When Kenny Leon’s production of Children of a Lesser God opens on Broadway next month, fans of the original production from 40 years ago will definitely notice a few changes. But according to the Tony Award-winning director, the changes in the racial and political messages will hopefully bring more people into the theater.
Leon’s Broadway-directing career already consists of two popular revivals. You may remember Viola Davis and Denzel Washington taking home Tony Awards for Fences, as well as Leon’s own Tony Award for directing Washington and LaTanya Richardson Jackson in 2014’s A Raisin in the Sun. But what separates the Children of a Lesser God revival from the others is that the play wasn’t race specific.
“When I was first approached to do it, as African-American directors, sometimes you don’t get offered work that’s not race specific. I knew it started out as a play, and then William Hurt did it as a movie. I thought it was good because they were looking at me for what I could bring to the table,” Leon said in an interview with The Root.
Children of a Lesser God, written by Mark Medoff, tells the story of a romance between deaf former student Sarah Norman and her teacher James Leeds. The 1980 Broadway production garnered two Tony Awards, one for best actor and the other for best play. The play was then adapted for film, starring Marlee Matlin and William Hurt, in 1986. Matlin became the first (and currently only) deaf woman to win an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role.
But Leon wanted to put his own spin on the play in his version of it. After meeting his sign language teacher, Lauren Ridloff, who is also African American and deaf, he realized what he needed to do.
“Initially I thought it was a love story about a deaf woman and hearing guy, basically another [opposite-]side-of-the-tracks love story. That’s why I accepted the job, but along the way I learned it was about something greater and how we as human beings try to make each other over,” Leon stated. “Then it became a timely subject to talk about—how we don’t listen to each other; therefore we leave a lot of beauty against the walls, whether it’s social beauty, political beauty, international beauty. Along the way, what also helped me find the beauty of the play was when I met Lauren Ridloff.”
Leon met Ridloff after a friend advised him that he needed to learn sign language from a nonspeaking person. As Ridloff was teaching him sign language, he says, he started to imagine her as Sarah Norman. It was during his interactions with Ridloff, and how people reacted to her teaching him sign language in public, when, he says, he started understanding the play on a much deeper level.
Having found his Sarah, he already knew whom he wanted to play opposite her.
“A year before meeting Lauren, I did an off-Broadway play by Lydia Diamond called Smart People, and Joshua Jackson (The Affair) was a lead in that production. Joshua said then that he always wanted to do a Broadway play with me, and when I told him I was doing Children of a Lesser God, he jumped on it,” Leon said.
After finding his two leads, Jackson and Ridloff participated in a workshop version of the play, and the producers loved their chemistry. But Leon didn’t stop there when it came to adding diversity to his play. He also cast a black woman to play Sarah’s mother, as well as a Korean-American woman as an attorney.
“The more I diversified, the more I saw the play as the world I lived in,” Leon said.
But when it comes to the world Leon lives in as one of two black Broadway directors, he acknowledges that he encounters both overt and subtle racism there. When asked if he’s experienced racism on Broadway, Leon didn’t bite his tongue.
“Fuck, yeah. America is damn racist. Broadway and television is a microcosm of America in the way that it’s operated. A Tony Award for Kenny Leon is different from a Tony for Dan Sullivan. A white man with a Tony goes farther than a black man with a Tony. I’m not going to spend my life complaining about it; I want to actually do something about it so my grandkids experience less racism than I did,” Leon stated.
“Of course there’s racism in Broadway. But there’s also good people in Broadway,” he continued. “There’s good producers and theater owners, but collectively we could all do a lot more in terms of making it better for everybody. I definitely have run into racism in this industry, but that’s expected. Hopefully every generation, we can get closer to things that are right.”
Leon went on to speak about how proud he was of people he knew before they were household names. Like Chadwick Boseman, who did his workshop for Holler if Ya Hear Me; Kerry Washington, who was in Race on Broadway; and, of course, Viola Davis.
Leon feels that these are the names of people who should be rewarded more, and the fact that they aren’t shows just how broad an issue inequity is in Hollywood. Take, for example, Davis’ recent comments about how people are always saying she’s the black Meryl Streep, but she’s not getting Streep money.
“Nothing against Meryl Streep, but it’s about inequity, race and gender. In Broadway there’s only two African Americans directing on a consistent basis—that’s me and George C. Wolfe. There should be more. I want to direct stories that deal with my culture but also want to do stories that deal with other parts of my humanity,” Leon said.
When it comes to making sure there are more black people on Broadway, Leon isn’t just giving lip service; he’s actively paving the way for others. The Clark Atlanta University graduate has the True Colors Theatre Co. in Atlanta, which has an internship and national educational program that exposes students across the U.S. to the works of August Wilson. Leon says that he also encourages people to look at careers that aren’t in front of the camera.
“I think everyone thinks they want to be in front of the camera. I would encourage people to find out what goes into making a Broadway play. You have so many options, from costume to set designers,” he advised. “There’s so many careers that go into telling a story. When I did Hairspray Live, I had 800 people on the crew. Do research on other areas besides the performing area. There are people living productive and wonderful lives because they’ve contributed to making great theater, film and television.”
With Children of a Lesser God opening in a few weeks, many people will take note of the creative changes Leon has made, but he hopes they leave with a few simple lessons about life.
“Forty years ago, Children of a Lesser God was about introducing the deaf world to the hearing world—basically, the white deaf world to the white hearing world—and now the play has more color in it. It’s about how we need to listen. It’s about all of us as people and how we can be better humans,” he explained.
“I’m also hitting harder on the love story. Lauren and Joshua have great chemistry. When people leave the play, they’ll realize they need to start listening more. This production will teach people how easy communication is, even when you don’t have words,” Leon added.
Leon’s career has spanned decades; he’s done everything from local theater to Broadway and live musical productions on television. He’s won awards and accolades, but ironically, he doesn’t think he’s even done his best work yet. And when it comes to the legacy he wants to leave, it’s a pretty simple one.
“I always want to remain relevant, and you remain relevant by having something to say to all the generations. I want people to say that I tried to talk to everyone. That I tried to get the 30-year-olds to talk to the 80-year-olds, the 20-year-olds to talk to the 40-year-olds. And I tried to get people to understand this thing called life. I want people to say that I worked hard trying to be a better human being,” Leon said as he reminisced about his career.
Previews of Children of a Lesser God at Studio 54 begin on March 22; the play opens April 11.