In the fall of 1979, Kenny Leon had graduated from Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University) and was trying to figure out his next step. He tried law school, moved to Los Angeles, and then back to Florida. So far, nothing had stuck. Then one day, he saw an opportunity.
I saw an article in the paper about actor auditions for the Academy of Theatre and Music. They were looking to diversify their company and were specifically looking for African-Americans. My gut told me to go after this intriguing opportunity. And I figured I had enough experience to give it a try.
When I auditioned for the Academy Theatre, it wasn’t like I was completely new to that world. I drew on what I’d learned working in college, and they took me. It all happened pretty fast.
Still known today as the Academy Theatre, this organization was right up my alley. They were very socially conscious and interested in community outreach, ideas central to what I do now in all my work. The theater’s founder, Frank Wittow, ran a demanding company and really pushed us all to learn and grow together. You could be acting in “Hamlet” or “Death of a Salesman” at night and be doing workshops in prisons in the daytime.
Another point of emphasis was improvisation. We would make up scenes on the spot using improvisational techniques, putting together plays as ideas came to us in the moment.
I quickly felt right at home at the Academy Theatre.
Frank Wittow founded the Academy of Theatre and Music in 1956, the year I was born. He was a godfather-like figure to many people, and I also ended up regarding him as a father figure and mentor. I loved him very much, but I wasn’t as fearful of him as some others in the company were.
As my comfort level grew, I knew I’d be giving this a real shot. I was not going back to law school. After about a year, I was making $200 a week, and it was enough to cover my rent because I lived with three other guys. I was all in, and now I believed I could have a career in the theater. But my mother took a little convincing.
“You’re doing what? I thought you were going back to law school!”
During this time, I did a television commercial for Aaron’s TV Rentals, a home furnishings rental company. I had no lines in the commercial, but I remember that this woman would hit me in the stomach with her purse and say, “You could at least call your mother every now and then!” which somehow connected thematically to the idea of renting furniture. That one never ran during the Super Bowl.
At this time, my mom was working as a dietitian at a nursing home. She was watching television with one of her patients one day and the ad came on.
“That’s my son!”
She gave me her blessing after that.
For the next eight years, I was an actor, and I comfortably saw myself that way. I thought that was where my gifts were. I could do it for a living and a career. The doubts of a year earlier had been dispelled by work and experience.
In those first few years, I would do these plays for high school students during the day. And at night we might do some Arthur Miller or Shakespeare. I remember playing Sir James Tyrrell in “Richard III.” We did Alice Childress’s “Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White,” a play about interracial marriage.
While an undergraduate at Clark , Leon had developed a close friendship with Carol Mitchell, who was in the graduate program at Atlanta University. They shared a love of theater, and a few years after college, they reconnected at Academy Theatre, where Carol also worked.
By the time I arrived at the Academy Theatre in 1979, my friendship with Carol Mitchell had changed a bit. We weren’t as close as we’d been in our college days, but that was simply because we hadn’t seen each other as regularly. Now, working at the same place gave us the chance to reconnect. For the first several years, our relationship stayed the same.
In 1985, Carol developed some health problems. She told some of her friends that she had kidney disease, which is serious, but the few details she shared about it and how to go forward were sketchy. Her way of dealing with it was to withdraw from the world. And one of the people she stopped talking to was me.
But we worked at the same place, and I saw her a lot. Still, she avoided me. As such a close friend, I was hurt and a little annoyed. What good would retreating from me, and her other friends, do?
One day, obviously angry, I confronted her outside the theater. I pressed her on why she was so distant.
“Kenny, my kidney problems are very serious,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be around much longer, so I wanted to make things easier on the people that care about me by pulling away.” I wasn’t thrilled with her answer, but at least I could see her motivation.
Carol had another source of stress: she was dealing with a divorce, too.
My friend was simply having a terrible stretch in her life. She was mostly scared about her health, as anyone would be. With some clarity on her perspective, I set to work on seeing what I could do to help her.
Based on what little she would tell me, I felt that she didn’t really have all the facts on what she was facing. I convinced her to go with me to the hospital to get more information on her condition from her doctors. As it turned out, Carol did not have a good, accurate sense of her situation. She was sick, but not on death’s door. It wasn’t quite that bleak.
We found out that there was a path for her to take that would allow her to get healthier. If she just did a few things differently and got these particular meds, she’d be OK.
In addition to helping her understand her medical condition, I helped her move out of her home with her husband and into a new apartment. That’s how I got back into her life.
During that time, we got closer and closer; closer than we had ever been before. Then that intense friendship turned into a romantic relationship. Then we ended up getting married.
At this time in my life, around 1985 to 1986, I was dating a particular kind of woman. I looked for beauty first, and then I’d see if I actually liked her. After a while, these relationships gave me a certain attitude toward how men and women relate. I felt things were a bit shallow, that there was never a true depth to these connections. There was also a lack of trust in these relationships. Everybody playing games to be together. My attitude was, Man, I can’t find that woman because men and women just do not relate to each other in a real way. There is nothing to build on.
When I started to get closer to Carol, previously a strictly platonic friend, and I was helping her with her medical condition, I began to think about relationships a little differently.
OK, maybe we wouldn’t pick each other for each other. But maybe a relationship is about something other than body heat and attraction. Maybe it’s more about being with someone that you share important things with, like intellectual curiosity and faith, books, movies, music. Maybe it’s about someone who is easy to be with. Maybe I’m supposed to be dating my best friend. Carol and I trust each other, to say the least.
Around this time, Len Bias died from a cocaine overdose. He was a 22-year-old basketball player at Maryland who had just been drafted by the world champion Boston Celtics. His career was just about to start, and he seemed ready for stardom and success. But then he was just gone. As a sports fan, I was hit hard by his death. It was a chilling reminder that life is short and time is precious. You don’t really know how much you’ll get. Without being overly simplistic about it, I feel that Len Bias’s story made me take a hard look at my life, and I began to feel that, maybe, my life was getting away from me. I was 30, and I needed to get going.
When I suggested the idea of marriage to Carol, she thought I was joking. Then she was shocked.
Then she said, “Really?”
And I said, “Yes.”
I didn’t have a ring or get down on my knees either. It was two friends agreeing to go into uncharted waters together. We got married on May 23, 1987.
Carol’s kidney disease meant she had to take very good care of herself. She was on the waiting list for a kidney transplant, and she wanted to be the best candidate she could be. She had one of those personalized dialysis machines that she used three times a day. It ran this liquid through her body, and it acted as a magnet and drew all the impurities out. This approach wasn’t for everybody because it was largely self-care at home. But it suited Carol, who now wanted to take charge of her health and live her life to the fullest. She was a far cry from the woman who had begun to withdraw from the world only a few years earlier.
But she didn’t want anyone to know. As a busy actress, engaged in collaborative work, it was tricky for her to conceal such a regular occurrence.
Once we got married, taking care of her and helping with her scheduling became my responsibility. I was around and could cover for her. If she and I were in a play that I was directing, I made sure that we had three breaks that would accommodate the 15 minutes she needed each time for dialysis. In 1989, we went on vacation to Jamaica. My priority was to make sure that all of her medical supplies arrived safely ahead of us.
My role was to take care of her.
Over time, I grew quite close to Frank Wittow. So close that Carol and I actually got married in the Academy Theatre, and he walked Carol down the aisle. Frank was a great actor and stage director and a wonderful, effective teacher.
During the time when I was working at the Academy, I also did regular work for two black theater companies, Jomandi Productions and Just Us Theatre. People still mention to me that the first time they saw me perform was with one of those black theater companies. We focused on the work of black writers, and it was a chance for me to stretch beyond the improv and community work and the more mainstream stuff we did on the big stage at the Academy. It says a lot about Frank that he would allow that sort of freelancing. He was serious about developing one’s craft and backed up his philosophy with giving me the chance to get in that extra work and make a little money.
In his efforts to teach and develop the members of his company, Frank would let different people direct plays as part of the season. By my eighth year, I had never been asked to direct a play. I was having success as an actor, so I was busy and productive, but after a while, I was burning to direct a play.
Finally, I spoke up about it to Frank. Beverly Trader was a playwright and friend of mine from Atlanta and had given me her play “The Wishing Place” to read. I liked it, told Frank about it, and he let me direct it at the Academy.
It was sort of an odd play. I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but it called for leaves to fall in a living room, snow to come in through a window, and there was music involved. It was a bit out there, but it allowed you to use every part of yourself and your experience. I used everything I had learned up to that point in this play. People came to see it, and I thought it was a very successful production. It ran in a 100-seat theater, and it was full for a few weekends. But at the end of it, Frank said at my annual review meeting, “Well, Ken, I don’t think you have the skills to direct, but we do want you back as an actor.”
‘HAIRSPRAY’ LIVE: A visit to the set with Kenny Leon
Frank’s reaction hurt on a few levels. First of all, I honestly felt that I had done a good job. Second, Frank had always told me he thought I was a great actor. His word, not mine. I was crushed that his interest in me staying on as an actor prevented him from really seeing what I did as a director. I had the feeling that he wanted me to get the directing bug out of my system because he really needed me as an actor.
After a few days, I decided that the Academy Theatre, after eight years, was no longer the best place for me to develop. It was no longer a place I could be myself. I felt drawn to directing, but Frank made it clear he saw me only as an actor. It was obvious to me.
But I loved and respected Frank, and we were close friends. I knew I could be honest with him and preserve our friendship. I told him that I wanted to pursue directing and that I did not want to come back only as an actor. He understood, and we parted amicably.
A year later, Leon was named associate artistic director of the Alliance Theatre, the largest regional theater in the South. By 1990, he was named artistic director.
I was in a pretty good place. I was running the major theater company in Atlanta, and my wife was the top actress in town. No one made any charges of nepotism because, frankly, everyone wanted to work with her. I’d have been a fool not to have Carol work with us at the Alliance.
Christmas Day in 1991 brought the most amazing gift, but one that would change everything.
That day, the hospital called to say there was a kidney available for Carol. And after she received the kidney, her life changed. And so did mine.
She reclaimed her independence and, to be honest, didn’t really need me to navigate her medical issues and the accommodations that went along with them. But, as we soon discovered, my playing that role was instrumental in maintaining the closeness of our relationship, our marriage.
Her attitude, however subtle and below the surface, was: OK. Now I’m back to myself. I don’t need all this help.
What this transformation showed was that, in the end, we were the greatest of friends. And we probably should have just remained friends.
As usually happens, things got tough when we had to break apart. I didn’t like doing it, but I also knew it was long overdue. I walked down the stairs with a television under my arm. I gave her the house and everything else.
On one level, she understood it. But when I actually left and the divorce was final in 1998, some anger set in on her part. When we first got divorced, we went through a period in which she didn’t want to have much to do with me.
Time passed, and we saw or heard very little of each other. It was for the best. But in November 2006, I got a call from Carol’s dear friend Debbie Barber, who was Carol’s health care guardian and the executor of her estate. Carol’s kidney had begun to fail, and she was in a serious state. Carol was in the hospital and wanted me to visit. Maybe for one last time.
I arrived at the hospital the week of Thanksgiving. By then Carol was in a coma. As we stood in Carol’s room, Debbie gave me the rest of the story.
“Kenny, they want to undo all the machines,” she said through tears. “They want to pull everything, but I just can’t do it. They’re saying, basically, she’s brain-dead, but I know she’s still here. I know what they mean, and I have to do something. But I don’t want to do it now because I don’t want to remember Carol this way every year at Thanksgiving.”
I said, “OK. Step out of the room, and let me handle this.” Now I’m alone with Carol, and I start talking to her. “Yo, Carol. I know we’ve been through some shit. But one thing we do know is that we love each other.”
Her eyes are closed, and she’s still. The only sound in the room is the hiss and whirr of the machines keeping her alive.
“Look. All I know is if you want to fight for your life, then you need to do it now. They’re getting ready to shut these machines down. Let’s have this be your decision. If you’re ready to go, then release. But if you’re not, you have to show a sign. You have to let them know that you’re not ready to go.”
And then I left.
The next morning, I get a call from Debbie.
“Kenny, you will not believe this. The nurse just called me. She said when she came into the room, Carol opened her eyes and said, ‘Happy Thanksgiving!’”
Carol lived a little over two more years, passing away in January 2009. She stayed in that hospital for a bit longer and then moved to a rehabilitation center in Florida. She had to rebuild her strength and learn to walk again. I visited her there a few times and also visited her when Debbie brought her back to Atlanta near the end of her life, and I saw her just before she passed.
Carol was about 80 percent of herself those last years. She’d been through so much.
I was surprised to get that call about her coming out of the coma because I really thought she was slipping away. After that call, I thought, Well, she must have heard me! She did what I said. She told them, “I ain’t ready to go!” But that was Carol. Nobody told her where or when to go.
That story about Carol taught me about the spiritual life and how we’re here until we’re not here. I know she heard what I said, and I was glad for the chance to help her and let her have those last years.
We never really talked about that episode seriously. I would joke about it.
“You know, you was like outta here!”
And she would laugh. But she was not the same old Carol. She was bedridden, and we didn’t talk very deeply anymore. It’s not like we suddenly became best friends again.
She loved me, and I loved her. She was glad for those visits and was always happy to see me. Our friendship had taken so many turns, so it was nice that it ended in a gentle, loving way.
I don’t have any regrets about my story with Carol Mitchell, except for any pain I may have caused her. The best part of our relationship was the glue that made us the best friend either one of us ever had. I don’t know if she would have had the strength to take on those health issues if I wasn’t around. And she was a great source of stability in my life as I began my time at the Alliance Theatre, which was a big job that brought stress and uncertainty, as well as great opportunity, to my career. We were supposed to be together at that time to help each other navigate that time in our lives. The parting was difficult, but it didn’t lessen the importance and the value of the time we had together.
Excerpted from “Take You Wherever You Go” by Kenny Leon with John Hassan, Foreword by Samuel L. Jackson. Copyright © 2018 by KL Productions LLC. Reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, New York, NY. All rights reserved.