Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

An Interview with Director Kenny Leon

“As an artist, you need to watch human behavior—sit in a courthouse and watch behavior, ride the subway or go to the park, and just watch people.”

A Soldier's Play:

An Interview with Director Kenny Leon

Education Dramaturg Ted Sod spoke with Kenny Leon about his work on A Soldier’s Play.

Ted Sod: Why did you choose to direct Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play? Why is it important to do the play now, and why did you want to direct it at Roundabout?

Kenny Leon: I’ve always loved the play. I was interested in it because of the importance of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) and all the contributions the company has made to American theatre. The NEC production of A Soldier’s Play was directed by Douglas Turner Ward and starred Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Eugene Lee, Adolph Caesar, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It’s one of those plays that started on stage and then was made into a film, A Soldier’s Story. 

Even though it was written in the early 1980s, it still feels very contemporary to me because of the style and scope of Fuller’s writing. He is writing about the depths of racism and the way that poison spreads if you live in a racist country.

When I met with the playwright in Canada recently, he said to me, “I’m still angry.” And I said, “What are you angry about, Mr. Fuller?” And he said, “I’m angry because of all the sacrifices we’ve made and we still are not able to walk as our free, true selves in this country.”

So, with that in mind, I started thinking about our production at Roundabout – I want it to not only be the story of a murder mystery that takes place in the 1940s, I also want it to say something about now, about what it means to actually stand tall as an African American in this country. A country that has had huge problems with African Americans kneeling at a football game during the national anthem. We live in a country that needs to embrace all cultures; many people have paid the ultimate sacrifices, and that includes African Americans.

I’ve been waiting for years to do a play at Roundabout because I think Roundabout should serve as our national theatre. I am truly interested in helping to diversify the programming at Roundabout along with Todd Haimes, who is an extraordinary leader and visionary. By choosing to do A Soldier’s Play, I hope I can help him to that end.

TS: Can you give us some insight into your process as a director? What’s the atmosphere in your rehearsal room like?

KL: When I direct revivals, I’m not interested in just putting up museum pieces. When I do A Soldier’s Play, I’m asking, “What does this play mean to us today?” In the rehearsal room, I will probably spend a day and a half talking with the cast, trying to have the entire team understand what is relevant about the play. I try to create an environment where all the actors and the creative team are encouraged to participate as we collectively get at the core of the writer’s intentions.

My rehearsal room is always harmonious and is grounded in the present day in terms of what’s happening in the world. I think as artists that we can only do great work when we are paying attention to what the immediate needs are in the world around us.

TS: How do you understand the internalized racism of Sergeant Vernon C. Waters?

KL: What I think is interesting about Charles Fuller’s writing is that he doesn’t play favorites when it comes to the theme of racism. Racism is complex, and the play delineates that.

I think with Sergeant Waters, what you see is the result of institutionalized racism and how it infects specific communities and personalities. Waters is the victim of racism, and he goes too far trying to assimilate. He says, “No matter what I do, I still can’t live in this country the same as white Americans.” He hasn’t seen or felt a lot of love in this country.

His final lines are haunting. He says, “They still hate you.”  When authorities lock out people of color at the border or when police arrest young Black men and kill them before they get them to the police station, you have to say to yourself, “Do they still hate us? Why is there so much hate?” There’s a lot there to unravel in Waters and in this play.

TS: What are you hoping audiences will take away from seeing this play?

KL: The thing people should take away from this play is that it’s never too late to do what’s right. We are all connected to each other. And in many cases, since a lot of the white community is in powerful economic positions, it takes the white community to say that these issues are not just Black issues.

Small things make an impact. Have a conversation with someone that doesn’t look like you. Watch a television station that you don’t usually watch. Americans, regardless of our race and gender, are always and forever tied to each other. I’m hoping that when people leave the theatre, they carry love out with them. Love of country, love of people, love of all cultures.

TS: What traits were you looking for when you were casting the actors for this piece?

KL: Fuller has written a very theatrical story told by an ensemble of men, so I needed 12 actors who would be givers and not takers. I wanted to build an ensemble that not only looks different and has various points of view but who are also great listeners. Everybody in the play has a story to tell and I needed 12 exceptional men who could tell those stories with honesty and dignity. We have assembled an amazing cast led by Blair Underwood and David Alan Grier. I am looking forward to working with every one of them.

TS: How are you collaborating with your design team? How will the space be manifested visually?

KL: It’s a very diverse team of designers. Derek McLane is our set designer, and Dede Ayite is doing the costumes – mostly period Army uniforms. Allen Lee Hughes, who lit the original production, is designing our lights, and Dan Moses Schreier is doing the sound, and Jacinth Greywoode is working on music.

I didn’t want to repeat what was done in the original set design – I wanted the set to be designed specifically for the American Airlines Theatre. I want the audience to feel that the set was built for them to lean into. The most important thing is that we’ll be able to fluidly go back and forth in time – which is a requirement of the script – and we will play on two levels.

TS: What advice do you have for aspiring directors? Is going to graduate school necessary if someone wants to have a career?

KL: I think there are many ways to get at the truth and many ways to tell stories. I think that going to graduate school is good for some people. I always tell young people that when you’re in your 20s, it is important to realize that you’re still in school, whether you are literally in graduate school or not. 

As an artist who is beginning your career, you need to watch human behavior – sit in a courthouse and watch behavior, ride the subway or go to the park, and just watch people. Tell yourself:  I’m an artist, I’m a director, I’m an actor, even if you’re not making enough money to sustain yourself and, hopefully, by the time you reach your 30s, you will be.