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Tony-winning director Kenny Leon on his new production of the Pulitzer-winning drama
Director Kenny Leon didn't see Negro Ensemble Company's original mounting of A Soldier's Play in 1981, but he's "pretty sure it was worthy of being on a Broadway stage." After all, it was a landmark production for the groundbreaking black theatre, a critical and commercial success that starred then-unknowns Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson, and won a Pulitzer Prize for playwright Charles Fuller. But while it was turned into a movie, and has been revived Off-Broadway twice, it's never been on Broadway—until now. Leon, who helms the production for Roundabout Theatre Company, thinks it's about time. "This is a pretty good play!" he says.
A Soldier's Play is set on an Army base in Louisiana in 1944, when all branches of the U.S. military were still segregated by race. After the sadistic Sergeant Vernon Waters (played by David Alan Grier, who appeared in the original production and the movie in different roles) is murdered, Howard-educated Army lawyer Captain Richard Davenport (Blair Underwood) arrives to investigate the killing, much to the consternation of the base's white commanding officer (Jerry O'Connell). Davenport's mission is to lock up a suspect, but in many ways the black soldiers are already in a kind of captivity, relegated to menial tasks and constantly dehumanized. Leon underscores this idea through blues and prison songs performed by the cast. A Soldier's Play isn't just period-piece whodunit; it's an exploration of racism and colorism that serves as a metaphor for the experience of being black in America today. "How challenging it's been for blacks to be real citizens in our own country," Leon says. "What that challenge is, has been and continues to be is a really relevant story."
Like the young men depicted in the play, Leon, 63, always believed he was capable of more than the establishment had him pegged for, thanks in large part to his grandmother. "When I was growing up, I didn't have any intention of having a career as a director or producer; I didn't have the vision for that," he recalls. "I just knew that I was the product of a generation of prayers—my grandmother always prayed for her grandkids to have a better life than she did. So I knew I was gonna do something, and theatre sort of found me."
He started his career in Atlanta, where he ended up running the prestigious Alliance Theatre for 12 years before leaving to found True Colors Theatre Company. He made his Broadway debut with the 2004 revival of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun starring rapper/actor Sean "Puffy" Combs. Ten years and several Broadway shows later, he won the Tony Award for best director for helming a new production of Raisin headlined by Denzel Washington, who had won two Oscars by then.
Leon is gratified that A Soldier's Play has been attracting audiences that are "probably more diverse than anything on Broadway now," he says. He sees his mounting of the show as "standing on the shoulders" of black theatre pioneers such as the founders of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), which is still in existence today after 53 years. "The work that Douglas Turner Ward [a cofounder of NEC] and Woodie King [the founder of New Federal Theatre] and others did so many years ago—they made it possible for us to have the opportunity to tell these stories," Leon says. "I'm so proud of this production, but I'm also proud of the work that NEC did 39 years ago, when Charles Fuller first put pen to paper."
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Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Blair Underwood in A Soldier's Play. Photo by Joan Marcus.