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Kenny Leon talks new Broadway play ‘American Son’ and directing Kerry Washington

Kenny Leon is picking at a margherita pizza and smiling.

“I cannot tell you more,” he says.

He’s just finished sharing the skeleton plotline of “American Son,” the new Broadway play currently in previews at the Booth Theatre and opening Nov. 4.

And then: “It’s about finding where the love is in America.”

Of course, there is more to the drama being directed by the Tony-winning Leon and starring “Scandal” luminary Kerry Washington and Broadway and TV vet Steven Pasquale.

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“It explores love and family. Love of the young generation,” Leon, 62, says as he leans his tall frame against the back of the booth at Bond 45 restaurant in New York’s Theater District, “Dynasty” ball cap on his head, black and white Adidas stretched under the table.

Washington and Pasquale’s characters are married, but navigating a divorce. Their 17-year-old son has been living with his mother. Now, the couple is in a police station – where the entire play takes place over 88 minutes with no intermission – waiting to find out what has happened to the teenager.

And that is as far as Leon will explain the story written by Miami lawyer Christopher Demos-Brown, who has won several regional awards for his work but is making his Broadway debut with “American Son.”

“In the course of waiting to find out what happened to their son, they discuss ‘Why did we get together?’ and ‘Why are we apart?’ and what’s beautiful about the country,” Leon said. Later, he will comment, “It makes me excited to be an American director. It’s just a beautiful evening of theater and what theater does best.”

This is Kenny Leon's second show on Broadway this year. Photo: Getty Images

Sharing the bill with Washington and Pasquale are Eugene Lee – a Leon favorite from his True Colors Theatre Company days – as an older lieutenant and Jeremy Jordan as a young cop.

But Leon, who steered a short run of “Children of a Lesser God” on Broadway this spring, understands the value of a marquee name. So when producer Jeffrey Richards, who worked with Washington during her last Broadway venture, 2009’s “Race,” suggested the radiant star, “I was, like, 1,000 percent,” Leon said.

“Kerry is the best. Her mind doesn’t stop, and that’s great for us. As a director, my mind never goes off until my part of the play is finished, so it’s great to work with an artist who is thinking like you are. Denzel (Washington) is the same way,” he said of his longtime friend and star of the 2014 revival of “A Raisin in the Sun,” for which Leon nabbed a Tony for best direction of a play. “The seven years she’s been doing ‘Scandal,’ she’s matured so much as an artist that I don’t know if America is going to be ready for her. They’re gonna expect [Washington’s “Scandal” character] Olivia Pope. But there is no part of Olivia Pope (here).”

Leon is equally captivated by his male star, whom he calls “beyond great.”

“Who could play a strong male opposite Kerry who also has a strong theater background? Steven is that guy,” Leon said.

“American Son” will close Jan. 29 because of other commitments by its cast. Leon, as usual, also has an array of projects lined up into 2019, which is a primary reason he stepped away as artistic director of True Colors this fall (he’ll continue to serve as artistic director emeritus).

He directed three episodes of this season’s “Dynasty,” airing on The CW; he’s immersed in “American Son” until opening day; after a brief respite in Las Vegas next month with his wife, Jennifer, Leon will head to Yale University to work on “Good Faith,” which he is directing at the Yale Repertory Theatre in February; and a feature film looms.

But suggest to Leon that he’s seemingly covered every bit of theatrical territory and he laughs.

“There’s a lot to do!” he said. “My finest work is yet ahead. We’re storytellers. As long as we keep evolving as humans, there’s reason to tell stories.”


“American Son”

In previews; opens Nov. 4. $79-$250. The Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200, americansonplay.com.

About the Author

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Melissa Ruggieri covers the Atlanta Music Scene and entertainment news for print and online.

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