Cover Story: Opening the Door

Kenny Leon stages Cincinnati Opera's ambitious Margaret Garner and invites everyone in

David Sorcher

Opening the Door - "I want to tell stories that effect change in human beings." — Kenny Leon

How is it that a man with no opera experience is directing a production for Cincinnati Opera? And not just any production: Kenny Leon is staging the world premiere of Margaret Garner, arguably the most visible and ambitious production the 85-year-old opera company has ever undertaken. Presented in honor of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Margaret Garner is a commissioned work by Richard Danielpour with a book and lyrics by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, who visited the story in her 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.

Leon earned his credentials as an actor and a theater director, but opera is a new realm for him. Nevertheless, he points out, "It is entertainment. But the first part of the word 'entertainment' is 'enter,' so you want that to be a door that all people can enter through."

Through his art and his charismatic presence, Kenny Leon is making his mark on the American performing arts scene, drawing large audiences to classic African-American works and orchestrating the telling of stories that will prompt dialogue about issues too long avoided.

"I want to tell stories that effect change in human beings," Leon says, and Margaret Garner's saga from 150 years ago is such a tale.

She was a slave in pre-Civil War Kentucky, about 15 miles south of Cincinnati on Maplewood Farm. In 1856 she, her husband and their children tried to escape from their owners by crossing the Ohio River to freedom.

But their plan was thwarted, and they were captured. At that moment, Garner made the agonizing decision to sacrifice her children rather than have them returned to slavery.

Garner was charged with murder in Ohio and with violating the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Her lengthy trial sharpened the national debate about the desperate plight of enslaved people. Some historians suggest that Garner's attempted escape and subsequent trial did as much to launch the United States into the Civil War in 1860 as did the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 serialized novel Uncle Tom's Cabin and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency.

For whatever reason, however, Garner's story faded from our nation's consciousness over the past century. It was largely forgotten until Morrison used it as the inspiration for Beloved, in which a former slave is haunted by the ghost of the child she murdered. A decade later, Beloved became a 1998 movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.

Morrison maintains that her principal interest in 1987 was to write a ghost story, not a historical chronicle. It wasn't until composer Richard Danielpour approached her to create an operatic version of the tragedy that she decided to return to the story in a more deliberate way.

She and Danielpour were commissioned by Cincinnati Opera and two others (Michigan Opera Theatre and the Opera Company of Philadelphia) to create the new work. The companies' artistic directors, recognizing the story's power and the potential to reach broader audiences, assembled an all-star cast to perform the new work and recruited Leon to stage it.

Leon believes that opera is truly the right art form to re-create Garner's tragic story and elevate it to represent even bigger issues.

"I couldn't imagine this story being a play," he tells me during a rehearsal break on a hot afternoon, sitting in the lobby of Cincinnati Ballet's facility at Central Parkway and Liberty Street just a few blocks from Music Hall, where Margaret Garner will be performed July 14, 16 and 22. "Because white folks nor black folks want to come to this kind of play. The white community feels like, 'I had nothing to do with that,' and the black folks are like, 'Can't we just leave that behind so we can move on?' But we really have never dealt with slavery and racism in this country.

"If this was a play, it would be too much. You're talking about two or three deaths onstage. If you think about it being a musical, it's talk, sing, talk, sing — it trivializes it. But opera, where you expect drama, you expect grandness, it fits. This is the perfect place to do this particular story."

Street cred
And Kenny Leon might, in fact, be the perfect director to stage Margaret Garner. He has the résumé, having worked with high-profile performers and esteemed playwrights. He's staged productions of each of August Wilson's plays, including the New York production of Gem of the Ocean and the upcoming premiere of Radio Golf, the two plays wrapping up Wilson's 10-play, decade-by-decade dramatic representation of African-American life in the 20th century.

In spring 2004, Leon directed the Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry's 1959 classic, A Raisin in the Sun. His star-studded cast included Phylicia Rashad and Audra McDonald, both of whom earned Tony Awards for their work. But much of the media attention expended on that production focused on Sean ("P. Diddy") Combs, the Rap star who Leon cast as Walter Younger, an angry, ambitious black man thwarted over and over by racism and adverse circumstances.

"I love Lorraine Hansberry, but the reason to do Raisin in the Sun is to bring a new generation to her writing," Leon says. "That dictated the casting of P. Diddy and put those wonderful women around him. It ended up being the second highest-grossing play in the history of Broadway. We did that with casting and all kinds of things."

Leon will direct a film version of Raisin, set to begin shooting in 2006.

Success like that has paved the way for him to take on additional — and more diverse — projects. As the first African American ever to stage direct a Cincinnati Opera production, Leon is working with what he calls "a great interracial team. You've got artists involved from me and Danielpour. We all bring our audiences to it. It makes people curious. Is that the same guy that did Raisin in the Sun and Gem of the Ocean? Why is he doing this opera? Oh, Toni Morrison did an opera? Wow!"

Leon has become a true believer in the power of Margaret Garner, and he has high hopes that others will be similarly inspired.

"If they come to see it, it's accessible, some of it's emotional, it's engaging," he says. "They go, 'Wow, I want to go see another opera.' I want to be a part of that, to reach big audiences."

But Leon had to think hard about undertaking an opera.

"I debated this when the three opera companies approached me and I had just finished directing Raisin," he says. "I love opera, but I'm not a huge opera fan, so I didn't know if I wanted to do this."

At home in Atlanta in early 2004, he took his new car, a convertible, out for a drive. He put a CD of Danielpour's music for Margaret Garner into the car's sound system.

"I put the top down and almost wrecked the car," he says. "I was taken away with the music. I was expecting it to be like overly Classical, like sometimes when I go to the symphony I find myself clapping at inappropriate times because the culture of those forms don't allow for other expression."

But the score for Margaret Garner was different.

"The next thing I know, on that classical bed, I could feel the Gospel, the Jazz beneath it," he says. "I had never felt that in Classical music. This felt so right — I could hear the history of America in this music. It was rich and it was a door for all people to enter through.

"I could see younger people coming to it. I could see black people coming to it. I could see white people coming to it. I said, 'This is great!' I want to be part of something that's going to have a huge impact on us as a country."

And once he decided to tackle Margaret Garner, Leon says he got excited about learning a new art form different from what he was used to.

"I've done musicals, musical reviews, straight plays, but never an opera," he says. "But I realized that storytelling is storytelling. I know how to tell a story. What I had to learn with opera are the parameters, the rules, what makes an effective evening in the opera — and also what can I bring to the opera world. Rather than just trying to get into that world, I was trying to say, 'You know what, I've seen opera and I think it could stand a little more movement. I think it could stand for a little more emotional investment.' "

He knew he'd need to work with others.

"I surrounded myself with a great team, and it's just about how do you tell the story," he says. "When I'm directing a drama, I sometimes think about how theater is the most collaborative art form there is. The better the players, the better the team, the more you can realize the moment, the more successful you are.

"Now I find that opera is even more collaborative than that! Everything has to happen in that beat, in that note. It involves the music, the lights, the costumes. It's a series of moments, and the more successful you are at stringing along those moments, the more successful you're going to be at the end of the opera. So in many ways, opera has helped me become a better director, because it's the ultimate in collaboration."

A little more heart
With his intense, deep-set eyes and handsomely chiseled face, Leon has a striking presence. In May 2004, People magazine named him one America's "50 Most Beautiful People."

He's spent a lot of time onstage, too — he originated the role of Citizen in the premiere of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean in 2003 — so he knows what it takes. He connects with performers, and now he's developed a special appreciation for operatic talent.

The title role in Margaret Garner is being performed by Denyce Graves, one of the opera world's true contemporary superstars.

"If you have a cast with Denyce Graves as your anchor," Leon explains, "she is a born actress. The first day she is like, 'What do you want me to do? You know that big thing at the end? I'll do it. I got a fight scene? I'll do it.' Because she was so ferocious and eager at the beginning, it spilled over to everybody else."

Leon lists his world-class cast: soprano Angela Brown, who recently sang the title role in Aida at the Metropolitan Opera, plays Garner's mother-in-law; Rod Gilfry, an international performer as a baritone, plays the master of the plantation; and Gregg Baker, an imposing baritone from Memphis, is Robert, Margaret's husband.

"Gregg started out as an actor," Leon says. "So like everybody I met in the opera world, he and they are game for it. They want more acting in their singing. They're ready for a little more movement, a little more heart. They want more responsibility to tell the story in a way that serves its place in history."

Leon's personal history includes a decade as artistic director of Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, a regional theater comparable to Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. (A year ago, he was the guest director for the Playhouse's production of Charles Randolph-Wright's comic drama Blue, an assignment he concluded just before heading to New York to stage Raisin.)

Since leaving the Alliance in 2002, Leon has focused on creating a new theater company, True Colors, based in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., and dedicated to producing plays from various times, cultures and perspectives while preserving African-American classics such as Raisin.

Leon must summon all his directing experience to pull off Margaret Garner. There are 10 principal performers, a chorus of 64 — 32 in a white chorus, 32 in a black chorus — plus 72 musicians in the pit conducted by the music director, Stefan Lano.

Laughing, Leon says, "I couldn't do it without my assistant director, Cynthia Stokes, and choreographer Patdro Harris. I say, 'You guys go over there and teach that person that dance and teach the chorus that.' It's the biggest cast I've ever worked with, but they're not all on the same level. There's more variety and experience. So you have to take more time.

"Actors process information differently than singers. Those people in the chorus process information differently. I say, 'What's your motivation?' and they'll say their motivation is to hit the high C as opposed to thinking about anything dramatic or dramaturgical."

But Leon is making it work. A lot of preparation happened even before the first performances with Michigan Opera in May.

"We had more time in Detroit, and I had a workshop as well," he says. "We did more work there, and we had more time to talk. The performers had been introduced to the material, but they didn't know what direction this crazy stage director was going to take them in, so there was time spent for that."

Lano was present during many of the preparatory rehearsals, too.

"He was actually there with me, so I had the conductor there throughout rehearsal," says Leon. "He was able to stop and give me time to talk with the actors about what we were trying to create."

It's been more intense readying the performers in Cincinnati, with a new set of chorus members — although three members of the Detroit chorus were so moved by their involvement that they're performing here, too.

"Now it's a matter of seeing what they've actually retained," he says, "where they are, what story they're telling and how they want to tell it, getting used to a different space. We need to learn (some changes) because there were some cuts since Detroit. So we're working on subtle differences that I want to adjust."

Moving forward
Leon was drawn into the project as much by the artistic credentials of people behind it as by the story.

"I'd heard of Margaret Garner, but I didn't know the story specifically," he says. "I knew it from Beloved. I met with Toni Morrison in New York City when they were trying to talk me into doing it. I asked her, 'Why do you want to revisit this?' She started talking, and I realized that if I was going to visit this material it would be something big. I want it to have huge national impact so I can always get a job.

"But I wanted to know why do this project, and why do it in Detroit, Cincinnati and Philadelphia? Then you start thinking about the racial histories of those three cities, you think about our inability (as a nation) to deal with slavery in a realistic way. I told Toni, 'I can do this story, but if I do it, I will want to do it like a Shakespearean classic.' I would not want to do this with any of the baggage that people bring to it. Blacks and whites don't want to come see this material because they bring baggage to it. So I can't have anything that looks or sounds like something they've already seen. If we're able to get them to look at Margaret Garner as a woman, then we would have learned something about slavery, about race, about the country, about these three cities, and it would have moved us forward."

Leon undertakes his artistic assignments with a great deal of personal commitment.

"We have a huge responsibility to our grandparents and our great-grandparents," he explains, describing what he told the Cincinnati cast when they assembled for their first rehearsal. "We have to do this right. This is not just doing a gig. Race and racism still ends up being the number one challenge for us now — intolerance of difference. What's happening in Iraq now, it's the difference in understanding other cultures. So this is a big part of who we are now.

"As artists, we are underpaid and under-respected. But if you don't think this production is important and if you don't want to do this because of the impact it has on the community, then you should leave now."

Leon gives the cast of Margaret Garner powerful advice.

"You have to ask 'what if?' You have to put yourself in her position. I want the artist to feel this, and I want the audience to feel this. If I was this woman, presented with this future and this life, wouldn't death be an option for my children? That's a tough question."

Leon expects that audiences who see Margaret Garner will be profoundly moved by the production.

"When they walk out of here, I want people to feel like, 'Let's heal from this whole beginning of slavery, and let's do something about the world now, and something about the way we treat each other now. And let's try to understand each other now,' as corny as that sounds. You know, communication is a great thing.

"We're not all alike; we're different. So how do we live in the same city, on the same planet with respect, and how do we move us forward as a city, a country, a world?"

Leon often focuses his efforts in terms of personal experience, including some right here in Cincinnati.

"It's important to me to stage Margaret Garner in Cincinnati because of some things that happened in the '90s that I was reading about," he says. "When I walk (through Over-the-Rhine) from the (rehearsal space at the) Ballet to Music Hall, I walk through that neighborhood and I see people who look like me, people who are struggling economically. And then I come into a building with people that don't really have to connect with those people at all. We have to bridge that divide economically, socially. We have to start to figure out how to communicate to each other. If we make a little dent in Cincinnati, then it's going to have an effect on the country."

In the spring of 2004, Leon had a disconcerting experience in Mount Adams.

"I was here doing a play at the Playhouse, and I went into a wine bar," he says. "The woman waiting on me did not see me. She wasn't ignoring me — she was serving everybody else and just did not see me. Then she said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, baby. I didn't see you.' That's my metaphor for how deep and subtle it is: When people don't see you, then it's a deeper issue. What makes that happen?

"I'm interested in having an effect on this city. Number one, I think the rest of the country is watching this specific opera. I think if we get them to focus on this opera happening in Cincinnati, discussions will start about it."

Being a leader
Kenny Leon has spent his career using theater to start conversations. Right after college at Clark Atlanta University — where he met and worked with Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn — he spent a year in law school in Los Angeles, building on his political science undergraduate major. But acting kept pulling him back, and he returned to Atlanta for more work onstage, despite his family's reservations.

His grandmother, Mamie, who died in 1992, was a lifelong influence on Leon.

"She didn't really know about the world of theater," he remembers, but when she finally saw one of his productions at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, "she was like, 'So that's what you do."

Based on his grandmother's expectations, Leon says, "I always knew I was going to be in some leadership position that had an impact on large groups of people. My grandmother felt, 'Baby, you gotta do something.' She probably thought I'd be a minister, but she never said that."

Today he feels he's living up to her dreams for him, being a leader and making a difference.

Leon urges everyone to come to see his first stab at staging an opera.

"I was joking with someone," he says, laughing. "I said, 'I want to give P. Diddy a call and get him to come to Cincinnati and see this opera. I think he would like the opera!' Phylicia Rashad came to see it in Michigan. I think this is the opera for every body (emphasizing the end of his sentence as two separate words).

"Sometimes we stay away from things because we're just afraid of it. This opera is totally accessible. Even if you hate Classical music, you will love the music. It's because you can feel a little bit of Jazz, a little bit of Blues, a little bit of Gospel — so whatever your musical taste is, you can feel it. It's like a great mix of a Broadway musical, a Broadway play and an opera. It's a different sort of experience. This is what I call a 'hip opera."

While Leon is in Cincinnati rehearsing his cast for Margaret Garner, he's staying at the Vernon Manor Hotel in Mount Auburn. He likes the spacious rooms in the 1924 structure, especially the view from his suite, overlooking Over-the-Rhine and downtown Cincinnati.

"I look out my window every morning and think about the work we have to do," he muses.

And then he gets to it — starting conversations, provoking understanding, advancing the cause. Kenny Leon might be directing his first opera, but he's no newcomer to using his art to change the world around him.

CINCINNATI OPERA presents Margaret Garner at 8 p.m. Thursday, Saturday and July 22 at Music Hall.

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