Lee, Leslie (E.) 1935-
LEE, Leslie (E.) 1935-
PERSONAL: Born 1935, in Bryn Mawr, PA. Education: University of Pennsylvania, B.S. (biology, English); Villanova University, M.A. (theater).
ADDRESSES: Home—250 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Offıce—Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, 721 Broadway, 7th Floor, New York, NY. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Samuel French, Inc., 45 West 25th St., New York, NY 10010-2751. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Writer. Worked as a medical technician at Valley Forge Army Hospital, PA, and as a bacteriologist at the Pennsylvania Department of Health; affiliated with La Mama E.T.C., New York, NY, 1969-70; College of Old Westbury, NY, instructor in play writing, 1975-76; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, playwright-in-residence, beginning 1980; Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center, New York, instructor in play writing; Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, instructor in dramatic writing. New York State Commission on the Arts, theater panelist, 1982-84; Negro Ensemble Company, coordinator for play writing workshop, 1985.
MEMBER: Writers Guild of America, Dramatists Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Rockefeller Foundation grant, 1966-68; Shubert Foundation grants, 1971, 1972; Off-Broadway Award, Village Voice, 1975; John Gassner Medallion, Outer Circle Critics Award, and Mississippi ETV Award, all for The First Breeze of Summer; Eugene O'Neill fellowship, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1982; National Black Film Consortium prize, 1984, for The Killing Floor; Isabelle Strickland Award for excellence in the fields of arts and human culture.
Elegy to a Down Queen (two-act), produced at La Mama, New York, NY, 1969.
Cops and Robbers (one-act), produced at La Mama, New York, NY, 1970.
As I Lay Dying, a Victim of Spring, produced in New York, NY, 1972.
The Night of the No-Moon, produced in New York, NY, 1973.
The War Party, produced in New York, NY, 1974.
Between Now and Then (two-act; produced in New York, NY, 1975), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1984.
The First Breeze of Summer (two-act; produced in New York, NY, 1975), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1975.
The Book of Lambert, produced in New York, NY, 1977.
Nothin' Comes Easy, produced at Village Gate, New York, NY, 1978.
(With June Carroll and Arthur Siegel) Life, Love, and Other Minor Matters (musical review), produced at Village Gate, New York, NY, 1980.
Colored People's Time (two-act; produced in New York, NY, 1982), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1983.
Willie (two-act); produced at National Playwrights' Conference, Waterford, CT, 1983. (With Charles Strouse and Lee Adams) Golden Boy (revision of the 1964 musical), produced in Brooklyn, NY, 1984.
The Wig Lady, produced in New York, NY, 1984.
Phillis (musical), music and lyrics by Micki Grant, produced at the Apollo Theatre, Harlem, New York, NY, 1986.
Hannah Davis, produced in New Brunswick, NJ, 1987.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (musical for children), produced at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, Brooklyn, NY, 1987.
The Rabbit Foot, (produced 1988; revised version produced in New York as Ground People, 1990), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1992.
Black Eagles (produced in New Brunswick, NJ), 1989), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1992.
Spirit North (two-act), produced in New Brunswick, NJ, 1998.
Legends, produced in St. Louis, MO, 2001.
The Day after Tomorrow (novella), Scholastic (New York, NY), 1974.
"Almos' a Man" (television play; adapted from the story by Richard Wright), The American Short Story, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), 1977.
"Summer Father," Vegetable Soup, (television; juvenile), PBS, 1978.
"The Killing Floor" (television play), American Playhouse, PBS, 1984.
(With Gus Edwards) Go Tell It on the Mountain (screenplay; based on the novel by James Baldwin), Learning in Focus, 1984.
Langston Hughes (television documentary) PBS, 1986.
Voice and Visions (television series), PBS, 1988.
Vernon Johns Story (television movie), USA, 1994.
(With Jill Janows) Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (television movie), USA, 2000.
(With others) Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey (television movie), USA, 2001.
Also author of novella Never the Time and Place, 1985.
ADAPTATIONS: The First Breeze of Summer was adapted for the PBS series Great Performances, 1976.
SIDELIGHTS: Playwright Leslie Lee's early works for the stage include The First Breeze of Summer, in which an elderly woman recalls through flashbacks her affairs with three different men. Lee dramatizes black families in transition and showcases their culture in such plays as Golden Boy and Colored People's Time. He has also written documentaries that celebrate the lives of such black notables as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Lee's more recent plays include Spirit North and Legends.
Lee was a fragile child who suffered from osteomyelitis, a bone disease that often required hospitalization. One of nine children, he read and wrote plays for his brothers and sisters. He told Emil Wilbekin of the New York Times that his writing "draws on the loneliness and isolation that I experienced in the hospital." Lee said that "the very first person to influence me was Richard Wright, because of the power and passion of his work. I realized, my God we can write as good as whites."
Lee's Black Eagles honors the company of World War II black fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee airmen; the unit was established at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. These men were more skilled than the white bomber pilots they escorted, but their service did not earn them the right to use the officers' clubs, and they were restricted by the prejudice of the period. Although they never lost a bomber, it was not until the end of the war that they were allowed to fight in combat, achieving an impressive record. The Tuskegee Airmen have ultimately been recognized for their valor, and Lee's powerful story moves in close to view the men as individuals. The story takes place at a reunion during which three members of the squadron remember their adventures and experiences. Writing in the New Yorker, Edith Oliver said that Black Eagles "is a memory play, impressionistically written; much of it is humorous, but the pressure of emotion underneath gives it strength."
In The Rabbit Foot Lee focuses on the performers in black minstrel shows such as the Rabbit Food Minstrels, which toured the South in the 1920s, brightening the lives of black sharecroppers. Featured entertainers included the great Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. The Rabbit Foot was revised and produced as Ground People; the stage was divided between the sharecroppers and the minstrels in this production version.
The main character in Ground People, Reggie, is a sharecropper. A World War I veteran, he fought in France and had an affair with a white woman, which he now admits to his wife, Berlinda. He tells only his grandmother, Viola, that he and his French lover had a child. The dignity and equality Reggie experienced overseas now embolden him to organize local farmers and demand more equality from their employer. The cast of the minstrel show performed as counterpoint to Reggie's story includes Singin' Willie Ford, the depressed and often drunk lead singer Bertha Mae Primrose, and performer Holly Day.
Mel Gussow noted in the New York Times that Lee's idea is "that the nomadic entertainers shared misfortunes similar to those of their rural kinsmen. The farmers and the minstrels were being drawn away from their roots to the opportunities of the industrial North, where they would face inevitable disillusionments." Gussow noted that, at the end of the drama, "the two halves of the play interact, in a touching encounter that makes it evident how valuable the minstrel shows were to those who were land trapped. It offered them illusions as well as entertainment."
Spirit North is set in the present time. Paul, an attorney, and his wife, Leila, an English teacher, plan to move from their suburban home to Harlem. Tension arises when Leila opposes Paul's defense of a black teen who is accused of murdering a white rabbinical student. Paul's own brother is serving a prison sentence in Attica, and Leila's mother is suffering from cancer. As the state of Paul and Leila's marriage becomes fragile, Leila considers aborting the child she is carrying, and the couple is also faced with sending a grandfather to a nursing home. Variety writer Robert L. Daniels reviewed the premier, commenting that "the most effective and appealing element is the performance of Ray Aranha as Grandpa, a semi-senile, retired vaudevillian who recalls his glory days on the circuit with vintage jokes. The playwright might have another play in the old comic."
Lee has created a number of productions for the St. Louis Black Repertory, one of which is Legends, which is based on true events that occurred not far from Lee's home in New York. The legends of the story are has-beens who now live in a hotel for transients. They include Martha Davenport, a dancer who came to New York from Atlanta with dreams of achieving stardom; Ruben Petit, a former jazz musician; and Othel Henry, who lives through his wartime memories. When the Hell's Angels descend on the hotel, terrorizing the residents and stealing Ruben's saxophone, it is Othel who takes charge and defends them all. Randy Gener wrote in American Theatre that "if anything, Legends harks back to the crumbling, sad-eyed grandeur of Tennessee Williams's purgatorial rap sessions, or Lanford Wilson's Hot L Baltimore, in which a potentially unwieldy ensemble converges into a chorus of lowlife naturalism."
Interviewer Judith Newmark remarked in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "Lee says that as a playwright, he's in a transitional period—less explicitly political than he has been in the past, more personal, more focused on character than on issues. His latest plays use smaller casts than he's called for in the past and tell more intimate stories." As Lee told Newmark, "I decided to get off my soapbox—well, for a while anyhow. Right now I am asking different questions, questions about why people do what they do, what happened to make them into the people that they are. I think that's usually an interesting question because it gets to the heart of drama. Drama makes ordinary people extraordinary for two hours."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Theatre, April, 2001, Randy Gener, review of Legends, p. 9.
Back Stage, May 10, 1991, David Sheward, review of Black Eagles, p. 30.
Chicago Sun-Times, February 19, 2002, Hedy Weiss, review of The Rabbit Foot, p. 39.
New York, May 6, 1991, John Simon, review of Black Eagles, pp. 108-110.
New Yorker, May 6, 1991, Edith Oliver, review of Black Eagles, p. 81.
New York Times, May 6, 1990, Peter Keepnews, review of Ground People; May 7, 1990, Mel Gussow, review of Ground People; April 21, 1991, Emil Wilbekin, review of Black Eagles.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 3, 2001, Judith Newmark, review of Legends, p. D3.
Variety, March 29, 1989, review of Golden Boy, p. 60; December 28, 1989, Hari, review of The Rabbit Foot, pp. 38, 40; April 22, 1991, Evan Remy, review of Black Eagles, p. 58; February 2, 1998, Robert L. Daniels, review of Spirit North, p. 47.*