Exploring Black-Centered Theatrical Offerings on Broadway: From Alicia Keys’ Origin Story to a Revival of ‘Home’ by Negro Ensemble Company

Black-centered theatrical offerings on Broadway tell many tales of the diaspora this summer, from the thinly veiled 1990s origin story of Alicia Keys (Hell’s Kitchen) and a fanciful update of the 1970s musical The Wiz to the very first revival of a Negro Ensemble Company production from 1979 entitled Home.

Kenny Leon, the most hardworking African-American theater director of the past few decades, presents playwright Samm-Art Williams’ tale of a Black man coming of age in rural North Carolina as he falls in love and deals with the aftermath of his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. EBONY spoke with Leon about his modern twists on Shakespeare, the differences between working in television and theater, and how there’s no place on Broadway like Home.

EBONY: Home hasn’t been staged in over four decades. Why decide to revive it for Broadway?

Kenny Leon: Home came about because artistic director Todd Haimes, who passed away last year, we had been discussing bringing it as a part of a refocus project that he started three years ago. We’d been thinking: how do you bring greatness from past generations to this generation, especially for people of color? We did A Soldier’s Play that went on and won a Tony Award. And then I did another play, Purlie Victorious, that hadn’t been done in 62 years.

I knew [Home playwright] Samm-Art Williams, and unfortunately, he passed away about a month ago, four days before we had the first performance. But he was a good friend and just a great artist with a huge history. Todd and I just talked about [Home being] a play to bring forward because of his skill set.

Next year, I’m doing Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I’m doing Shakespeare’s Othello. I always tell folks that Samm-Art Williams’s Home is in the same army as those writers. At the time when he was actively writing those plays, because of racism in America, he wasn’t allowed for them to reach their widest audience. So, you do these plays now so that they can reach a wider, greater, worthy audience. His poetry is every bit as good as Shakespeare’s. His character development is similar to what August Wilson does with his plays. His greatness is up there, and I just want the country and young artists to know of his capabilities. I hope it inspires them to write their best stories.

How did you come to direct Hamlet for Shakespeare in the Park last summer in Central Park? Were there different considerations directing something outdoors, different challenges?

Shakespeare in the Park is always a challenge just because it’s 1800 people (laughs). It’s outside with the rain or the heat or the mosquitoes or the squirrels. A couple of years before the pandemic, I did Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare in the Park. It was a great experience to do that with [actress] Danielle Brooks and company, and I had a good time. Oskar Eustis, the artistic director, said, “Hey, we want you to do the next one.” I said, “Well, okay, let’s look at what’s possible.”

I came to Shakespeare late, after I experienced doing all 10 of August Wilson’s plays. No disrespect to Shakespeare, but Shakespeare don’t have anything over August Wilson. August, he’s got these monologues, which are soliloquies. He has poetry, he has these scenes that develop. He has this history. He has all those things that Shakespeare has. So, I learned Shakespeare through my love of August Wilson’s 10 plays.

I [decided] if I’m gonna do another Shakespeare, it has to be Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth. To me, those are the great Shakespearean dramas. So Oskar said let’s do Hamlet. That’s how it came about. A couple of years later, I’m preparing to do Othello for Broadway [starring Denzel Washington and Jake Gyllenhaal]. I’m only prepared to do that because of my success with the two plays in the park.

Do you have any more television directing in your immediate future? How does it differ from Broadway?

I always tell folks that film is art, theater is life and television is furniture. But I’m just joking about that because I do all of it. I’ve done so much TV. I did The Mahalia Jackson Story. I did Steel Magnolias. I did the Colin Kaepernick thing with Ava DuVernay. I’ve done Private Practice, I’ve done Gossip Girls. I’ve done Hairspray Live! andThe Wiz Live! I’ve got two films I’m working on now, but we haven’t announced them yet.

Last year, we were supposed to do a movie called Last Meals with Sam Jackson, and that fell apart at the last minute. I am working on the film version of Ohio State Murders by Adrianne Kennedy, which we did on Broadway two years ago with Audra McDonald. I’m working with [newscaster] Robin Roberts to develop Ohio State Murders.

I had an opportunity to do Toni Morrison’s opera, Margaret Garner. Sometimes I do a film, sometimes it’s an opera, sometimes it’s a musical—it just depends. It just so happens I get actors who wanna work with me. [Like] what I did with Kerry Washington, where we made American Son. It was a play, and we also made it into a film for Netflix. I also did something on Netflix called Amend about the evolution of the 14th Amendment.

What’s next on your agenda?

I go into Our Town next. Then I go into Othello. Then I’ve been working on [reviving] a musical by Melvin Van Peebles called Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death. And I’ve been working on the stage production of Drumline, based on the film Drumline, but we gonna make that for the American stage. I’m also set next year to do Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. So, quite a few things happening.  

Updated: July 1, 2024 — 6:05 pm