“Raisin in the Sun” was the first play that Kenny Leon directed on Broadway and it offered plenty of parallels with his own childhood in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he was met with hostility and violence as a member of the first class to integrate the local public high school.
Nineteen years later, Leon, now a Tony Award winner, is about to direct his fourteenth show on Broadway (a revival of “Purlie Victorious,” starring Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.)
If he’s come a long way, so has Broadway, as Leon argues in one of the three videos below recorded during the third annual Broadway Celebrates Juneteenth concert on Sunday.
During the event,Leon received the Legacy Award from the Broadway League, and, in his acceptance speech pointed out it took forty-five years for “A Raisin in the Sun” to make it back to Broadway after its original 1959 production– because the Hansberry estate insisted on having an African American director (and, Leon implies, no one was willing to mount a revival with one — him — until 2004.) He also lamented that it took fifty years for playwright Adrienne Kennedy to make her Broadway debut last season, at the age of 91, with her play ‘Ohio State Murders,” which Leon directed. “We’ve moved, but we’ve got a ways to go.”
“Ohio State Murders” is one of several shows – along with “Ain’t No Mo’” and “KPOP” — that had alarmingly brief runs. Yet, as he explained to me in a one-to-one interview, he doesn’t see them as failures; quote the contrary.
“I’m reminded of what the great Harry Belafonte said to me, when I was disappointed with a show that I’d just finished. He said “Kenny…You have to realize you’re presenting Afro-centric works on a Euro-centric stage. It’s about impact on lives.’”
In the first video below, some half dozen performers and participants in the Juneteenth concert (including two Tony nominees and Leon again) talk about their earliest memory of Juneteenth (some of them celebrated it “from birth”; others only learned of it recently) and what the holiday means to them. Juneteenthcommemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, and became an official federal holiday in 2021. It marks the day – June 19, 1865, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation – when Major General Gordon Granger proclaimed freedom for enslaved people in Texas.
Melody Betts, who will be one of the stars of the planned 2024 Broadway revival of “The Wiz,” had this to say:
“It is for me, a celebration of who my people and my culture are the things that we have been through and the things that America has done to us. And the fact that in the midst of all those things we still can find joy, we can still find a reason ro smile, we can still find a reason to celebrate… it is the best.”
The second video is a two-minute attempt to simulate and stimulate the feeling of a concert with nearly two hours of glorious music. Playlist below.
Broadway Celebrates Juneteenth playlist:
“Lift Every Voice & Sing”: Performed by Rashad McPherson & The Juneteenth Celebration Band
Spoken Word: “On this Day of Freedom” (Original Piece): Performed by Performed by William Rhem (from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)
“Dancin’ In The Street” (Motown The Musical): Performed by Holli’ Conway Fields (from Six)
“Don’t Rain On My Parade” (Funny Girl): Performed by Hailee Kaleem Wright (from Six)
“I Know Where I’ve Been” (Hairspray): Performed by Tesia Kwarteng (from Camelot
“Be Optimistic”: Performed by Kids from Broadway
:Performed by NaTasha Yvette Williams, Tony nominee for Some Like It Hot
“Bigger”: Performed by Rachel Webb, Lorna Courtney, Veronica Otim, and Kim Onah (from & Juliet)
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (Motown The Musical): Performed by Vanessa Sears & Aaron Nicholas Patterson (from New York, New York)
“I Am Light”: Performed by Aaron James McKenzie (from A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical)
Tap Dance Performance: “Blue Skies” (Irving Berlin’s White Christmas): Performed by Richard Yoder (from Some Like It Hot)
“Colored Woman” (Memphis): Performed by Courtnee Carter (from Parade)
“Shining Star” (Hot Feet): Performed by Deandre Sevon (from A Beautiful Noise, The Neil Diamond Musical)
“The Bus” (Caroline, or Change): Performed by Antoine L. Smith (MJ the Musical
“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”: Performed by Miki Abraham (from Shucked
“There’s Always Something There to Remind Me”: Performed by Kyrie Courter (from Sweeney Todd)
“Day O” (Beetlejuice The Musical): Performed by James T. Lane (from Chicago
“River Deep, Mountain High” (Tina, The Tina Turner Musical): Performed by Kimberly Marable, Arian Keddell & Celina Nightengale (from Chicago)
“Ain’t It Good” (Children of Eden): Performed by Crystal Lucas Perry, Tony nominee from Ain’t No Mo’
“If You Believe” (The Wiz): Performed by Melody Betts (from The Wiz)