love wins in kenny leon’s all-black shakespeare show

May 15, 2019
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Kenny Leon is a Tony award winning director who’s previous acclaimed works include A Raisin in the Sun and American Son. He is behind the widely anticipated production of Much Ado About Nothing as part of Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park program. The show is Black as hell as reflected by its oh so impressive cast. Much Ado will officially open on Tuesday June 11 – Sunday June 23. I had the immense pleasure of speaking to Mr. Leon about many things that all led to the same understanding that “love always wins”. If you will be in the area you will not want to miss Kenny Leon’s Much Ado About Nothing this summer!

AWA GUEYE: You’re someone who really does the work as exampled by your choice of casting for Much Ado About Nothing and the work that you do with your theater True Colors. Our theme this year at AFROPUNK is “We See You” so I wanted to start by asking you what does the phrase “We See You” mean to you?

KENNY LEON: I’ve always believed in a world where everybody is seen and I think we’re not there as a country in terms of everybody being seen. So those of us who are on the ground everyday, I think that all of our choices, the projects we do, the actors that we choose to work with, the subject matter we involve ourselves with, the conceptualization of the projects that we take on. I’m always trying to say “No see us! And let me see somebody who I’ve been blind to see.” If you look at my last few projects, I learned so much from doing Children of a Lesser God and casting Lauren Ridloff who was at that time a stay at home mom with two deaf kids. She’s taught me so much about the deaf world or the hard of hearing world and now I’m a little more woke in terms of that community.

As you look at Much Ado, I’m trying to say, let’s look at gender bias, let’s look at chauvinistic imprints on our society, let’s look at what that really means. And then, let’s look at the protection of values for people of color in the country. I’m always trying to learn as much as I can in terms of being a better human everyday. All my artistic choices and my work is guided by that. How can I help to learn more about my place in the world in terms of how I see everybody and how they see me?

GUEYE: Much Ado, is going to be your first Shakespeare production in New York and of course it’s outside in the park, so I can only imagine how special it’s going to be. How are you feeling about your production happening in that space?

LEON: Oh, I’m very excited about it because it’s called Free Shakespeare in the park. For years and years, The Public Theater has provided that opportunity. The fact that we’ve cast this with an entire African American cast, I think that says something to the broader community. So, I’m very excited to see how my fellow citizens will sit down in the park together, 1800 strong, every night, to see the impact of this company delivering that story, which is over 500 years old, and see what it means to us today. That’s exciting, that’s challenging. It should be a fun filled night reminding us of the beauty of love.

Chuck Cooper, Director Kenny Leon, and LaWanda Hopkins in rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kenny Leon, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park starting May 21. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

GUEYE: I read something that you said about choosing to put on Much Ado where you said the message of the play, “Love Wins,” is one that the world should hear right now. It’s really beautiful that the play will during Pride Month in New York especially with this year being the 50th anniversary since the Stonewall Riots, did you consider that?

LEON: I didn’t really consider that but I did think about everyday that passes by, it becomes more and more urgent to really push love forward, to really respect those that you think are different from you or to really have equal lives and equal access to everybody. So, I think it’s like quite wonderful that this is happening during Pride Month because it just reminds us of how much more beautiful we are as a country when we respect everybody, even those that we don’t understand.

The gender race mashup of what I’m doing in this play (casting women in roles usually reserved for men and Blacks in roles usually portrayed by white people) will highlight the importance of respect. We are better once we embrace everybody and stop trying to judge everybody’s way of living based on our own way of living. We’ll realize that there’s beauty and freedom and all the things that we say we value in our historical government documents and papers that we live by. I think that if we were to live up to those true documents we would see that respecting everybody and what they bring and giving everybody a voice is the true way to be a true American.

Olivia Washington and Danielle Brooks in rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kenny Leon, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park starting May 21. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

GUEYE: In acting classes I’d often hear people say that the classroom is a great place because it’s where you are able to play characters you’d never be able to in the real world.. I always thought that was an older school of thought and small minded. Your efforts to expand roles like the ones in Much Ado is what we need more of. When you cast a Shakespeare play as all black role what changes for you as the director?

LEON: I get to share with everyone else in the community and dignify those things that separate us. It’s like wow! We all wanna love. What does it feel like to be loved and not judged? I’m not trying to separate from that which is American. I’m trying to say that I too am American. So, to be a part of that, I think we also give voice to people who can’t really provide voice to this. I give voice to the people I grew up with in Tallahassee, Florida who were mostly poor and coming from a rural part of the city. I give voice to them, I give voice to people who are economically challenged. Every time I give voice to characters on stage that look different than what most people think they look like.

After this production, even if you don’t see it, you hear about it and it spreads throughout our politics, it spreads throughout our country, it spreads out through education, it says to our young people “this is important”. If you’ve got a ten year old kid growing up in New York and they’re confused about life or how they fit, they can see this production and not understand a word but they can look on that stage and say “Oh, I belong. I belong. My life is just as important as anybody else’s.” I’m a storyteller so, I have to be storyteller looking through the eyes of which I see the world through.

The best gift I can be to the world is to represent that as a Black American heterosexual male and hopefully that’s enough to add to the fabric of that which is America. Hopefully, there’s a patch for everyone to fit on that quilt.

GUEYE: How is it to work with this group of actors?

LEON: It’s almost 25 people strong. I don’t have a weak actor in the bunch. And then, to have to do original music with Jason Webb, who just got the special Tony, not this year but, to create new music with him and to work with Camille Brown as a choreographer is a great team. Beowulf is doing the set design and Peter Kaczorowski is doing the lights. It’s a very inclusive group of people that is very exciting. You don’t get this opportunity all the time to actually tell a story the way you want to tell it and hoping that it has universal impact and says something to the world.

GUEYE: I just turned 24 today. Is there anything you wish that you’d be told when you were 24?

LEON: I have a book that says “Take You Wherever You Go.” I wrote it last year and my message to young people is that you are enough, but take you wherever you go. Don’t try to be anybody else. Don’t try to make up something. If you didn’t go to Yale or Harvard, that’s okay. You don’t have to try to pretend that you went there. I went to a historical Black college in Atlanta, Georgia. I grew up poor. I take that wherever I go. That’s who I am and if I can dig into my own DNA and become the best me that I can become, that is enough. So I would say to my 24 year old self, “Hey, you’re enough. Be courageous.”

When you’re 24, you can’t make a mistake. Anything you do, it’s going to be okay. The only thing that separates you from the person that does something is that that person is doing something and you’re left in indecision. “Should I go to LA, should I go to New York, should I write a book, should I do this?” No, just do it. And if you do it, and have that confidence, it’s going to work out. It’s going to be okay. You’re going to discover something. It is all going to be okay.

Chuck Cooper and Margaret Odette (center) in rehearsal for Much Ado About Nothing, The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production, directed by Kenny Leon, running at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park starting May 21. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

GUEYE: That’s good advice. So far you’ve accomplished so much in your life, but I still want to ask you, what is your biggest life goal?

LEON: One of my best friends is Samuel L. Jackson and I always talk to him and say “Man, isn’t it good just to be relevant?” Oh, I want to keep being relevant. I want to keep understanding generational differences. There’s things that as a 60 year old, I can offer to a 30 year old that will be a gift to them. They can give me things that at 30 that can be a gift to me. As long as we keep communicating with people at different ages, races and different agendas in life, that’s where the growth is. That’s where beauty is. I want to keep doing projects that allow me to embrace people of all ages, all races, all cultures, all sexual persuasions, and then I can be an even greater gift to the world. I’m just trying to do more of that to work with a wider variety of people.