By Dwight Hobbes
Lesli Lee, one of America’s most significant Black playwrights prior to the emergence of August Wilson, died January 20 in Manhattan at 83 of congestive heart failure.
Lee is best known for his Obie Award-winning and Tony-nominated drama about middle-class life, The First Breeze of Summer (Negro Ensemble Company). The original cast included company founder Douglas Turner Ward, Frances Foster and Moses Gunn. Not until Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Fuller and later Wilson was another African American author similarly accomplished.
A 2008 revival of The First Breeze of Summer (Signature Theatre Company), directed by noted actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson, won honors at the prestigious Audelco Awards. Also produced by NEC was his well-received drama Colored People’s Time featuring Jackee Harry, Robert Gossett and Debbi Morgan. The First Breeze of Summer and Colored People’s Time are published by Samuel French, Inc.
Throughout his career, Lee remained closely associated with the Negro Ensemble Company. Douglas Turner Ward directed Black Eagles, his drama based on the famed Tuskeegee Airmen, at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It ran at Penumbra Theatre Company in 2001 directed by artistic director Lou Bellamy.
Among his television scripts were the Great Performances production of The First Breeze of Summer (PBS), The Vernon Johns Story starring James Earl Jones, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain for American Playhouse, Another World (NBC), and the PBS documentary Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey.
He taught several years at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center (NYC) and at New York University. In addition to the Tony, Obie and Audelco awards, Lee was recipient of a Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, a Shubert Foundation Playwriting Grant, and an Outer Circle Critics award.
Leslie Earl Lee was born Nov. 6, 1930 in Bryn Mawr, PA. and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He studied playwriting at Villanova University. He married once and divorced. One of nine children, he is survived by his brother Elbert Lee and sisters Evelyn Lee Collins, Grace Lee Wall and Alma Lee Coston.