Is Kenny Leon the Tyler Perry of Broadway?
The acclaimed director is good at telling the black story
The late August Wilson (Fences, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) was easily the most celebrated, popular African-American playwright in history. His Pulitzer-winning Broadway productions always rang true with an authentic black voice; his plays’ dialogue and structures have been taught in university theater classes nationwide for decades.
But who is Broadway’s most popular black director?
Ever hear of Kenny Leon? The 57-year-old director’s string of success with Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Fences, A Raisin in the Sun, Stick Fly, The Mountaintop and more has some calling him the Tyler Perry of the Great White Way. But critics wonder if his depictions of black life are realistic, or merely what white audiences are comfortable with.
The most recent Black Enterprise magazine features Leon on its cover alongside singer Alicia Keys and playwright Lydia R. Diamond above a cover tag introducing the “New Look of Broadway.” The three collaborators worked to bring Stick Fly — a comedic drama starring Mekhi Phifer, Dulé Hill and Tracie Thomas — to Broadway’s Cort Theatre last fall. Diamond addresses race, class and gender politics with a Martha’s Vineyard backdrop, mixing up Phifer’s white girlfriend, young (black) domestic help and original music by Keys.
Stick Fly’s soap opera-like conflation of these issues into a family drama hasn’t impressed theater critics. (The New York Times called the dialogue “funny but sometimes sitcommy and slack,” and “unevenly directed” by Leon.) There’s a wide swath of black melodrama between August Wilson and church-circuit stage plays; Stick Fly lies somewhere in the middle. Still, 2011 also saw the début of the better-received Leon-directed play, The Mountaintop.
Controversially featuring a flirtatious, chain-smoking Martin Luther King, Jr., The Mountaintop takes us through a fictional account of the last night of King’s life at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Rather than immortalize King yet again, one might say the play mortalizes the preacher—that is, makes him more human. The approach is the play’s main strength.
Set on the night of April 3, 1968, The Mountaintop begins with a pacing Dr. King (Samuel L. Jackson) waiting impatiently on Ralph Abernathy to arrive with a pack of Pall Malls. By the time the mysterious chambermaid Camae (Angela Bassett) knocks on Room 306 with whiskey and smokes of her own, we’ve already heard MLK urinate in the toilet, complain about his smelly feet, and tuck in his daughter Bernice over the phone with a woman lying across his hotel-room bed. The Mountaintop benefits strongly from tossing reverence out the window, lending African-America’s beloved hero a cool dose of personality often missing from other portrayals.
Stick Fly features television stars using sitcom tropes to tackle the weighty memes of race and class. White audiences are used to well-to-do blacks from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Real Housewives of Atlanta by now, but Stick Fly doesn’t quite pander to them. To the degree that it does, the fault doesn’t lie with director Kenny Leon, but with the creator of the story, playwright Lydia R. Diamond. The Mountaintop doesn’t give audiences, white or black, quite what they expect to see in a Martin Luther King drama, and it’s all the stronger for it. Whether Camae’s depiction of life as a black domestic in 1968 is realistic or, as The New Yorker criticized, more reminiscent of Moms Mabley, is subjective. Either way, again the blame wouldn’t lie with Leon but with playwright Katori Hall, who put the words in Camae’s mouth.
Kenny Leon rose to success in the 1980s as artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company, which staged Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky and Elton John’s pre-Broadway musical, Aida. A 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal A Raisin in the Sun starring Sean Combs with Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald brought Leon acclaim. (Leon later directed a Raisin adaptation for ABC.) Premieres of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (2005) and Radio Golf (2007) continued his streak; he earned a Tony Award nomination for Wilson’s Fences, with Denzel Washington opposite Viola Davis. Inspired by 2008’s all-black Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the director’s next project is an all-black Steel Magnolias from the producers of A Raisin in the Sun.
The root of Broadway’s black attendance problem is mainly economic. Tickets for even a jinxed production like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark range from $99 to $147.50 a head, and most African-Americans don’t have the disposable income to waste. (Broadway’s audience is 76% white, 24% folks of color.) Broadway is still not well visited by blacks, and so Kenny Leon isn’t quite known as the Tyler Perry of theater despite many greatly received plays. But given the iffy attitudes accorded Perry amongst black Americans, that’s more than likely a good thing.