Tony-nominated playwright Leslie Lee, who spent the majority of his years writing plays to better the African-American experience with the Negro Ensemble Company, died of congestive heart failure on January 20 in Manhattan, the New York Times reports. He was 83 years old.
Lee is probably best known for his Tony-nominated play and self-acknowledged autobiographical work, The First Breeze of Summer, which played at Broadway’s Palace Theater. The play tells the story of a black family in Pennsylvania whose ambitious younger son is emotionally unhinged when he learns past secrets of his highly respected grandmother.
Lee switched mid-career from wanting to be a doctor to studying playwriting at Villanova, taking on fellow legendary playwright David Rabe as a roommate. Upon graduation, he won various Audelco awards, given to black theater artists and productions. “One can be black and also many other things,” Lee said in a 1975 interview, “I want to expand the thinking of blacks about themselves.”
The Tony nominee's other works, which were mostly produced off-Broadway or on regional stages include Black Eagles, Ground People, Blues in a Broken Tongue, The War Party, The Book of Lambert, Colored People’s Time and a collaboration with Bye Bye Birdie creators Charles Strouse and Lee Adams to create an updated version of Golden Boy.
The First Breeze of Summer was revived in 2008 off-Broadway by the Signature Theater Company, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. “He captured African-American life with all its frailties and all its power,” Santiago-Hudson told the Times of Lee, “Leslie wasn’t only poetic; he was authentic.”
Lee is survived by a brother and three sisters: Elbert, Evelyn Lee Collins, Grace Lee Wall and Alma Lee Coston.