Front row L-R: Sarah E. Ward, Kenny Leon, Dr. Katurah Jenkins-Hall, David Davidson | Back row L-R: Marshal Lester, Loretta Monroe Calvin, Thomas Wendell Pittman
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Tony Award-winning Broadway and film director Kenny Leon celebrated his 62nd birthday with hundreds of his closest friends and family at the University of South Florida on Feb. 10.
Legacy-56, a non-profit group of thought-leaders committed to changing the trajectory of south St. Pete, presented “The Journey Home–An Evening Honoring the Legacy of Kenny Leon” as part of their Sankofa Series.
With their first event bringing their superstar classmate back home to St. Pete, the organization endeavors to build capacity while making meaningful contributions to the community. The evening was full of impressive local talent expressing themselves through the arts while trips down memory lane were taken all in an effort to celebrate Leon’s life and legacy.
Born Kenneth Leroy Leon on Feb. 10, 1956, in Tallahassee to Annie Ruth and Leroy Leon, he is the oldest of five siblings. The family moved to St. Pete when he was nine years old and here is where he received the foundation to become the man that he is today.
In the fall of 1971, Leon entered Northeast High School as a freshman by way of 16th Street Junior High School. Legacy-56 President and classmate Dr. Katurah Jenkins Hall said they witnessed social, political, psychology and intellectual warfare through private classroom discourses with their favorite educators and mentors.
Classmates tackled decades of Leon’s life, regaling the audience with stories and showing the occasional photo of yesteryear. Dr. Linda Mizell spoke about the federal government’s Upward Bound Program they attended together at then Florida Presbyterian College, now known as Eckerd College.
It was there that Leon made his official stage debut under the direction of Gibbs High School speech and drama teacher, the late Anthony “Papa T” Thurston.
“With humor and flair, Papa T challenged us to master the use of words so that we might speak as courageous activist for justice on whatever stage our lives planted us,” said Mizell.
It’s possible that Leon already caught the acting bug from his days at Macedonia Freewill Baptist Church where Bishop John L. Copeland tended his flock. A Mr. Louis Fillyau, who was known for having a flair for the dramatics, helped stage fantastical Christian dramas that Leon acted in.
“We are molded and shaped by our past experiences,” said Legacy-56 member Lorene Blossom Gregory. “Kenny, when I see you and the wonderful ways the Lord is using you, I think about Macedonia and the seeds that were planted in our youth and I praise God for the wondrous works he is doing in your life.”
In 1978, Leon graduated from Clark College in Atlanta with a degree in political science. He attended Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles for a brief period before returning to Atlanta to try his hand at acting.
“He followed his soul,” said Loretta Monroe Calvin, Legacy-56 board member. “Thank you for being real, for following your heart and showing us that believing and having faith is the right thing to do.”
Kenny Leon, City Key
Leon became a member of the Academy Theater in Atlanta where he worked as an actor and director. Here is where he would run outreach programs at prisons, schools and work with the homeless population. After years of touring, Leon eventually became the theater’s artistic director and led the company for the next 10 years.
In 2002, Leon founded his own theater company in Atlanta, the True Colors Theater Company, which focuses on the rich canon of African-American classics while branching out to include bold interpretations of world drama and a strong commitment to diverse new voices.
Leon’s Broadway credits include a Tony Awards for Best Direction of a Play and Best Revival for the 2014 production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “The Mountaintop” starring Samuel L. Jackson and St. Petersburg’s own Angela Bassett, “Stick Fly” produced by Alicia Keys, August Wilson’s “Fences” starring Washington and Viola Davis.
“I am a product of generational prayers,” said Leon. “Growing up, I could step into who I was to become. I don’t know how I got there; it only could be because of the prayers.”
Leon said his grandmother would always say, “Take you wherever you go.” These are words he has lived by and they have served him well.
“I’m not the kid who went to Juilliard; I’m not the guy who went to Yale. I’m the guy who was born in Tallahassee…with an outhouse and a little farm. I’m the guy who grew up at 1034 18th Street, I’m the guy who grew up with two parents in the household and thought we were rich. I’m the guy that ate welfare cheese in my living room. I’m the guy who went to a small Baptist church here in St. Pete.”
Deputy Mayor Dr. Kanika Tomalin presented Leon with the Key to the City.