By Howard Pousner
Kenny Leon, the Atlanta director who has dedicated his career to work that tears down the barriers that divide people, was nominated Tuesday for a Tony Award for “Fences.”
Leon’s best director nomination was one of 10 received by the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s drama, including nods for stars Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. “Fences” also was nominated for best revival of a play and for best scenic design, costume design, lighting design and other awards.
“It’s been a very humbling experience this morning,” said Leon, dry-throated and coughing from having taken so many congratulatory calls, by cellphone Tuesday afternoon as he walked down Broadway.
Since hearing about the multiple nominations, Leon, 54, said he’d thought a lot about his longtime friend and frequent collaborator Wilson, who died in 2005.
“I remember when August Wilson spent time in Atlanta, he said to me, ‘We’re not owed the awards; we’re only owed the work. If you just stay focused on the work, there’s enough richness in that that comes back to you and enough joy that comes back to you,’ ” Leon recounted. “So I’ve always let that guide me: Just be about the work, and I think finally the work has paid off.”
The musicals “Fela!” and “La Cage aux Folles” led Tony nominations with 11 each. Sahr Ngujah, who grew up in College Park, attended Tri-Cities High School and acted for Youth Ensemble of Atlanta, was nominated for best actor in a musical in the “Fela!” title role of Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.
Leon had intended to fly to Atlanta on Tuesday in time for the final preview performance of Wilson’s “Jitney” by Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company at Southwest Arts Center Tuesday night. But “Fences” producers encouraged him to stay in New York, thinking it might score a few Tony nominations. Now, he plans to attend a Tony luncheon today and then jet to Atlanta in time for “Jitney’s” official opening tonight.
The director said he took the “Fences” nominations as a sort of career confirmation. “From top to bottom, it says what I’ve been about: I’ve been about ensemble; I’ve been about trying to give a gift to the people that come to see [theater]; I’ve been about diversity. And then to get honored by your colleagues in this way, it makes you realize that sometimes good guys do win.”
Leon, a Vinings resident, already had scored one of the bigger wins in American theater. He found out in February that he will receive the Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing from the Drama League on May 21 in New York. The theater organization said the honor recognized Leon’s acting and artistic direction of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company and True Colors; his direction of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” on Broadway; as well as the August Wilson Century Cycle at Washington’s Kennedy Center.
It’s essentially a lifetime achievement award for a career very much on the rise.
Winners of the 64th annual Tonys will be announced June 13. The ceremony will be televised by CBS from Radio City Music Hall.