Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Leslie Lee, African American Playwright

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Leslie Lee Carmen L. de Jesus

Leslie Lee, a playwright whose award-winning work, much of it with the Negro Ensemble Company, focused on stretching the boundaries of the African-American experience as it was portrayed on the stage, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was congestive heart failure, Heather Massie, a friend, said.
Over four decades, Mr. Lee wrote more than two dozen stage works, scouring American history for his subjects and characters. In “Black Eagles,” he wrote about black fighter pilots in Italy in World War II. In “Ground People” (originally titled “The Rabbit Foot”), he wrote about Southern black sharecroppers and visiting minstrel-show performers in the 1920s.
In “Blues in a Broken Tongue,” the daughter of a family that had moved to Russia in the 1930s as an escape from racism discovers a pile of recordings by Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and others and reconsiders her heritage. An early play, “The War Party,” was about the conflicts within a community civil rights organization in the 1960s.

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A scene from the 2008 revival of his play, “The First Breeze of Summer,” by the Signature Theater Company. The 1975 Broadway production was nominated for a Tony. Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

In “The Book of Lambert,” written in the 1970s and set contemporaneously on an abandoned New York subway platform, a black intellectual has been reduced to despair by the loss of the white woman he loves. In “Colored People’s Time,” Mr. Lee presented a century of black history, from the Civil War to the dawn of the civil rights movement, in a pageantlike parade of vignettes.
“One can be black and also many other things,” Mr. Lee said in a 1975 interview about his writerly concerns. “I want to expand the thinking of blacks about themselves.”
Most of Mr. Lee’s work was produced Off Broadway and on regional stages, though his best-known play, “The First Breeze of Summer” (1975), appeared on Broadway, at the Palace Theater, after moving from the St. Mark’s Playhouse, then the home of the Negro Ensemble Company, in the East Village. It was nominated for a Tony Award for best play. (Tom Stoppard’s “Travesties” was the winner.)
“The First Breeze of Summer” tells the story of a middle-class black family in Pennsylvania whose ambitious and sensitive younger son is emotionally derailed when he learns the past secrets of the grandmother he reveres. Mr. Lee acknowledged that it was an autobiographical work. And at a time when black theater was often polemical, it was notable for its naturalistic drama and its probing of family dynamics and character.
That it had its debut in an earlier era, both theatrically and journalistically, was evident in Walter Kerr’s review in The New York Times.
“For all the explicitly black experience detailed in ‘The First Breeze of Summer,’ ” Mr. Kerr wrote near the conclusion of an unqualified rave that was redolent of surprise, “I have rarely seen a play at which someone who is not black can feel so completely at home.”
Leslie Earl Lee was born on Nov. 6, 1930, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., and grew up nearby in West Conshohocken, one of nine children. His mother, the former Clementine Carter, was a homemaker; his father, John Henry Lee, like the patriarch in “First Breeze,” was a plastering contractor.
Mr. Lee studied English and biology at the University of Pennsylvania — he thought he would be a doctor — and worked as a hospital medical technician, as a bacteriologist for the state health department and as a researcher for Wyeth, the pharmaceutical company, before abandoning his scientific pursuits in the mid-1960s to study playwriting at Villanova University. (For a time, his roommate was David Rabe, who went on to his own award-winning playwriting career).
Mr. Lee taught writing at several colleges, including New York University, and wrote several television scripts, including an adaptation of Richard Wright’s short story “Almos’ a Man.” “The First Breeze of Summer” was broadcast as part of the “Great Performances” series on public television.

His other stage work includes two collaborations with the composer Charles Strouse and the lyricist Lee Adams, creators of “Bye Bye Birdie,” “Applause” and other shows. Together they updated another Strouse-Adams show, “Golden Boy,” the 1964 musical based on Clifford Odets’s boxing drama; the newer version, with Mr. Lee’s book, was presented in 1989 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida.
The three men also worked on a musical about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that follows Dr. King from his teenage years in Atlanta to the Montgomery bus boycott of the 1950s. The show had its premiere Off Broadway at the Kraine Theater in 2011.
Mr. Lee won numerous Audelco Awards, given to black theater artists and productions. He was married once and divorced. He is survived by a brother, Elbert, and three sisters, Evelyn Lee Collins, Grace Lee Wall and Alma Lee Coston.
In 2008, “The First Breeze of Summer” was revived Off Broadway by the Signature Theater Company in a production that starred Leslie Uggams and was directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson.

Tony Award-nominated Playwright Leslie Lee passed away at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City due to complications from congestive heart failure on January 20, 2014, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as he was making final revisions to his musical about King (written in collaboration with Charles Strouse), currently titled Before the Dream.
Playwright Leslie Lee was born in Bryn Mawr, PA on November 6, 1930. He was Executive Director of the Negro Ensemble Company and a founding artist of La Mama E.T.C. He was also Signature Theatre's Playwright-in-Residence during the 2008-2009 Season celebrating the Historic Negro Ensemble Company. His plays have been produced both on and off Broadway, and he wrote extensively for film and television.
Signature Theatre's Founding Artistic Director James Houghton said, "Leslie was a beloved member of the Signature family. His significant contribution to the American theatre was at the forefront of giving voice and insight into a severely underrepresented part of our community. His generosity of spirit, his humor, and his irresistible smile will be deeply missed by all who were lucky enough to know him."
After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and English from The University of Pennsylvania, Lee worked for several years in cancer research at Wyeth Laboratories in Villanova, PA. He earned his Master of Arts degree in Theatre from Villanova University.
Lee taught for The Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing Program at the NYU Tisch School the Arts, MiddleSex Community College, Hunter College, Wesleyan College, Rutgers University, The New School University, Goddard College, The Negro Ensemble Company, and The Frederick Douglas Playwriting Workshop. In 2008, the U.S. Department of State sent Mr. Lee as a Cultural Envoy to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to teach Playwriting at the Intwasa Arts Festival.
His acclaimed play The First Breeze of Summer, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and starring Leslie Uggams, enjoyed a successful revival in 2008 at Signature Theatre, winning nine Audelco Awards. The First Breeze of Summer was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and went on to win an Obie Award for Best New American Play as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award. Subsequently, the play moved to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where it received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Many of his plays have been produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, the Black Rep in St. Louis, and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey. His plays include The War Party, Colored People's Time, Blues in a Broken Tongue, The Rabbit's Foot, Black Eagles, Elegy to a Down Queen, Cops and Robbers, Hannah Davis, The Ninth Wave, The Book of Lambert, Mina, Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things and the musicals Golden Boy with songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and Phillis with Micki Grant. His new musical Before The Dream, written with Charles Strouse, had a recent reading in New York.
Lee's television and film work includes The Vernon Johns Story, with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice; Two Mothers, Two Sons; The Killing Floor, with Alfre Woodard and Moses Gunn; and adaptations of Richard Wright's short story Almos' A Man, with LeVar Burton, and The First Breeze of Summer. His documentary work includes Langston Hughes, the Dreamkeeper; The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment; Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey; and Culture Shock: Huckleberry Finn.

Lee received several awards during his career, including the Arthur Miller Outstanding Playwright's Award from the University of Michigan, the National Black Theater Festival August Wilson Playwriting Award, the Isabelle Strickland Award for Excellence in the Field of the Arts, and the Joe A. Callahan Award. He received a Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, a Shubert Foundation Playwriting Grant, and a Mississippi TV Award. He received special mention for an award among Black Film-Makers. He was honored with The Knights of Columbus and Kappa Alpha Psi Awards, and on the Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts Walk of Fame. Mr. Lee was named a Kentucky Colonel. Most recently his career was celebrated by two Audelco Awards and the NAACP Image Award.

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