By Howard Pousner
Kenny Leon begs to differ with F. Scott Fitzgerald about that business of there being no second acts in American lives.
Leon, who was honored with the Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing from the Drama League on Friday in New York, said the second stage of his stage career is just beginning.
“The Julia Hansen Award is a launching pad to do my greatest work yet to come,” said Leon, whose Great White Way revival of August Wilson’s “Fences” is nominated for 10 Tony Awards and whose Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company is presenting Wilson’s “Jitney” in Atlanta. “My next work is an attempt to reach more people, to have something more important to say.”
Sentiments such as that might cause concern that the longtime Atlanta theater leader, who was artistic director at the Alliance Theatre for 11 years before launching his own troupe in 2003, could be lured away. The Hansen award recognizes an accomplished body of work in Atlanta, on Broadway and across America.
But Leon said Friday that it only deepens his commitment to regional theater.
“It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped doing what I’m doing at True Colors,” said Leon, 54. “It means I can do more at True Colors, I can do more in New York, I can do more on television. Now I’m going into second gear.”
The national honors are providing Leon better opportunities to focus on his directing work onstage and in TV and film without “having to expend as much energy looking for that next gig.”
Susan Weaving, Leon’s agent at the William Morris Agency in New York, said there’s been significantly heightened interest in the Atlantan’s services since the Hansen award was announced in February and the hit production of “Fences,” starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, opened in April.
“It’s not going to change his work ethic, because he works like a madman,” said Weaving, who as Leon’s theater and signing agent coordinates with separate Morris agents fielding TV and film prospects. “But I think he will be getting more and more great work offers.”
Last week alone, his motion picture agent sent Leon, who directed a 2008 ABC film of “A Raisin in the Sun,” a dozen scripts and feelers.
But his next project will take him back to Broadway for a fifth time, to stage “The Mountaintop,” which imagines events in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life the night before his assassination. After flying back to Atlanta Friday to appear in a golf tournament fund-raiser Saturday for True Colors with Samuel L. Jackson, Branford Marsalis and other pals, Leon will be returning to New York next week for the Drama Desk Awards and a script reading of the MLK drama.
“We’re going to read the play with someone I’ve been trying to get onstage for a long time,” he said, declining to name the actor.
Of course this most frequent of fliers will be back in New York on June 13 for the Tony Awards. Among the 10 nods for “Fences,” Leon is nominated for best director, and the show is up for best revival.
Leon was asked if he might have preferred the Hansen award and the Tonys to have been, say, three years, instead of three weeks, apart.
Not at all, he said. “I look at it sort of as everything in its time,” Leon said as his cellphone clicked nonstop from incoming calls. “And everything I’ve worked on in my career for the last 20 or so years has led me to be in a better position to handle everything now.”