Theater Review - NBAF: Angels and devils

After basking in Sun, Leon makes bid for Glory

African-American poet Langston Hughes famously asked, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Hughes never speculated about what happens when two dreams come true, but that is what True Colors Theatre artistic director Kenny Leon is experiencing first hand.

In April, Leon made his Broadway debut by directing a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic drama A Raisin in the Sun at the Royale Theatre. In the high-stakes competition of Broadway theater, Leon’s Raisin proved a financial success, thanks in large part to the casting of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. And Raisin stars Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald won two Tony Awards, sealing the show’s artistic credibility.

For his follow-up, Leon returns to Atlanta to stage Langston Hughes’ Tambourines to Glory, which can’t quite match the career high of a Tony-winning Broadway bow but still permits Leon to realize another dream long deferred. Leon has sought to stage Tambourines for years, and even scheduled it as the inaugural show last fall for his fledgling national theater company. But the gospel-themed musical’s massive scale required Leon to postpone the production until this summer, to coincide with the National Black Arts Festival.

Ask Leon if he thinks Hughes has been watching over him lately and he’ll laugh, “Langston or Sean? I feel like they’re both guardian angels this year.”

Though critics dismissed Leon’s selection of Combs as a stunt, Leon defends the decision. “It was 100 percent my choice,” says Leon. He admired Combs’ instincts and intelligence, and he appreciated the performer’s ability to attract new audiences to stage plays.

Once work began on the production, Leon discovered a new trait to admire in Combs: his work ethic.

“He sleeps three hours a night,” says Leon. “He learned his lines by the second day of rehearsal. He even built a replica of the Raisin stage in his Park Avenue home so he could work on it outside the rehearsal.”

The attention Raisin has received has put Leon on the national map like never before. He even made People magazine’s list of “50 Most Beautiful People” this year. And some of that attention has spilled over to his next project.

What’s his next project?” Leon asks in a breathless voice, parodying a New York entertainment reporter. “It’s Tambourines to Glory in Atlanta!”

Tambourines uses 30 songs and poetic language to tell the story of two women who open “The Tambourine Temple” Baptist church in Harlem of the 1960s. Essie (played by Ebony Jo-Ann) is motivated by spiritual reasons while Laura (Gabrielle Goyette) merely wants to make money. Both women face temptations from smooth operator Buddy Lomax (Clinton Derricks-Carroll), who may be the Devil himself.

With 30 speaking roles, Tambourines’ scope makes it difficult to produce in a budget-conscious age, so Leon breaks with Tambourines’ tradition by casting 12 actors (plus a full gospel choir) who play all 30 parts to conserve costs. In addition, Leon and composer William Knowles refashioned some of the show’s songs into blues and jazz compositions to contrast with the production’s many tambourine-shaking gospel tunes.

More than True Colors’ first two shows — Fences and Steel MagnoliasTambourines will achieve Leon’s goal for True Colors to be a national theater that presents neglected classics from the African-American canon. Tambourines will also be True Colors’ first “national” show, as it gets remounted at the company’s sister theater Lincoln Theatre in Washington, D.C., beginning Sept. 16.

Despite his accomplishments, Leon acknowledges that it’s still a struggle to get financial support for his theater. After his success with Raisin, it may be hard for Leon to continue mustering enthusiasm for Atlanta fundraising.

Ask Leon if Raisin’s success led to more opportunities for shows outside Atlanta, and he pauses for a moment of uncharacteristic quiet. “The answer is yes,” he finally says, and his silence seems to say, “Even more than you’d guess.”

With more high-profile offers in theater — and even films — coming his way, Leon adds, “I don’t know if I’ll always be in Atlanta, but nothing has happened so far that says, ‘Pack up and leave.’ Now, if I get to the point where I can’t make True Colors’ payroll, that might be a sign,” he says, laughing.