Behind Kenny Leon's Efforts to Make Sure Students Have Access to Broadway | Playbill

Education News Behind Kenny Leon's Efforts to Make Sure Students Have Access to Broadway

Purlie Victorious welcome 2,500 students to the show, and they got to meet the cast.

Students at Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch MS 343 / Situation Project

Playbill has partnered with Inspired to create and amplify stories of inspiration that advocate for access to arts and cultural experiences for young people across the country. The following article is written by the team at Situation Project and adapted from their online publication Inspired. Click here to learn more.

Last Tuesday, April 30, the Broadway community buzzed with anticipation as Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Renée Elise Goldsberry, both Tony Award winners, stepped up to announce the nominations for the 77th Annual Tony Awards. Among the esteemed nominees, Kenny Leon was honored with a Tony nomination for directing the revival of Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch. While this was a significant achievement for Leon as a director, marking his fourth Tony nomination for Best Direction of a Play, it also marked a deeper, if lesser-known, victory for arts education and opportunity equity across New York City's public schools.

Leon, often hailed as one of Broadway's most impactful forces, has long been an advocate for broadening access to the arts. “We want to get our young people, our young students in here so they can learn about their history, know their history...and come laugh and feel good about being human,” Leon said during his curtain speech on Purlie’s opening night. “I think the play allows us to do that.”

Students at Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch Situation Project

In partnership with the Department of Education and Situation Project, Leon and the entire Purlie team created an education initiative that provided nearly 2,500 NYC students from across 36 public schools from all five boroughs a unique opportunity to experience this powerful play on Broadway. With subsidized tickets and comprehensive support from various sponsors and partners, this initiative ensured that for many students, this was their first exposure to Broadway. The students received free copies of the published script and a study guide to deepen their understanding of the play's themes and history.

Moreover, student talkbacks were organized after performances, allowing the youngsters to interact directly with the cast, further enhancing their engagement and learning experience. One memorable event was an in-depth panel conversation featuring Leslie Odom, Jr. and Kara Young (both of whom received Tony nominations for their performances in Purlie), as well as Purlie actor Jay O. Sanders and Dr. Hasna Muhammad, educator, advocate, and daughter of playwright Ossie Davis and actress Ruby Dee. The event took place at LaGuardia High School.

Kara Young with students at Purlie Victorious: A Non-Confederate Romp Through the Cotton Patch Situation Project

While Leon may be known more for his work as a director, his influence on audience development and education through initiatives like this is nothing short of incredible. And Purlie is only one of many examples of this kind of powerful work. During the run of the Tony Award-winning revival of Topdog/Underdog in 2022, which Leon also directed, the production welcomed over 4,000 NYC students. They all saw the production free of charge.

As Tony voters and viewers alike enjoy the success of Purlie Victorious, it's important to remember that the arts are not a luxury. Rather, they are a vital part of education and personal development. In a city as diverse and dynamic as New York, it’s key that our cultural landscape reflects this richness.

Leon walks that walk, opening the doors of Broadway to the next generation, advocating for a program that not only entertains but educates and inspires. In a post-pandemic world where arts programs face cuts, initiatives like these underscore the profound impact of arts in education and the importance of maintaining access for all students.

Inspired was created by Situation Project 501(c)3.

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