Is Kenny Leon the Tyler Perry of Broadway?
1 year ago
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.