Leslie Lee, Playwright of the African-American Experience, Dies at 83

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24 Jan 2014

Leslie Lee, a playwright who chronicled the modern African-American experience in America, and a mainstay artist at the Negro Ensemble Company, died Jan. 20 in Manhattan. He was 83.



Mr. Lee's first produced work at NEC—and probably his best-known play overall—was The First Breeze of Summer, which bowed in March 1975, when the company was a decade old. Directed by NEC's founder, Douglas Turner Ward, the cast featured Charles Brown, Frances Foster, Moses Gunn and Lou Myers.

A naturalistic, autobiographical, family drama set in Pennsylvania—where Mr. Lee was born—it told of a young man who uncovers some disturbing family secrets from his grandmother, a women he reveres. "Both playwright and director have avoided simple stereotypes, and the people in the play emerge as richly complex human beings," wrote the New York Times.

It won three Obie Awards, including one for Best New American Play. Mr. Lee also won the John Gassner Award, given out by the Outer Critics Circle. The play then transferred to Broadway, where it ran a month and was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play.

When, in 2008, the Signature Theatre Company decided to devote a season to the legacy of the Negro Ensemble Company, it restaged Summer. The production, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, once again won a host of honors, this time from the Audelco Awards.

At that time, Mr. Lee hadn't had a New York production since 1991, when Manhattan Theatre Club staged his Black Eagles, about black fighter pilots in Italy in World War II. Other plays by Mr. Lee included Ground People, The War Party and Colored People's Time.

Leslie Earl Lee was born Nov. 6, 1930, in Bryn Mawr, PA. He studied English and biology at the University of Pennsylvania. For a time, he worked as a hospital medical technician and took on various other medical positions. In the mid-1960s, however, he began to study playwriting at Villanova University.

One of nine children, he is survived by a brother and three sisters.