Sixteen years ago, Kenny Leon left the plummest of theater jobs in Atlanta — running the Alliance Theatre — to create something near and dear to his heart.
With former Alliance colleague Jane Bishop, he founded Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, to show that great stories can appeal to all audiences.
On Monday, Leon announced that he’s stepping away from the company that bears his name, and turning it over to associate artistic director Jamil Jude. Jude, 32, will become artistic director, and Leon will serve as artistic director emeritus.
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Contacted in Birmingham, Ala., where he’s directing a play called “And In This Corner, Cassius Clay,” Jude said he was excited to take up the challenge.
“I look forward to holding up that responsibility of continuing to champion the plays, the playwrights and the people in communities that True Colors serves.”
Leon, 62, a Tony-winning director of Broadway plays, films and television shows, said his departure is a good idea for all concerned. “You know I’m always thinking like that: Every seven or eight years, you need to do something different.”
Jude will take on his new responsibilities next August, at the end of the current season.
Jude came to Atlanta from Minneapolis, where he co-founded the New Griots Festival and served as artistic programming associate at Park Square Theatre.
Leon talked Jude into coming to Atlanta a year ago to work with True Colors, with the idea that the young man might be the group’s next leader. “It was in the back of my mind that he was the one,” said Leon. “I always thought he had the vision, the artistic reach and the relationship with the community to build an institution.”
Leon is increasingly busy with projects and said he usually spends 60 percent of his time outside Atlanta anyway, staying in touch through phone, Skype and other means. He just published a memoir, shot an episode of the CW television series “Dynasty” and began working on a Broadway production of “American Son” with Kerry Washington.
True Colors will continue to bear his name, and Leon will continue to run the August Wilson Competition, a nationwide initiative by the company to encourage monologuists. But “It’s time for me to do some other things,” Leon said, adding that he won’t stray too far. “I’m always there. I’m a phone call away.”
Jude has already been hard at work for True Colors, directing the August Wilson tragedy “King Hedley II” earlier this year, and preparing “Nina Simone: Four Women,” which opens today at the Southwest Arts Center.
Jude was asked if it was intimidating, following in Leon’s footsteps.
He said people in Atlanta have been too nice to him, to his wife, Lauren, and their young child, Journey, for him to feel anything but welcome. “When a community emanates love like that, it’s hard to feel any level of intimidation or fear or anything like that. I just want to treat the organization with the same level of care that Kenny has.”
True Colors has something to say to the current political climate. “There’s a need of a few to try to keep us away from that flood of diversity that’s on its way and is going to happen,” said Leon. “I’m saddened that some people are afraid of that, because that’s where the beauty is, that’s where the power is, that’s where the future of America is headed.”
And the next generation is going to take us there, said Leon, meaning 30-somethings like Jude. “So it’s time for me to get my butt out of the way.”
“Nina Simone: Four Women”
Sept. 28-Oct. 21 (previews start Sept. 25). True Colors Theatre Company at the Southwest Arts Center, 915 New Hope Road, Atlanta. 1-877-725-8849, truecolorstheatre.org.
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