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Color him back 

Kenny Leon launches national black theater company

One of my most vivid memories of any Alliance Theatre production is the first scene of James Baldwin's The Amen Corner, which Kenny Leon directed in 1996. The play opened on Carol Mitchell-Leon's Harlem preacher delivering a fiery sermon, building in intensity to culminate with the thundering command "GET YOUR HOUSE IN ORDER!" As the actress became a whirling dervish in the pulpit, Leon's production felt as much like a religious revival as a theatrical one.

Shows with the spirit of Amen promise to provide the cornerstone of the new house Leon is putting in order. Having stepped down as the Alliance Theatre's artistic director a year ago, Leon has now founded True Colors Theatre Company, whose mission is expressly devoted "to create a moveable feast of theater grounded and centered in the rich canon of Negro-American classics."

Put the accent on "moveable." Though True Colors' long-term wish list includes its own 400-seat playhouse, its more immediate goal is to establish itself as a national theater based in Atlanta, aiming to stage its first show in fall 2003. The concept is for a play -- say, Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 drama A Raisin in the Sun -- to debut here, then travel to Washington, D.C., and other cities where True Colors will partner with local arts organizations.

According to Leon, most theaters devote 80 percent of their seasons to "European or Anglo-American" plays, leaving the remainder to minority voices. But the majority of True Colors' roster will come from the African-American canon, with the rest drawing from the Asian, Hispanic and other communities.

True Colors offers Leon a chance to celebrate the work he's always been most passionate about. In his time at the Alliance, Leon showed some of his greatest enthusiasm for African-American plays such as the work of August Wilson and the exuberant and tragic Miss Evers' Boys, his first show as the theater's artistic director. He always revealed a keen sense of theatrical "event," and if he makes good use of his Rolodex (remember Phylicia Rashad in the Alliance's Medea?), he'll only bolster Atlanta's national reputation.

But living up to True Colors' mission will require a careful balancing act. Some of the best-known African-American plays are showing their age, demonstrated when the Alliance staged Geoffrey Wolfe's famed The Colored Museum in 1998. One might jump at the chance to see neglected scripts by Adrienne Kennedy, Langston Hughes and or Ntozake Shange, but many of their plays are resolutely uncommercial. But it won't bode well for True Colors' creative health if it starts leaning on such rollicking but insubstantial musical revues as Ain't Misbehavin'.

Which raises the question of how ardently Atlanta audiences will support True Colors. The current state of Jomandi Productions, Atlanta's African-American theater company, is not encouraging. Some of the theater's past plays, like Spunk based on the stories of Zora Neale Hurston, seem like the exact kind of material True Colors would thrive on. But Jomandi has yet to emerge from its poor financial straits, having cancelled the last show of this season and the last two shows of the previous season.

Leon's artistic ambitions haven't blinded him to the realities of theatrical start-ups. He recognizes the importance of establishing a solid financial footing. One of his first decisions was to enlist Jane Bishop, the former general manager of the Alliance, as True Colors' managing director. Currently based in a one-room office at 10th and Piedmont, he and Bishop are focused on raising money and establishing the theater's financial viability. Leon expects to hire more staff by September, announce the company's 2003-04 season in January and stage the first production the following October.

Leon's national reputation and proven skills at generating enthusiasm for the arts make him the ideal -- if not the only -- choice to helm a new, national black theater company. If it can be done, Kenny Leon is the one to do it. Amen to that.

PREMIERE: PushPush Theater's Vamp/ Revamp performance festival, co-presented with EstroFest Productions June 13-24, includes work by PushPush playwright-in-residence Rob Nixon. The Atlanta writer's new play, The Lies of Handsome Men, a "cabaret noir" with music by NOVA Performance Group, will be performed June 13-16, while a staged reading of Kiss It All Goodbye, a comedy with music set in 1930s Hollywood, will be presented June 17.

ENTRANCES: Theatre OUTlanta, formerly called the LGBT Theatre Project, is a new performing company dedicated to work that speaks to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. The group has announced its first two theatrical productions: John Bowen's Trevor, a British farce about a lesbian couple, will be held July 21-27 at the 7 Stages Back Stage Theatre, while a pair of transgendered one-acts, A Princess in Training and Underground TRANSit, will be presented at the Ondine and Company performance space Sept. 27-Oct. 6. For information, call 404-371-0212 or e-mail at OUTlanta@mindspring.com.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

Off-Script is a biweekly column on the Atlanta theater scene.

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