A Visit with Kenny Leon
In Kenny Leon's Tony Award acceptance speech for Best Direction of a Play he said, "I'm looking forward to the day when every child in America can have a little piece of theatre in their daily educational lives."
Although I gave a cheer back in 2014 when I heard those words, I had no idea that the folks in my life would one day connect us in a one degree of separation sorta way or that Kenny would personally bring a "little piece of theatre" to my own classroom.
Well, actually I knew a little bit because Kenny had already directed my former first grade student, Eden Duncan-Smith, in the 2010 Broadway revival of August Wilson's Fences. That play won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play and I was filled with pride to see Eden join the creative team on stage to accept the award.
Then, in 2018 he brought my team teacher of 9 years, Lauren Ridloff, to Broadway in Children of a Lesser God. That opportunity landed Lauren a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress, which led to roles in The Walking Dead and Marvel's upcoming feature, The Eternals. It was Lauren who introduced me to Kenny and put in a good word for Broadway Books First Class. And I was thrilled to welcome him as my latest guest artist.
I did my homework in preparation for his visit. I read his memoir Take You Wherever You Go and admired how he used theater to bring diverse groups of people together. His work is, and has been, filled with purpose and includes an impressive list of Broadway credits: A Raisin in the Sun, Gem of the Ocean, American Son, Holler If Ya Hear Me, and A Soldier's Play (among others). At a recent preshow talk for a matinee of A Soldier's Play the dramaturg said that Kenny Leon was the go-to guy for directing thought-provoking plays about African Americans on Broadway.
I was psyched for Kenny to pass along some of his passion and insight to my students. I wanted them to feel the strength of his dedication, understand his message, and feel his compassion. As I shared his work with the children in the weeks leading up to his visit, we developed a list of questions.
The students connected in a very personal way when I told them Kenny studied American Sign Language (ASL). They were curious as to why he wanted to learn ASL and how he learned it. This question held immediate importance for the children because, for most of them, ASL is their first language. Kenny's desire to learn more about their language, their culture, and their experience made them want to learn more about him. They were impressed to discover he even had a name sign - a name sign is given by someone who is Deaf and is an important part of Deaf culture.
The students also wanted to know more about his job as a director. And they wanted to know which of his many theatrical experiences was the most special. He told us it was working with Lauren because she was initially his sign language teacher when he was preparing Children of a Lesser God and then she became an actor in that play. He shared that he loves the Deaf community and is, "Really, really, really excited to be here in this class with you today. You have made my day." What a show of respect and generosity from this beautifully affable gentleman!
I selected the children's bookHey Black Child by Useni Eugene Perkins and Bryan Collier for Kenny to read. This book has parallels to his directorial work in its themes. Bryan Collier expanded on the text by infusing his beautiful illustrations with pictorial commentary on African American history, struggle, empowerment, and pride.
Kenny, in his reading, made wonderful use of the oft-repeated refrain, Hey Black Child. He would read it and wait a beat, silently encouraging the children to echo those words - the momentum building with each stanza. In the illustrator's note in the back of the book Bryan Collier writes, "Hey Black Child is an ode to young black children that inspires and celebrates their lives. The children throughout discover their own worth and ability to the magical words of Useni Eugene Perkins." Kenny Leon's sonorous, expressive voice provided an exquisite reading which honored the poem, the illustrations, and the intention behind the work.
For almost 40 minutes Kenny charmed and inspired us before tackling a large stack of books awaiting his signature. Students now had an opportunity for some one-on-one time with him as he inscribed a personal message (such as, YOU CAN DO ANYTHING!) for each child. This is a wonderful time in the visits for me because I can relax a bit. The room is abuzz with excitement as children write thank you cards, read their autographed books, and connect personally with the guest artist.
It is also a time when I get to express my gratitude. I often think these visits are like planting seeds from unmarked envelopes. We know something will grow from it, but can't be sure exactly what it will be. One child may be inspired to become involved in theater, another may feel empowered to share their gifts with others, and still another may remember a feeling of simply being seen. To feel acknowledged and valued cannot be underestimated. Kenny Leon made sure that no matter what grows from their time with him, each child knows that, for them, anything is possible.
Broadway Books First Class