Since the mid-1970s, when he moved from Tallahassee to attend Clark Atlanta University, Kenny Leon has been a Southern trailblazer proud to call the metro area his home base – no matter where the road takes him. Now a Vinings resident, the nationally recognized actor and award-winning director is often hailed as a local champion for artistry, diversity and philanthropy.
At Clark, Leon earned an undergraduate degree in political science and set his sights on attending law school in California. Once on the West Coast, however, his college theatre minor took center stage when he began working on television commercials. It wasn’t long before Leon was back in metro Atlanta and working with the Academy of Music & Theatre. At the Academy, he worked on theatre projects during the day and spent evenings giving back to the local community through the arts.
“We did legitimate theatre during the day,” Leon said. “At night we would do things in prisons or schools or with homeless people and give them the money we made from the performances. Politics, community and the arts have always been a part of my life and that’s reflected in the projects I choose to do.”
After nearly a decade with the Academy of Music & Theatre, Leon was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. “I had applied to the Alliance Theatre around that time because there wasn’t any diversity there,” he said. “But, the committee for the National Endowment in New York wanted me to leave Atlanta.”
Leon once again left Atlanta – this time to study in Baltimore, MD and San Jose, CA. While in San Jose, Leon got the call he had wanted before receiving the Endowment – an invitation to do a play at the Alliance.
“I was invited by the Alliance to do a play called T-Bone and Weasel and, at the end of that year, I was offered the associate artistic director job,” he said. “Two years later, I was named artistic director. I had a great time. Atlanta gave me my start, and I could never say, ‘thank you’ enough. But, I was losing myself as an artist so I left Alliance thinking I was moving to New York City.”
After an 11-year run as artistic director at the Alliance Theatre, Leon set his sights on the Big Apple but Leon’s friend Chris Manos, a well-known producer, had other plans.
“Chris encouraged me to start a theatre company,” Leon said. “There was a need for a company that focused on issues of diversity, so Jane Bishop and I started that.” As founding artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company, Leon built what has become an Atlanta institution while remaining constantly in pursuit of becoming a better artist.
It certainly seems Leon has been successful in that venture, garnering numerous accolades throughout his career. He’s directed 10 world premieres for the Alliance, including Elton John’s Aida. He racked up five Tony nominations for August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean on Broadway. He won a Tony for his work on Lorraine Hansberg’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, which, several years later, was translated into an epynonymous network television adaptation with Sony and ABC starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad. He was named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and has been presented Martel Cognac’s Rise Above Award and the MIT Eugene McDermott Award in the Arts.
Still, Leon is very much an everyman – especially when at home in Vinings. “When I come home I walk in my neighborhood and jog at the Silver Comet Trail,” he said. “I’m a golfer, and the number of public and private courses here can’t be matched. There are great churches all over, and fantastic restaurants. It’s just a great place to come and live and slow down.”
Leon thinks he might hold the record for being killed the most number of times on the popular T.V. show Heat of the Night.
Recent Professional Highlights:
Leon recently opened the world premier of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to sold out crowds in Atlanta. He also recently wrapped production on Steel Magnolias, filmed in the metro area, and said both have been high points of his career.
*Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Cobb Life Magazine.