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Atlanta's Kenny Leon mines Tony gold once again as Denzel Washington, Viola Davis and Fences win big

Kenny Leon
Kenny Leon
Courtesy of True Colors Theatre Company

For the longest, Kenny Leon was Atlanta's best kept secret. As artistic director of the Alliance Theatre from 1988 to 2000, Leon spearheaded many notable productions including Aida, which landed on Broadway. Not one to play it safe, Leon raised many eyebrows when he revived A Raisin in the Sun with Sean "Diddy" Combs playing the pivotal role of Walter Lee Younger, Jr. for Broadway in 2004. At the Tony Awards, the play won big, as Phylicia Rashad, best known as Claire Huxtable from The Cosby Show, became the first African American actress to win the Tony for "Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play". Audra McDonald also won for "Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play" for A Raisin in the Sun.

Later that same year, Rashad joined Leon as he opened up another August Wilson play, Gem of the Ocean, on Broadway. That one received five Tony nominations but no wins. In 2007, Leon opened August Wilson's Radio Golf on Broadway and that received four Tony nominations, without winning any. But the brief drought ended Sunday night as Leon's latest revival of an August Wilson work, Fences, won three Tonys and was nominated for ten total. The original 1987 staging of the play garnered six Tony nominations and delivered four wins, including 'Best Play". August Wilson also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1987.

Denzel Washington plays disgruntled former Negro Leagues player Troy Maxson, now a garbage man, who is far from a perfect husband or father and Viola Davis plays Rose, his devoted wife. Having a star as big as Washington, a two-time Oscar winner, play such a role on Broadway is huge, especially for a play that communicates through African American actors. Therefore, Washington’s Tony win for "Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play" is bigger than just him. Yes, it marks his first win for his first ever nomination but it also validates further the integral part stories of African American life and culture play within the context of American life and culture. Viola Davis, who starred in Tyler Perry's Madea Goes To Jail with Keshia Knight Pulliam and Derek Luke, has been greatly praised for her performance so it’s little wonder that she won for "Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play". It was her second Tony win.

Although Leon, who spearheads True Colors, his own theatre company, did not personally win for "Best Direction of a Play," the win for "Best Revival of a Play" was huge. In Howard Pousner’s AJC blog post on Leon after Fences’s ten Tony nominations were announced, Leon states: ‘I’ve done the work and I’m real proud of what’s on the stage.’ His personal honor was not what mattered most to him, however. ''it would be nice for the awards to meet the work,’ he continued, ‘so if they were to call our name, especially for best revival of a play, that would mean the most to me. Because that, to me, honors August Wilson in a really huge way.'

The ten nominations Fences received is a true testament to the power of this critical installment of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," also known as "The Century Cycle," which is a cycle of ten plays set in each decade of the 20th century set in his native Pittsburgh. Wilson passed in 2005 at the age of 60 but his legacy, as evidenced by the three critical Tony wins last night, remains rich.