick Sanders, as complementing “Fences”? Are there any similarities between the plays? All of his plays come from same gene pool, but “Jitney” is definitely different from “Fences.” “Jitney” is his funniest play. It’s very different from “Fences,” but both are concerned with a father-and-son relationship. Both end when the father is dead, and the son has to decide how to move forward. But they are different plays.
- What’s coming up for you in the future, at True Colors and nationally? I hope to continue developing a wider audience for True Colors. I hope to continue tying my work in New York to the company in Atlanta. I hope to carry the brand of True Colors to New York. Last week, Samuel L. Jackson was in Atlanta for a reading, along with Jim Pickens of “Grey’s Anatomy.” I want to tie both of those worlds together.