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Director Kenny Leon Revives Tupac Show in Atlanta HBCU Partnership

by Mashaun D. Simon /
Aku Kadogo, drama department chair, Spelman College and Tony Award winning director, Kenny LeonElvis T Frison /

Kenny Leon, the Tony Award-winning director who brought the Wiz Live to NBC, is embarking upon a partnership with Atlanta's historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to present ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me,’ the Tupac Shakur musical to Atlanta.

Leon made the announcement Thursday, September 8, during “A Conversation with Kenny Leon” at Spelman College. The event was put on by Spelman’s fine arts department in partnership with Leon’s theatre company, Kenny Leon’s True Colors.

“’Holler If Ya Hear Me’ is coming to Atlanta,” Leon declared during the 75-minute conversation on the stage of the Baldwin Burroughs Theatre. “True Colors wants to engage Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta in collaboration.”

 Aku Kadogo, drama department chair, Spelman College and Tony Award winning director, Kenny Leon Elvis T Frison

The discussion was moderated by Aku Kadogo, Spelman’s drama department chair.

Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, of which Leon is a graduate, make up the Atlanta University Center (AUC) – a consortium of HBCUs in Atlanta.

The partnership between the AUC and True Colors just makes sense, Leon told NBCBLK after the event.

“There is a disconnect to our young people and I think it is important to engage this generation,” he said. “These young people have youth and a voice. And I happen to have a Broadway resume. To bring those two things together—sometimes it takes older folks like to me to pay attention.”

Over the course of one year, Leon and members of the drama departments at the three institutions will lead a series of workshops. The workshops will be what Leon is calling a “Master Class,” engaging the writings of Shakur. The students will also have an opportunity to audition for roles and he expects that at least half of the production will be made up of students from the AUC.

 Director Kenny Leon attends "Holler If Ya Hear Me" opening night at Palace Theatre on June 19, 2014 in New York City. Jim Spellman / WireImage

“To use his poetry as an example, his poetry and themes, to see Tupac within themselves,” Leon said. “He will be our inspiration.”

For two months Leon and drama staff within the AUC have been thinking through the idea. Leon, who is currently busy working on Hairspray Live, as well as other projects, is committed to being involved in the entire project as well as directing the Atlanta production. ‘Holler If Ya Hear Me’ will be the first play of True Colors 2017 season next September.

Two years ago the musical, set to the discography of rap artist Tupac Shakur, premiered on Broadway. The show closed almost two months later due to what the producer, Eric Gold categorized as the “financial burdens of Broadway.”

Some, even Leon, considered the show’s ending so quickly a sign that the production was a failure. During the discussion, Leon talked about how an unexpected conversation with icon Harry Belafonte shifted his perspective.

“How many of you know Harry Belafonte?” he asked the crowd as hands went up all over the theatre. "So I run into Belafonte one day on the streets of New York and he commences to congratulate me on the show. He says, ‘I saw the show and enjoyed it completely.’”

 Mary Schmidt Campbell, Spelman College President; Aku Kadogo, drama department chair, Spelman College and Tony Award winning director, Kenny Leon. Elvis T Frison

Leon, still feeling the effects of the show’s cancellation, was feeling defeated until Belafonte provided for him a different perspective.

“He says to me, ‘You put on display a form of Afrocentrism on a Eurocentric platform. That within itself is a success.’ It changed my whole perspective after that.”

Mary Schmidt Campbell, president of Spelman College, praised Leon following the discussion for reaching back.

“Not many people will do that,” she told students in the audience following the conversation portion of the program. “He is extending his hand to you young people and bringing other young people forward. That is the mark of a real and true genuine spirit.”

For Leon, it’s about the art; the art and its impact.

“A lot of times we are trapped by our own false sense of security. You can do whatever it is you put your mind to,” he told the students in the audience. “Your goal is to find your purpose. I left the Alliance [Theatre] to get back to creativity. For me it’s about service – did I serve people and did I make a difference.”

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