Artful departure 

Kenny Leon leaves the Alliance Theatre transformed and energized

Ted Turner has been quoted as saying, "A leader has the ability to create infectious enthusiasm."

You'd be hard pressed to find a better description for the Alliance Theatre's Kenny Leon. "Outgoing" in every sense of the word, Leon's departure as artistic director leaves Atlanta's most prominent playhouse energized and transformed after more than a decade of service.

Perhaps Leon's most characteristic qualities can be found not in any single production but in the ritual of his opening night curtain speeches. Every time he'd bounce on his trademark tennis shoes, the house lights gleaming on his bald head, and crack a smile that seemed nearly as big as the stage behind him. With palpable excitement, he'd top off the necessary "welcomes" and "thank yous" by saying something like, "The space here, between the audience and the actors, is where the magic happens." And he'd say it with such sincerity and passion that even the most cynical skeptic would believe him 100 percent.

Leon has already given his last curtain speech as artistic director, but fans and theatergoers can see him once more as he performs in the final production of the 2000-01 season in Yasmina Reza's comedy Art. A light and nimble French hit about friendship and artistic expression, Art is Leon's dessert, the cherry on top of his tenure with the Alliance. Fittingly his co-stars, Tom Key and Chris Kayser, have long, close relationships with the theater, and Art will be directed by Leon's associate artistic director, David H. Bell.

Assessing Leon's 11 years at the Alliance, his greatest role may have come not from any one show, or even in providing the theater's creative vision, but as an advocate and ambassador for drama itself. With Leon as a face, a voice and a cheerleader for theater, he helped tear down its cobwebbed image as an art form solely for the elites, even in as grand and immaculate a venue as the Woodruff Arts Center.

In the 1990s the Alliance became much more popular with African-Americans, and Leon proudly points to how black audiences went from being 1 percent-2 percent of the subscriber base to more than 20 percent. Leon's signatures include his productions of works by August Wilson, which predate his time as artistic director: He helmed Joe Turner's Come and Gone in 1989 and Fences in 1990, which proved the Alliance's most successful play that year.

Wilson is one of the indispensable American playwrights of our time, yet Leon didn't stop with simply staging all of his plays. He also revived lesser-known works by black writers, like James Baldwin's The Amen Corner. Two productions that may best represent the inclusiveness of the Kenny years weren't even directed by Leon, but by Bell: the multicultural musicals The Boys From Syracuse and Hot Mikado.

Leon leaves the Alliance as a major figure in America's regional theater. When Walt Disney Theatrical Productions selected the Alliance for the premiere of the Elton John/Tim Rice musical Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida in 1998, executive vice president Tom Schumacher said, "We did a national survey of regional theater and found that all roads lead to Atlanta -- not so much for the facility as for Kenny Leon and the audience he's cultivated for new work."

In retrospect, it's amusing that the Alliance board of directors' decision to name Leon artistic director 11 years ago was seen as a gamble at the time. A graduate of Clark College in the 1970s, Leon had worked his way up through the ranks of Atlanta playhouses, with relatively little experience outside the city and no administrative background when he was tapped at the age of 34. His first year as artistic director, 1990, reflects a changing of the guard for Atlanta theater. Not only did Leon come on board at the Alliance, but the Academy Theatre, then the city's oldest resident playhouse, closed its doors.

Leon made a provocative statement with his first production as artistic director, presenting the scorchingly effective drama Miss Evers' Boys. The show included explosive subject matter for the Alliance -- a government experiment that withheld treatment for four African-Americans suffering from syphilis -- as well as a major performance by Leon's then-wife Carol Mitchell-Leon and entertaining support from Leon's Art co-star Kayser. The production received a rave review in Time magazine.

Still, in the 1990s the Alliance frequently reflected the conservative tastes of the Atlanta audience, rarely straying far from the theatrical mainstream. Shows like Angels in America and How I Learned to Drive provided undeniably daring material, but also came with the validation of Pulitzer Prizes and prior commercial success. For every daring show, you can find several "safe" chestnuts: The 1996-97 season included To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet and Sleuth at the Alliance Studio. Of course, immortal plays stay classics for good reason, and the 1996-97 year also saw Leon's stellar work with The Glass Menagerie, another highlight of the decade.

Still, shows like Regina Taylor's The Ties That Bind in 1995 (with its unnerving, mind-blowing mixtures of cultural stereotypes) tended to be exceptions rather than rules. The new plays cultivated by the Alliance in the 1990s, such as Alfred Uhry's Last Night of Ballyhoo and Pearl Cleage's Blues for an Alabama Sky, are more likely to be labeled well-made choices rather than risky ones. And Debbie Allen's Soul Possessed and the Disney Aida musical can seem overly calculated as Broadway wannabes. Credit Aida, though, for providing royalties to be used to retire the theater's debt. And while the theater's fiscal health may not have been Leon's direct responsibility, like the U.S. president and the economy, he gets credit (or the blame) for what happens on his watch.

One of the proudest feathers in Leon's cap is Playland by South Africa's legendary playwright Athol Fugard, which in 1992 shared its U.S. debut with the Alliance and the La Jolla Playhouse, and speaks to the theme of racial common ground. And in 1998, Fugard's play The Blood Knot would provide arguably Leon's finest performance as an actor, in a Theatrical Outfit production opposite Key and directed by Bell.

After Art Leon will be gone but never forgotten. For that matter, he won't exactly be gone; he returns to the Alliance in May 2002 to direct the musical The Wiz, which may prove to be either an eccentric whim or a revelation of a show overdue for revival. Ironically, the theater's 2001-2002 season features some of Leon's most eclectic selections in years.

Leon steps down as an artist who helped reveal to Atlanta a vision for its own creative identity. The 1996 Olympic mascot Whatizzit, however reviled, was not inappropriate, as Atlanta has always had trouble defining itself artistically, more confident about what it doesn't want to be than what it is. But by building bridges between communities and bringing vitality and resources to plays old and new, Kenny Leon showed Atlanta a route to enrich its social and cultural life.

And that's not a bad magic trick.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Art plays May 10-June 10 at the Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St., with performances at 8 p.m. Tues.-Fri., 2:30 and 8 p.m. Sat. and 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sun. $16-45. 404-733-5000.

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