This is Leon’s first time directing at the Steppenwolf Theater. When he was contacted last October, Leon, a Tony-winning director whose most recent Broadway production was “A Soldier’s Play” in 2020, already had about a half-dozen projects in the works, including upcoming Broadway productions of Adrienne Kennedy’s “The Ohio State Murders,” starring Audra McDonald, and a revival of “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death,” Melvin Van Peebles’s 1971 musical. (Leon, 66, also runs the True Colors Theater Company, which is based in Atlanta.)
But he said he jumped at the chance to oversee the production after its previous director, Anna D. Shapiro, resigned as the Steppenwolf’s artistic director in August. (Davis and Audrey Francis, both Steppenwolf ensemble members, replaced Shapiro as artistic directors.)
“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to work with a living playwright on a new play that you think is beautiful and will have a great life,” Leon said as he nursed a cocktail after a rehearsal late last month. “The last time was when I worked with August Wilson on his last play, “Radio Golf,” leading up to the Broadway production [which opened in 2007].”
The value of having Joseph in the room for rehearsals, Leon said, was that if he didn’t understand a character’s motivations for doing something, he could ask.
“A lot of Rajiv reminds me of August,” Leon said. “I can tell him what I feel. Even if I’m hating a moment, he can embrace that and go down the hall and rewrite it.”
And there were plenty of nips, tweaks and tucks to the script in the month leading up to the first performance. It was especially helpful, Joseph said, to have Perfetti’s perspective as an N.B.A. outsider in a play with some deeply insider references. (The Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s use of Comic Sans font in his letter to Cleveland fans after James’s departure, in which he lambasted James for his “disloyalty,” gets a shout.)
“There’s lots of lines in the play where he was like, ‘Why am I saying this?’,” Joseph said of Perfetti. “And some of those lines were cut because of that.”