Kenny Leon's Speech to Grantmakers in the Arts

On June 2, 2015, Kenny Leon presented the following as a keynote address at the Grantmakers in the Arts Racial Equity Forum in Atlanta, Georgia.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —

I, too, am America.
— Langston Hughes.

It is indeed a glorious and joyous pleasure to be here with you today, Grantmakers in the Arts. You have a big job, a major responsibility, but as James Baldwin once said, “The challenge is in the moment — the time is always now.” So let’s seize the moment.

I applaud you on your Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy Statement of Purpose – to increase arts funding for African, Latino, Asian, Arab and Native American artists, arts organizations, children and adults… “All people, their culture and their arts contribute to the meaning and understanding of our humanity, and should be honored and celebrated.” That’s what you say.

So I am here today to give you courage and passion to carry out the mission you so boldly have begun. And in our time today I hope to share insight and perspective as a soldier in your army of artists and philanthropists impacting the world through our efforts. Maybe some of my experiences will help to clarify the picture. May we see something that lifts our weight as we all explore together the possibilities of our artistic reach.

You see, I grew up in a poor family in Tallahassee, FL, raised primarily by my grandmother and mother. Without the support of programs like Upward Bound, I would have never stepped onto a college campus. The NEA and TCG allowed me a tremendous opportunity when I was selected as a member of their director Fellowship program, and had the opportunity to observe professional directors and designers at some great regional theatres. As an early career director, I had the necessary private and governmental funding to work in the prison system and with the homeless population – so not only did I serve those populations, but I further grew as an artist as I created art to give voice to dreams.

I have had tremendous blessings. I served as artistic director of a major theatre company in the South. While there, receiving the financial support to impact issues of race and class. I have served as a founder of a smaller theater company in the South. I have been blessed to have directed 10 Broadway shows in the commercial world, up North, in NY. I have also directed episodic television and many made-for-television films, out West. And on December 3rd, I will be directing a live musical version of THE WIZ for NBC.

I have helped to create a world-class opera and I have worked at almost every major regional theatre company in America. And I don’t know everything, but I have learned some things along the way:

For instance, I’ve learned that an unrestricted $50k gift is precious and far more impactful than a restricted $5k gift.

I’ve learned that multi-year grants are a blessing, saving our human resources from constantly reapplying and instead making new relationships. Multi-year grants also demonstrate that you trust me to manage your money and to do what I said I was going to do. At some level, funding is about faith and trust. Trust is trust. And I’ve been all around and learned that some of the smaller organizations are more smartly managed than some of the larger infrastructures — no offense.

I’ve learned that we need courage. Courage to look at things differently. Every life should have equal value. We cannot be afraid to put an economic price tag on equality.

We need to have the courage to say, “When it comes to equality, we are not there yet.” We are where we are; and that’s a good thing if we know where we are.

I’ve learned that rewarding the largest infrastructure only empowers that infrastructure. In this multiracial, multicultural world, we process information and systems differently — our arts and spirits are shaped differently. Individual artists can contribute just as much as artists who thrive in institutions.

We can develop systems that reward in as many different ways as there are people on the planet. Arts funding must acknowledge our differences; we must continue to engage ways to not just reward excellence, but build excellence. We can incite it, we can induce it, and we must uphold it.

I have met many of you – some of you are friends, some of you I only know from the other end of a telephone line, or by your signature on a piece of paper sharing good news or wishing me, “Better luck next time.” But I know we are on the same team. I know, like you, that deep down, we all know that our arts are the soul and conscience of the people. We know our beauty is in our diversity and our democracy. And we have to accept the fact that, sometimes we won’t see the fruits of our labor.

I have discovered as a director many times the beauty is in the doing of the process. Do what’s right. Sometimes it’s hard, I know, but right ain’t never wrong, and right don’t wrong nobody.

Now is the time for arts professionals and arts philanthropists to lead – to courageously seek solutions to what would impact and inspire a more beautiful country. Some of us direct, some of act, some of us stitch, some of us create and find resources, some of us manage the money, but it takes all of us to reach our potential to be that great country.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all. “Under God” was added in 1954.

As cultural custodians, as stewards of the arts in America you are on the right road with your statement of purpose on racial equality – and you can speak passionately and confidently about that purpose. Let’s hear all of America. Let’s see all of America. Let’s paint all of America. Let’s create all of America. For all of America.

I took a train trip from NYC to Pennsylvania, a few weeks before the horrible Amtrak crash. And my heart goes out to all those people. But one can learn a lot on a train trip if you turn off the iPhone and iPad, put down the newspaper and just sit down and listen and look out the window. As we hit Pennsylvania, I realized there is a lot to witness between Philly and Pittsburgh; even just in the one state of Pennsylvania, or as a gentleman (scientist) who sat next to me referred to the land between those two popular cities — “Pennsyltucky!”

I believe he was Native American but I couldn’t be sure. He defined “Pennsyltucky” as the political and ideological difference among the people of Pennsylvania, with a wink and a nod to the neighboring Kentucky. We spoke for miles about the vast differences among the people and their politics — “Blue and Red states within the one State;” their sports allegiances; their economic disparities; their different views on arts and education… What a trip. I saw America that day, or let’s say, I saw a glimpse of America.

Wow, three women tending to the soil on a farm – a big farm – their colorful scarves around their neck, blowing in the wind. I will always remember that image: hands in the brown earth against a backdrop of beauty – with yellow, blue and orange fabric flying free around their necks. Oh beautiful…

The train moves on. There is a horse drawn carriage – Ahh, Amish country, I conclude.

The train moves on. On a hillside is the largest American flag I have ever seen; it has to be as wide as a football field. How can the wind even lift it like that? It waves and waves as we ride by.

There is a junkyard. All that scrap iron. Bent and twisted cars. That’s art without even trying. Some Americans made money off of that years ago.

And as we ride I see so many telegram poles – Who put those in the ground? My mind wanders… Who laid the track we are riding on?

WE RIDE ON. There is some beautiful graffiti on the side of a bridge. Who did that? Who created that art? And how did they get up there?

Next stop, Johnston. A family of eight gets on the train. Where is this family of European ancestry headed? “Somebody going where somebody just came from.” – That’s from The Piano Lesson by August Wilson.

My dear friend, the late, great August Wilson, who died in 2005, delivered a speech to TCG in 1996 entitled “The Ground on Which I Stand.” Time will not permit me to adequately address the many points of agreement and disagreement of that wonderfully laid out speech, but I will quote him in an effort to serve our talk today, as it also echoes some of my personal feelings.

Speaking as a Black American artist, August says:

“We did not sit on the sidelines while the immigrants of Europe through hard work, skill, cunning, guile, and opportunity built America into an industrial giant of the 20th century. It was our labor in the shipyards and the stockyards and coalmines and the railroads. And when America was challenged, we strode on the battlefield, our boots strapped on and our blood left to soak into the soil of places whose names we could not pronounce, against an enemy whose only crime was ideology. We left our blood in France, and Korea, and the Philippines, and Vietnam; and our only reward has been the deprivation of possibility and the denial of our moral personality.

“We can meet on the common ground of the American Theatre… We cannot share a single value system if that values system consists of the values of white Americans based on their European ancestors. We reject that as Cultural Imperialism. We need a value system that includes our contributions as Africans in America. Our agendas are as valid as yours. We may disagree, we may forever be on opposite sides of aesthetics, but we can only share a value system that is inclusive of all Americans and recognizes their unique and valuable contributions. We must develop the ground together.” – August Wilson

All America must one day own up to the truth and facts of our history – only then can we move on to our beautiful, authentic future together. Not just the Black and White history but the Brown and Yellow past as well.

On the train that day, a vision popped into my head. I saw a man standing with a suitcase in his hand – in that land of “Pennsyltucky.” Then I imagined that man as myself – Kenny Leon. Standing, holding a suitcase.

I started to imagine that countryside sprinkled with Americans holding suitcases. Some of my White brothers had their suitcases on the ground, and were walking around comfortably, and relaxed.

Then, I saw my Native American brothers and sisters with their suitcases, but they were running around, running in circles, with closed suitcases, inside of which I imagined were land deeds of ownership, promises from Federal authorities, hundreds of thousands of keys to unknown buildings.

I saw my Latino brother kneeling to open his suitcase, but constantly looking over his shoulder, never quite trusting he had the freedom to do so.

I saw an Arab brother with a suitcase. His was tucked under his arm and he was holding on to it so tightly, not wanting to risk losing it.

All of these Americans were wrapped in American flags. Then I noticed them staring at me. They wanted to know: What was inside my suitcase?

I said to them, “Inside my suitcase is a copy of the Constitution, Emancipation papers, and my passbook from the slave ship; my baptismal papers, a giant mirror and a note from Shakespeare “to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.”

Also in the suitcase is a death threat letter I received after I was named artistic director of that major theatre company in the South; along with the scale of justice, clothes and personal toiletries; a key to the country – whatever that means; and atop all of that, written on a piece of paper in bold letters, “Do more for others than you do for yourself.”

I said to them, “You see, I want to sit and unpack my suitcase, the good and the bad. I want to put stuff in the dresser drawer of life with mints by my pillow – surrounded by the beauty that is all of us – White, Brown, Yellow, Red, Black and shades yet unimagined – and share life stories with all of you. Because we are God’s gift to each other.”

Because I too sing America; I want every citizen to be able to unlock their suitcase, unpack their stuff, settle in and be at home. And when everyone is home with shoes kicked off, telling their stories, then and only then, can we take a deep breath, own our past and declare this country FINALLY equal with Liberty and Justice for All.

The challenge is in the moment my friends; the time is always now. All people – their culture and their arts – contribute to the meaning and understanding of our humanity. Our words need help. Our words are calling us to action. All of us must report for duty, to deliver a more inclusive, diversified, well-funded, artistic America.