Director Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado About Nothing mesmerized audiences during the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park last summer. Now, you can watch this exuberant, sassy, and political performance, starring Orange is the New Black’s Danielle Brooks, on PBS’s Great Performances. We talked to Kenny Leon about how he approaches a new production and how Shakespeare’s comedies speak to our present moment.
Kenny Leon is the founding artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company and Artistic Director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre. In 2014, he won the Tony Award for Best Director for his revival of A Raisin in the Sun with Denzel Washington. Leon’s recent film work includes Netflix’s American Son with Kerry Washington, which he also directed on Broadway. His memoir, Take You Wherever You Go, was published by Grand Central in 2018. Kenny Leon is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Stream Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado at pbs.org/gperf or via the PBS video app.
MICHAEL WITMORE: If there’s one word to describe Kenny Leon’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, maybe the best one is exuberant.
[CLIP from Much Ado About Nothing, the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park, directed by Kenny Leon. Chuck Cooper is Leonato and Danielle Brooks is Beatrice]
You know your answer.
The fault will be in music, cousin, if you
be not wooed in good time.
You apprehend passing shrewdly.
I have a good eye, uncle; I can see a church
WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s Director. There are plenty of other words you could use for this production too. It’s contemporary.
[CLIP: Grantham Coleman as Benedick]
And I would I could find in my heart that I had not a
WITMORE: It can be sassy.
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice]
BEATRICE: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Bene-dick, nobody marks you
WITMORE: And especially, it's political.
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice singing Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”]
Picket lines and picket signs.
Don’t punish me with brutality.
Come on, talk to me.
So that you can see what’s going on.
WITMORE: In this production—set in his longtime hometown of Atlanta— Kenny Leon brought a 21st-century sensibility to Shakespeare’s language that mesmerized audiences during last summer’s performances at the Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park. One of those evenings has been preserved and comes to national TV in Thanksgiving week as part of PBS’s Great Performances.
We were lucky to get Kenny Leon into a studio to talk about the production a few days before it aired. We call this podcast episode “Let’s Have a Dance.” Kenny Leon is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
BARBARA BOGAEV: What’s your first step when you get an assignment of Shakespeare in the Park since it’s in the park? I would imagine that’s a different style of preparation than what you do getting ready for another high-profile production.
KENNY LEON: Well, I worked on a fair amount of stories over my career and I approach all of them the same, whether it’s a musical or drama or comedy. Oskar Eustis approached me about a year ago. He called and said, “Okay, which one of these 38 plays are you going to do? Pick one.” So I went home and looked at the plays and decided that I wanted to do one of the comedies, because I felt like the comedies have more political impact these days.
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice and Grantham Coleman as Benedick]
I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow
than a man swear he loves me.
God keep your Ladyship still in that mind,
so some gentleman or other shall ‘scape a predestinate
Scratching could not make it worse an
‘twere such a face as yours were.
Well, you are a rare parrot-teacher,
A bird of my tongue is better than a beast of
I would my horse had the speed of your tongue.
LEON: And Oskar Eustis put me together with this great Shakespearean authority, James Shapiro. We would meet every weekend for about, you know, three months.
BOGAEV: What were you in a coffee shop? In his office?
LEON: No, we were at his home.
BOGAEV: In his home.
LEON: His home, overlooking the Hudson River. Every morning on his sofa after a fresh pot of coffee, we would just jump in and talk about Shakespeare, and what were Shakespeare’s intentions when he wrote the play. So every weekend I would talk about Shakespeare and think about Shakespeare and put in my mind, “If Shakespeare were alive today…” which is what I’m always saying with every play that I do. When I did A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, I’m like, “What would Lorraine Hansberry do if she was alive today?” And so, I look at Shakespeare the same way. What was his intent?
[CLIP: Billy Eugene Jones as Don Pedro and Grantham Coleman as Benedick]
DON PEDRO: I shall see thee, ere I die, look pale with love.
BENEDICK: With anger, with sickness, or with hunger, my lord, not with love. Prove that ever I lose more blood with love than I will get again with drinking, pick out mine eyes with a ballad-maker’s pen and hang me up at the door of a brothel house for the sign of blind Cupid.
LEON: And so, in deciding on Much Ado the first scene in the play, Shakespeare says, “Men coming from war.”
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice and Kai Heath as Messenger]
BEATRICE: I pray you, is Signior Mountanto returned from the wars or no?
MESSENGER: I know none of that name, lady. There was none such in the army of any sort.
LEON: So as a director, you have to decide, “Okay, what war is it?” And every war I could think about in the past did not feel appropriate or did not feel truthful or did not feel authentic. And I said to the Shakespearean scholar, “What about a war in the future?” And he said, “Wow, okay, great. Well, where would that war be?” And I started thinking about, well, what if it was on American soil? Because there’s so many things happening in our country that’s just pushing people away from true relationships. So I thought that the war had to be in America. And if it’s in the future, maybe it’s the 2020 election—right before the 2020 election. Okay, that’s good.
And then, reading my notes on Shakespeare, I realized that Much Ado takes place in Aragon, Italy and I live in Cobb County, Georgia. About 10 minutes, I think, east of my home in Georgia is a place called Aragon, Georgia. And I said, “Okay, well, that’s a place to start as a director. Okay. And, wow, it’s a play about community. Okay. What’s the community around Aragon, Georgia? Oh, Atlanta. Oh, it’s a play about sort of upper middle-class people. Well, Atlanta has a huge upper middle class and they happen to be Black.” And so, that was the first time when I started thinking that this production probably should involve a Black community.
[CLIP: Billy Eugene Jones as Don Pedro and Chuck Cooper as Leonato]
Right or left.
Good Signior Leonato, are you come to meet your trouble? The fashion of the world is to avoid cost, and you encounter it.
LEONATO: Never cam trouble to my house in the likeness of your Grace, for trouble being gone, comfort should remain, but when you depart from me, sorrow abides and happiness takes his leave.
LEON: We would just jump in and talk about Shakespeare and what was Shakespeare’s intentions when he wrote the play, down to the specifics of some of the songs that people have picked to include in that play. And he would say, “Well, you don’t have to use this song. That was just an idea that Shakespeare had.” “Oh, really? Okay.” So, since I’m making this about this Black community then all the songs should be from that culture.
[CLIP: Lateefah Holder as Dogberry]
DOGBERRY: We will spare for no wit, I warrant you. Only get the learned writer to set down out excommunication.
LEON: And, you know, Much Ado ends up being a story really about fake news. It’s about people who tell stories and lies and the impact of that on community. And the other thing that I wanted people to experience with Much Ado is that I wanted them to know… First of all, when you sit down in the Delacorte Theater, you look to your left and you see an American flag. You know that whomever is living in this home, they love their country. And then, we start with Marvin Gaye’s song.
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice singing Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Tiffany Denise Hobbs as Ursula singing America the Beautiful.]
Oh, what’s going on.
Oh, beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain.
Oh, what’s going on.
For purple mountains majesties
Above the fruited plains!
God shed his grace on thee.
Oh, what’s going on.
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
BOGAEV: I love how organic your process is and that you keep saying this word “community.” The setting of Atlanta that you chose is so pertinent because that city is a Black community. And this play, it feels very much—not that you set out to have a “Black-Cast-Only”-Shakespeare Much Ado, but that it's a play about a Black community and that there is “them” outside— there is a threat outside. Or that there is an outside and inside, within the theater. And that gives it a completely different dimension, I think.
LEON: Well, I learned that from working with the great August Wilson on his last couple of new plays before he passed away. He said, “You know, you always write the specifics and then you’ll have a chance at saying something universal.”
BOGAEV: And let me ask you this, since you’re setting the play just slightly in the future—a moment in the future—it does complicate the essential moment in the play when Claudio accuses Hero of being unfaithful.
[CLIP: Jeremie Harris as Claudio, Chuck Cooper as Leonato, and Margaret Odette as Hero.]
But she is none.
She knows the heat of a luxurious bed.
Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.
What do you mean, my lord?
Not to be married,
Not to knit my soul to be approved wanton.
Dear my lord, if you in your own proof
Have vanquished the resistance of her youth,
And made defeat her virginity—
I know what you would say: if I have known her,
You will say she did embrace me as a husband,
And so extenuate the forehand sin.
I never tempter her with word too large,
But, as a brother to his sister, showed
Bashful sincerity and comely love.
HERO: And seemed I ever otherwise to you?
BOGAEV: What with MeToo and #BelieveWomen, it’s so ingrained in our national conversation, in our culture now. What was your thinking going into rehearsals about how to handle that issue, and that scene specifically?
LEON: I admit it, there are many challenges in presenting that play. You know, like when I approach any revival of any play, I’m still trying to say, “How does it affect us in our seats today?” So when you’re looking at the treatment of Hero, not only by the men in the play but by Claudio specifically, going into rehearsal, I kept challenging the cast if this were to happen today, what would be the reaction?
Is this face Hero’s? Are our eyes our own?
All this is so, but what of this, my lord?
Let me but move one question to your daughter,
And by that fatherly and kindly power
That you have in her, bid her answer truly.
I charge thee do so, as thou art my child.
O, God defend me, how am I beset! —
LEON: And then, we had to come up with a gesture that doesn’t let Claudio get off the hook for this treatment of this women whom he said he love. So we built in a huge slap.
[CLIP: Jeremie Harris as Claudio and Margaret Odette as Hero]
One Hero died defiled, but I do love.
[Hero slaps Claudio]
LEON: And that was really good. Every night when the audience responded, I knew I had got that right, you know what I mean? It’s just a small gesture, but it lets you know that, “No, it wasn’t okay for you to so easily forget our love and to really be a part of the fake news.” We are always trying to think, “What would we do in 2020?”
BOGAEV: You have such fantastic actors in this production and I want to talk about Danielle Brooks.
[CLIP: Danielle Brooks as Beatrice and Grantham Coleman and Benedick]
BEATRICE: For the which blessing I am at Him upon my knees every morning and evening. Lord, I could not endure a husband with a beard on his face. Sweet Hero, she is wronged, she is slandered, she is undone.
BEATRICE: O, that I were a man for his sake! Or that I had any friend would be a man for my sake! But manhood is melted into curtsies, valor into compliment, and men are only turned into tongue, and trim ones, too. He is now as valiant as Hercules that only tells a lie and swears it. I cannot be a man with wishing; therefore I will die a woman with grieving.
BOGAEV: I loved her on Orange is the New Black and she is just riveting and hilarious in this. She’s also just a plus-size, beautiful woman who doesn’t conform to Hollywood stick-figure ideals of beauty. And she has natural hair. Why were you set on her playing the lead? And what did she want out of this lead? What did it mean to her? Because I read that she gave up a movie role to do this play.
LEON: Once you come up with a concept for a play and how to present it, then the next difficult thing is casting the production. And the first person I thought of for Beatrice was Danielle Brooks, and only because I knew she had gone to Julliard. She’s classically trained, so I know she can handle the language. She looks like no other Beatrice has ever looked. She’s a plus-size woman. She’s beautiful. She’s humorous. She can sing.
And then, I just started questioning the way I looked at traditional productions. So it’s like, “Oh, every other Beatrice I’ve known has been thin and white.” And I was like, “Well, why not a beautiful Black woman who happens to be plus size?” I put out a call to Danielle and Danielle said right away, “Yes. When am I gonna get offered Beatrice? I’m never gonna be offered Beatrice.” And then, once I cast her, I casted around her. So I wanted Benedick to look like the traditional leading man.
[CLIP: Grantham Coleman as Benedick]
BENEDICK: I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of his own scorn by falling in love.
LEON: And so Grantham Coleman came in to play Benedick. And then, we just cast around that. I knew I had to cast a certain amount of dancers because I wanted dance in it. I wanted movement. I wanted songs in it. And Jason Michael Webb created some new music for us. I combined that with some old songs, as well.
BOGAEV: Jason Michael Webb, the musical director of Choir Boy.
LEON: Yeah. He’s really amazing.
[CLIP: Daniel Croix Henderson as Balthasar sings]
Pack up all your sad songs.
Trade them in for glad songs,
and sing “Nah nah nah nah.”
Before long, you’ll feel your heart get happy.
Nah nah nah nah nah.
LEON: And he had worked with Camille Brown, as choreographer on Choir Boy. And then, she came in and then choreographed some amazing movement.
[CLIP: Grantham Coleman as Benedick and Danielle Brooks as Beatrice. R&B music plays in the background—a party.]
BENEDICK: I pray you, what is he?
BEATRICE: Why, he is the Prince’s jester, a very dull fool; I’m sure he’s in the fleet.
BENEDICK: When I know the gentleman, I’ll tell him what you say.
BEATRICE: Do, do. We must follow the leader.
LEON: It’s a historic production I think.
BOGAEV: Well, Danielle Brooks said some wonderful things in interviews about how you work with actors. One of them was that she said, “You give us so much leeway, but you’ll say if you want us to back off,” and that you literally say to your actors, “Add a little mayonnaise to that.” Which is such a wonderful direction.
LEON: She's telling all my secrets.
BOGAEV: So what do you mean by it? I think I know.
LEON: Well, I use this when I’m working on camera or on stage. But my point is if you’re close to being right, you’re in the pocket. It’s pretty good. But I say, “Add a little mayonnaise” means, “Just a little bit more of yourself.” Just a little bit of flavor is gonna make that go from a dry sandwich with just bread and tomato to a really moist sandwich that creates a great scene. So they understand when I say "mayonnaise," I mean, “You’re close.”
LEON: But just add a little bit more of yourself to it.
BOGAEV: I thought it meant that you have to back off a little bit, be more bland.
LEON: Oh no, no, no, no. That’s funny. You wanna add a little bit of smoothness to it. And if I say, “Add a little mustard,” that means, like, you wanna add a little spice to it. You know, it’s too generic. So, things like that.
And, you know, Danielle didn’t say that if they come late to rehearsal, everybody has to do 10 push-ups. You know, so it was a very healthy company. We did a lot of push-ups. It was a great company.
BOGAEV: Well, the other thing they do so well—the actors—is they’re very contemporary the way they speak the verse, especially Danielle. But really all of them. How did you work with your actors, who are classically trained, to do that?
LEON: I had a lot of good help. I had the great Kate Wilson, who is a great voice and dialect person. She works from the actor’s space and makes everything true to where they’re coming from.
But I have a game I play with them. I said my biological father’s name was Leroy. He grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. A country boy. Didn’t go to any fancy restaurants or any fancy places or any museums or any theaters. So I said, “Look, we have to make this production where Leroy can understand everything that’s being conveyed on this stage.”
[CLIP: Erik Laray Harvey as Leonato’s brother and Danielle Brooks as Beatrice]
LEONATO’S BROTHER: I trust you will be ruled by your father.
BEATRICE: Yes, faith, it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say “Father, as it please you.” But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say “Father, as it please me.” Okurrrrrr!
LEON: There’s no reason for Shakespeare not to be understood. If Shakespeare was alive today, he would say, I want the common man to understand it. We’ve had, over time, bad definitions of what makes great Shakespeare. And I think great Shakespeare is very understandable.
BOGAEV: Let me ask you this because I think one of the things that I have trouble with with Much Ado is the mix of serious and comedic. That balance of comedy and tragedy is tricky for the director. It’s sometimes tricky for the audience too. I often will watch Much Ado and be surprised at something the audience is laughing at when it wasn’t intended to be comedic. For instance, I’m thinking of the scene in Act 5 when Leonato confronts the prince and Claudio about causing the death of Hero and he says...
[CLIP: Chuck Cooper as Leonato]
I cannot bid you bid my daughter live—
That were impossible.
BOGAEV: I’ve heard actors do that in like a comedic way. I’ve heard them do it in a serious way. But it almost always seems to get some kind of nervous laugh from the audience no matter what they do.
LEON: Yeah, many times I don’t worry about how the audience responds. I worry about what’s the truth that we’re going for. So for me, many times I have to pull the actor back from making that too broad or making that too funny because he’s just letting you know he’s a part of this scheme.
BOGAEV: Of this ruse, yeah.
LEON: And, basically, they’re trying to bring these men around. And he has to be convincing or else they would never go for it. So, to me, it’s more of an honest moment and it’s funny, but I don’t mind the audience laughing. I don't mind.
It’s just like when you go to see… I did a production of Fences on Broadway with Denzel and Viola. And the African American community always brings in a give-and-take with what’s on stage and them in the seats. Sometimes the way Black people engage in storytelling, the traditional white theater-going audience clashes with their response to it or what they think is appropriate. And I always like that because that’s what creates a beautiful audience.
You come with what you had at home and you run to this other group of people and now it’s like, “Oh, we respond this way.” It’s just what we bring to the theater. And most people of color who came to see Much Ado in the park—and there were many—most of them hadn’t seen that much Shakespeare and definitely not Shakespeare in the Park. And I think that Shakespeare should be for everyone and is for everyone.
BOGAEV: I realize that you staged this play twenty years ago at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival in Atlanta.
BOGAEV: Tell me about that production. Just how different was it?
LEON: Well, when I got hired by Richard Garner to do Much Ado twenty years ago, I had no idea what I was doing… what Shakespeare was really about. The production came off very well. People talked highly of the production, but I look back now and it’s like, “What was I doing?” And it was definitely not a Black production. I think there may have been two Black people in the whole production. I had no idea. So I got away with that one twenty years ago.
BOGAEV: Was Shakespeare meaningful to you, though, coming up? I mean, what made you want to do the production in the first place?
LEON: No. I grew up poor. Poor in Florida. And all of us are introduced to Shakespeare in school, in English class, in the same way you would be introduced to Oscar Wilde and Lorrain Hansberry. But I never did Shakespeare in school. In fact, we were the first class to integrate Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, Florida. And then, in some of the theater programs there, if you were African American, you weren’t even allowed to even try to audition for Shakespeare. You know, it was like, “Oh, you can be, you know, a maid in this play or a butler in that play.”
Early in my career, I worked on some Shakespeare. As an actor, I did a small role in Richard III. I’d done As You Like It. So I’d been a part of it. But I always thought of it as being like all the formal theater approach. I would sometimes read his work and like the poetry of it. You know, you can pull some things. Almost like you can pull some things out of the Bible and say, “Wow, that’s beautiful. That’s written most gorgeously.”
But now, I’m not only a fan of Shakespeare but I really realized that Shakespeare and I come from the same school. And I think, “If he was alive… he is about the same things I’m about.” So now, I’m reading his works to find clarity in his writing and find what was he trying to say. And it’s amazing when writing sustains itself over time.
With Much Ado, that was like 1585 running into 2020 creating something we call now. And I think with this production of Much Ado, I got to that in a beautiful way. I demystified what was challenging about it, and now I’m ready to do whatever is gonna be that next Shakespearean play. I don’t know what that is yet.
I’ve been in productions that were confusing and totally you definitely could not understand what was being conveyed, but people would say, “Oh, yeah, Kenny, didn’t you like that? That was great.” And if I was being honest with myself, I was like, “No. There’s a part I didn’t know what they were saying right there.” Which, as an African American artist, frustrates you because when there are diverse audiences going to see A Raisin in the Sun or Fences or a new play by Lynn Nottage, some parts of the audience would say, “Oh, I didn’t know what they’re saying. I can’t understand them.” And then, it's like, “Really? And you understood every word that was trying to be conveyed in that production of Coriolanus that you saw?” You know what I mean?
So it’s like getting through all of that and say, “You know what, Shakespeare is for everybody.” Especially if you make it plain, make it simple and get to Shakespeare’s rhythms and not your own rhythm. And get to what you can bring to it as an American, as a Black American, white American. What you can bring to that. Then, you find truth.
BOGAEV: I can’t wait for your next Shakespeare production. And you have been so generous with this conversation, and that big heartedness shows through your plays as well. Thank you so much.
LEON: Barbara, good to hear you, good to talk with you. Thank you so much.
MICHAEL WITMORE: Kenny Leon, the founding artistic director of True Colors Theater Company and for 11 years, artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theater, won the Tony Award for Best Director for A Raisin in the Sun in 2014. Recent film work includes Netflix’s American Sun with Kerry Washington, which he also directed on Broadway. His memoir, Take You Wherever You Go, was published by Grand Central in 2018. He was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.
Kenny Leon’s production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing began airing nationally on PBS’s Great Performances on November 22nd. The production originally part of Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park stars Danielle Brooks of Orange is the New Black as Beatrice and Grantham Coleman of Buzzer and The American as Benedick. Check local listings to find out when the production will be on TV in your area. You can also watch it on PBS.org/gperf and the PBS video app.
Our podcast episode, “Let’s Have a Dance,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the Associate Producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Pastor. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from James Walsh at Threshold Recording Studios in Midtown Manhattan.
If you’re enjoying Shakespeare Unlimited, and if you’re looking for a way to let others know about it, please leave us a positive review on Apple Podcasts. That really is the best way to help. Thank you.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library, home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge in the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, folger.edu. And if you find yourself visiting Washington, DC, we hope you’ll come see us at The Folger Shakespeare Library. We’re on Capitol Hill. Come and see a performance in our Elizabethan Theater and come face-to-face with one of our first folios—the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
We hope to see you and thanks for listening. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director, Michael Witmore.