The First Breeze of Summer is the first play out of the hopper in Signature Theatre Company's season-long salute to 40 years of Negro Ensemble Company productions.
Drawn by Leslie Lee from an authentic boyhood wound, the drama is one of three NEC works to go to Broadway. Although it played the Palace only 48 performances in the summer of '75 at the top of the season, at the end of it the discerning Tony-nominating committee warmly remembered it with a nod for Best Play of 1975–76.
In its current resurrection (Aug. 5–Sept. 28), Leslie Uggams stars as a poetical approximation of Lee's own adored granny, who, it developed (in real life, posthumously), had a shady-lady past, with a son to show for her three love affairs. The anguished confrontation between the matriarch and the emotionally bruised and betrayed grandson in the play is, cathartically, what the playwright imagines he would have said to her had he only discovered her secret life while she was alive.
Between these two Summers is an August of important note — August Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize winner whose ten-play cycle embraced every single decade of African American life in the 20th century — and part of the armada of "August Actors" who have played them was recruited here to bring resonance to a black voice before Wilson's. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, director of the play and associate director of this series, earned his Tony for Wilson's Seven Guitars and cast accordingly — from King Hedley II (Uggams, Sandra Daley, Keith Randolph Smith), Seven Guitars (Brenda Pressley), Radio Golf (John Earl Jelks) and, for the two actual brothers who play brothers, Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Brandon Dirden) and Two Trains Running (Jason Dirden).
"Once you become one of August Wilson's actors, you are family," insists Uggams, a Tony candidate for King Hedley II. "Ruben and I have connected because of this. I'm excited he's directing it. I love directors who have been actors because there's something about that journey that makes it very easy to communicate with other actors."
Although primarily known as a musical performer, Uggams (who studied with Stella Adler) was an actress first, having been one for 59 of her 65 years. She grew up with early television, trouping with Maurice Hines on Milton Berle's show, watching Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner throw together a skit for her for "Your Show of Shows," singing along with Mitch while, next door, Laurence Olivier was doing "The Power and the Glory." When she hit the Main Stem, it was as a bouncing, Tony-winning Broadway baby (Hallelujah, Baby!, actually).
Nowadays, the Hallelujah baby is two-deep in granny roles (2005's On Golden Pond, with "the divine James Earl Jones," is the other), but her elegant cheekbones and radiant smile belie the years, making her seem ripe and stage-ready for her next role — Lena Horne in Stormy Weather, a bio-drama bowing in January at the Pasadena Playhouse. Her good looks also imply a grandmother with a sexy history.
This granny, admits Uggams, "raises a real question: Is it better to hold on to your secrets and spare people? When they come out, they're often worse than if you had sat down and said, 'Listen, I've made mistakes in life.' It's what makes you human."
But, as Jerry Herman says, Time Heals Everything — and, when playwright Lee saw a reprise of Breeze recently in Chicago, he saw a different show. No longer the play of a bitterly disillusioned boy, it now belonged to the assailed and unsinkable granny who wins, simply, with: "Don't fault me for my feelings. I got my feelings."
"I began to realize that I didn't know what I had written," Lee confesses. "It took me years, but I now know what the play is about. Initially, I saw how it was a confession, a purging of guilt. This time, it was about dislocation — finding one's self and being one's self — about waste. The play had more universality than I realized. It's inviting everyone in to share it as opposed to being a play that's unlocking a closet of family skeletons, afraid of being ostracized — which I was, since it was autobiographical."
It's his second most autobiographical play. His first, The Book of Lambert, will open at La MaMa ETC in February. "It's about a group of quirky people who live in the subterranean depths of NYC's subway system," says this NYU instructor who teaches undergraduates screenwriting and playwriting when he's not actually and actively involved in those endeavors. "I relate to it because it is a psychological homelessness. It's not really the physical act of living in the subway system. It's like Gorky's The Lower Depths — that deep, dark place where we take ourselves and live because we're in denial of something that's important. Denial can do that for these people — to deny, to not acknowledge, to turn one's back to the light, seeking darkness. The light means a certain amount of acknowledgement and admission.
"That's what the play fundamentally is about. It's a different way of expressing what's in The First Breeze of Summer — people seeking light. It's like trying to fill the void between reality and God's will. That's what all my plays are about, basically."