By Howard Pousner
A scorecard would be more handy than a Playbill at this particular moment to keep up with Atlanta director Kenny Leon and his oft-nominated Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Fences.” To wit:
>10 Tony Award nominations, including best direction of a play.
>4 Outer Critics Circle Awards nominations, including best director.
>3 Drama League Award nominations.
But focusing on “Fences,” as many have since Tony nominations were announced two weeks ago, runs the risk of overlooking a major, career-spanning award with which Leon will be honored on Friday in New York. The long-time Atlanta theater leader is set to receive the Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing at a Drama League luncheon at the Marriott Marquis Times Square.
Denzel Washington, also oft-nominated for “Fences,” will present the award that, according to the Drama League, “can only be won once in a lifetime and is given to an individual whose work over time sets new standards of directing excellence within American theater.” Launched a decade ago, the Hansen award has honored, among others, Sir Richard Eyre, George C. Wolfe, Mike Nichols and Arthur Laurents.
The February letter informing Leon of this unanimous honor cited his acting and artistic direction of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre Company and Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company; his direction of “A Raisin in the Sun, “ “Gem of the Ocean” and “Radio Golf” on Broadway; and his guidance of the August Wilson Century Cycle at Washington’s Kennedy Center.
At a packed and boisterous celebration in Leon’s honor Monday at the Peasant Bistro downtown, there was much ado about the Tonys and some “Whereas”-heavy readings of dueling Fulton County and city of Atlanta proclamations of “Kenny Leon Day in Atlanta.” Yet there was little mention of the Drama League’s lifetime achievement award.
Appearing a little overwhelmed from the adoration and a tad weary from months of intense work in Boston, Washington, Atlanta and, finally, on Broadway with “Fences,” Leon was totally focused when asked about receiving the Hansen award.
“It’s a great honor to join the other artist soldiers,” he said. “There are only a handful [of honorees] and it lets me know that I’m respected as a director in America and that the work matters. I’m very proud that it recognizes my regional work as well as my Broadway work.”
Amidst the throng that alternately toasted, cheered and posed for pictures with Leon was Pearl Cleage. The celebrated Atlanta playwright noted that Leon is often cited as an “actor’s director” but that she considers him a “playwright’s director.”
“He’s always absolutely true to the script,” Cleage said. “He respects the playwright’s vision. He works with the actors to broaden and deepen the playwright’s work and make the script come alive. August Wilson loved that and I love that.”
If this man behind the curtain didn’t seem fully comfortable in the spotlight, Leon wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to pump his captive audience to support True Colors. Leon did a hard-sell from the podium on season sponsorships (Wilson’s “Jitney” continues at Southwest Arts Center through May 30, before moving across town to the Alliance Theatre), a celebrity golf tournament on Saturday that includes compadres such as Samuel L. Jackson and Branford Marsalis, and a Spring Play Reading Series through May 27 at the Porter Sanford III Performing Arts & Community Center in Decatur.
In so many words, this 54-year-old working theater artist, his lifetime achievement award aside, was telling his Tony-tipsy friends and followers to put their money where their love is.
True Colors box office staffers armed with credit card machines were quite literally standing by.