Categories
Long Form

Keepers of the Dream

By Karu F. Daniels

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Since his April 4, 1968 assassination, the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has lived on in pop culture through a multitude of projects spanning film, television, music and theater.

On Broadway, the iconic Civil Rights Movement leader’s likeness, message and “dream” has been brought to life in various forms throughout the decades.

In September 1976, Billy Dee Williams appeared as King in the original play “I Have a Dream,” which was presented as an evening of music based on the life and words from the slain activist’s most famous speech of the same name. 

Conceived by Robert Greenwald (who directed “Me and Bessie”) with a book adapted by Josh Greenfield, the production played 88 performances with eight previews at the Ambassador Theatre. 

Presented with special arrangement with Mrs. Coretta Scott King and Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Social Change, the play told the story of King’s life from 1955, when he helped to lead the bus boycott Montgomery, Ala., until 1968, when he was murdered Memphis.

Featuring 12 gospel and civil rights songs used to separate the scenes, “I Have A Dream” also starred Judyann Elder, Leata Galloway, Ramona Brooks, Clinton Derricks-Carroll, Sheila Ellis and Millie Foster.

Billy Dee Williams

For Williams – a big Hollywood attraction at that point thanks to the success of his starring roles in the Diana Ross-led feature films “Lady Sings The Blues” and “Mahogany” – “I Have A Dream” marked is return to The Great White Way after an absence of 10 years.

Billy Lee Williams & Harrison Ford in Star Wars

The New York City native, who went on to gain international notoriety as Lando Calrissian in the “Star Wars” franchise, was last seen on the Broadway stage in 1967’s “Hallelujah Baby” with Leslie Uggams, which won five 1968 Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

After his legacy would become the subject if numerous television films throughout the succeeding decades – starring Paul Winfield, James Earl Jones, Robert Guillaume, Clifton Powell, Courtney B. Vance,  and Jeffrey Wright, among others – his powerful presence was revived on the great stage when Samuel L. Jackson made his Broadway debut in Katori Hall’s anticipated play “The Mountaintop” in October 2011.

Directed by Kenny Leon (with Kamilah Forbes serving as Assistant Director), the two-hander play, also starring Angela Bassett, was set in Room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and reimagined what the leader’s final moments were before his assassination after delivering his legendary “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech to a massive church congregation. 

“The Mountaintop” originated overseas and after transferring to the West End’s Trafalgar Studio 1 in 2010. The production featured powerful performances by David Harewood as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Lorraine Burroughs as the mysterious maid Camae, under the direction of James Dacre.

Samuel L. Jackson

The acclaimed show garnered two Evening Standard Awards Nominations, including Most Promising Playwright for Hall, and was awarded the coveted 2010 Olivier Award for Best Play.

That same year, the playwright received the prestigious Susan Smith Blackburn prize.

Hall, a native Memphian who caused a roar on Broadway – pre-pandemic – with the Tina Turner bio-musical, “Tina,” and the creative force behind the buzz-worthy Starz drama series “P Valley,” counts August Wilson as an inspiration.  The infamous location where King was murdered is in the same neighborhood the Harvard and Julliard alum was raised.

“I grew up with this history only a stone’s throw away,” she said. “It is my bloody heritage. The Mountaintop follows Dr. Martin Luther King on the night after he gives this great, prophetic speech.”

In more recent years, King’s voice was prominently featured in Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkkan’s Tony Award-winning 2014 play “All the Way” starring “Breaking Bad” baddie Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The play presented a bird’s eye view of what happened behind the doors of the Oval Office and inside the first years his presidency and his fierce and ferocious fight to pass a landmark civil rights bill.

Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King Jr.

OBIE and Theatre World Award winner Brandon J. Dirden – in his first lead Broadway role – portrayed King in a light like never before.

“I think what Robert Schenkkan has done is captured a side of him that nobody’s ever seen before — as a politician,” Dirden, who originated the role at the  American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts the year before, said in an interview.  “That’s not the first adjective that comes to people’s minds when they think of Dr. King. Orator? Sure. Preacher? Yes. Civil Rights Activist? Yes. But nobody ever put politician on that list. In this play, we see how he had to straddle both sides — not republican and democrat, but politics and everyday folk.”

In 2016, the play was adapted into an Emmy Award-nominated HBO film helmed by “Austin Powers” director Jay Roach with Anthony Mackie starring as King.

Anthony Mackie & Bryan Cranston

Three years later, Schenkkan had more of a story to tell about LBJ’s struggle to fight a “war on poverty” with “The Great Society,”which played Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater to rave reviews.

For this acclaimed production, newcomer Grantham Coleman made his Broadway debut as King, playing opposite to powerhouse Brian Cox as Johnson.  The Juilliard grad, who first gained notices with the original 2013 Off-Broadway production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s  “Choir Boy,” knew he had big shoes to fulfill but was up for the challenge with a fair share of trepidation.

Grantham Coleman

“Research for the part was research I was doing my whole life, but I was worried I wouldn’t portray him accurately,” Colman confided. “The director and writer approached me about it, and they understood my fears. They were more interested in conveying the spirit of Dr. King and the person [he was] and his struggles, instead of casting someone who looks like him. A lot of his personal beliefs are mine as well, so it wasn’t a huge struggle to get to where his mind was.”

These great Black actors did King’s important legacy a great service.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Here’s to hoping there’s much more from whence they came to keep the dream alive on The Great White Way.

Karu F. Daniels has written for the Associated Press, The New York Times, New York Daily News, CNN, ABC News, Billboard, NBC News, The Daily Beast, Ebony, Essence, and Playbill among other outlets.

Categories
Long Form

The Cool World

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s.

 By: Mark Blankenship

It’s all but forgotten now, but The Cool World still points like an arrow at how the country was changing at the beginning of the 1960s. 

As Warren Miller was writing his 1959 novel about youth gangs in Harlem, JFK was promising voters he would deliver social change, the Civil Rights Movement was building toward its zenith, and the Vietnam War was beginning its years-long escalation. When he adapted the tale for Broadway in 1960, the American theatre was absorbing the impact of socially and politically conscious plays like Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Even a crowd-pleasing musical like Bye Bye Birdie was making audiences contend with the hero’s racist mother. 

Or to put it another way, The Cool World arrived when millions of people were actively trying to understand the cracks in the social contract. Perfectly attuned to its moment, it told a story that was lifted from the the very streets the country was learning to see. 

Miller wrote his novel while he lived in Harlem himself, watching young Black men participate in gang activity. His story follows Duke, a teenager determined to rise through the ranks of his crew, and it is brutally unsentimental about how violence, racism, and classism warp the boy’s life. When the book was published, Miller’s unvarnished style earned immediate praise from artists like James Baldwin, who called it “one of the finest novels about Harlem that had ever come my way.” 

Robert Rossen, Academy Award winning Director

Robert Rossen was another fan. Well-known at the time for writing and directing the Oscar-winning film All the King’s Men, he worked with Miller to co-write the stage adaptation of The Cool World and then directed its Broadway premiere. 

Granted, the production only ran for two performances, but it nevertheless gave major roles to future stalwarts like Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, and a 22 year-old Billy Dee Williams, who played Duke. 

Production Still from “The Cool World” film

And they were hardly the last major artists to be involved with this story. In 1963, legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman produced a film version, which was directed by Shirley Clarke, who had been Oscar nominated for a documentary of her own.  

That sensibility made her film stand out: Though she worked from a script that she adapted from the novel and the play, Clarke let the movie feel like nonfiction. She cast several non-actors who lived in Harlem, and she included long, improvisatory scenes that aimed to capture the actual rhythm of the neighborhood. 

Just like the play, the movie’s cast featured future stars, including Clarence Williams III and Gloria Foster. No less than Dizzy Gillespie wrote the music, and his soundtrack album is still regarded as a classic among jazz fans. 

It should be noted, of course, that The Cool World is a story about Black boys that was not created by Black people. Miller, Rossen, and Clarke were all White, and a modern audience might be understandably skeptical of their take on Harlem. Still, the novel, the play, and the film remain excellent reminders of how American culture shifted in the early 1960s and how the arts documented the change as it happened.

Mark Blankenship is the editor of The Flashpaper and the co-author of the recently published book Madonna: A to Z.

Categories
Interviews

Irene Gandy: Living History

By: Marko Nobles

“The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

Normally when we celebrate our history or historical figures, they are people of the past who have done amazing things to help build our society to where we are today. There are also those that we watch make history as they live their lives. One of those history makers is Broadway’s longest running African American Press Agent and Producer Irene Gandy.

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

A conversation with Irene is an education on the theater, media, racism, changing times, the music industry and a lesson on communication and building relationships which has been the central theme of her 50+ years as a press agent. “Originally I went to NYU and I wanted to be a writer.” Says Irene of her beginnings. “My professor said I couldn’t write and I should change my major. So I was only there for six weeks and I was in Greenwich Village and I decided to be a hippie. This was in the 60’s and I was sleeping in the parks along with people like singer Richie Havens, Peter Tork of the rock band The Monkees, All of those people ended up being something including Bill Cosby who was performing regularly at the Id. 

Irene spent one day as an Actor, but her one small acting part led to a chance reconnection with a high school classmate. This chance encounter would set her on her path to becoming a Broadway Press Agent. “I ran into Fred Garrett, who I hadn’t seen in years, he was working for the Negro Ensemble Company as a company manager. He said that they had all the actors they need but they were looking for a press agent but the only candidates coming for interviews were white and we’re the Negro Ensemble Company and we want to train Black people for these jobs so would you interview for the press agent position doing an apprenticeship with Howard Atlee? I knew nothing about what a press agent does so I just went and talked to him and I ended up interviewing him about what a press agent does. I left and thought I would never get the job. Howard Atlee called me a couple days later and asked me if I could start working.”

Profliic press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

Irene’s first major task as a press agent was to deliver a press release for a Negro Ensemble Company benefit to the New York Times for coverage. “I went to the 3rd floor to get the release to Sy Peck and the person at the front said I’ll take it to him but I said I have to give it to Sy Peck, so I’ll wait for him. I had to wait because Howard said to give it to Sy Peck directly and I had just started. I did not want to lose my job. So eventually Sy Peck comes out wondering who’s holding up his schedule (it was deadline day). So I gave it right back to him telling him ‘Howard Atlee said I have to get this to you and as a matter of fact who are you and what do you do that’s so important that I have to wait an hour and a half?!’ He then explained what he did and took me on the floor, introduced me to everyone explaining their roles. That was the start of my good relationships with the press. That was my first real introduction to being a press agent. “   

That led to working on many shows including River Niger, Ceremonies of Dark Old Men, Hay Fever, Johnny Johnson and then she went on the road with the legendary musical Purlie! At that time there were no Black persons working on shows in that capacity. In some cities Irene wasn’t even allowed to go into the box office.  Irene called back to New York and instead of making the issue about race expressed concern for the bottom line. “The producers called the box office and let them know they would not receive any other shows from their company if I were not let in. From that point on I was let in and word got around on who I was.”

By now Irene was in the union as one of the few Black Press Agents and is the longest Black Female continuously working on Broadway over the last 50 years. Why is that? Because one needs to work continuously on Broadway for three years to be accepted in the union. “With me starting out with Negro Ensemble Company and them always having shows it allowed me to work continuously and most people only work show to show and how many shows are on Broadway for three years?” Irene also explains that the job of a press agent is not a glamorous one. “You have to be thick skinned, sometimes you are really a glorified flunky – getting cabs, going to get newspapers, holding umbrellas. But really for me being a press agent is building relationships. Going to lunch, getting a new media staff member at a tv show coffee. The relationships are key to getting stories placed.”

Prolific press agent and Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with Tony Award winner Phylicia Rashad.

Over her career Irene has actually retired and unretired many times. During one of her retirements from the theater she went over to the music industry and worked with legendary artists including BB King, Patti LaBelle and The Jackson 5. 

After her time in the record industry Irene decided to move to Seattle with her daughter Mira so she could live “a normal life.” But boredom set in, theater came calling and Irene returned to New York to work on Bubbling Brown Sugar. 

“After one of my shows closed, in 1986,  I received a call from the union that Jeffrey Richards needed a press agent which began my years in his office …Ironically I worked for his mother, Helen Richards, a General Manager, on the musical Purlie when it went out on the road many years earlier.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy with the eight time Tony Award winning producer Jeffrey Richards.

For 35 years she’s been with Jeffrey Richards (who she lovingly dubs her “work husband”) as the Press Agent on countless hit shows including Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, Glengarry Glen Ross, Hair, Radio Golf, Speed-the-Plow, August: Osage County, Race  and many others. She’s brought her unique relationships with media and the community to help make these shows successful. 

The next evolution for Irene was to become a producer. She first served as a producer on the show The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, which won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and then in 2014 Irene co-produced Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. 

Gandy is hopeful that on Broadway she can see more Press Agents, as well as creatives, producers and managers, of color in the future. As a trailblazing Press Agent she says, “I think the producers should invest in people of color to be a press agent. Because when a show closes the press agent is immediately let go. So, there is not the opportunity to continue to work for the necessary time to be accredited as a press agent. If the producers would commit to invest in an ongoing position, then there would be the chance for that press agent to go to the next show without that gap and not have to start over to get that three years of service.” Irene also warns those looking to work as a press agent “you have to realize that you’re really behind the scenes, not trying to be backstage. This job,  it’s all about relationships and learning to work with others.”

Prolific press agent & Tony Award winning producer Irene Gandy

When we talk about history it is too often in the past but there is something utterly amazing about being in the presence of history and Irene Gandy is Living History.

__________________________________________________________

Marko Nobles spent years learning, growing and becoming an experienced professional in the fields of PR, Marketing, Radio, Event Production and Entertainment. Born & raised in Harlem, Marko has worked with community organizations, non-profits, small businesses and even developed his own company, InJoy Enterprises, a multi-service business that provided consulting services in the areas of PR/Promotion, Marketing, Event Production, and Event Management & Coordination and continues to produce special entertainment events featuring independent artists.

Categories
Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

HOME

By Linda Armstrong

There is something so moving when a drama, and a One Act that was delivered through only three characters (Cephus Miles, Pattie Mae and Woman Two)—portraying over 25 roles–can grip the audience and discuss such relevant, socially significant topics.

It is absolutely marvelous, the contributions that the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) has made to Broadway Theatre through the decades. It has proven to be a vessel through which creative, black writers have gotten to get their voices heard and appreciated. In the 70’s “The First Breeze Of Summer” by Leslie Earl Lee originated there and moved to Broadway. In the 1980s, Samm Arthur Williams {Samm Art-Williams} play “Home” followed suit. It was first performed at the Negro Ensemble Company and then previewed on Broadway at the Cort Theatre April 29, 1980, opening May 7 and closing January 4, 1981. During that time it was nominated for two Tony Awards and two Drama Awards for Best Play and Outstanding Actor in a play, Charles Brown. The play won the Outer Critics Circle Award for John Gassner Playwrighting Award in 1980 and the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, U.S. & Canada in 1981.

Samm Art-William, famed playwright

Art-William’s not only looks at the Black experience in “Home”, he also takes on the serious topic of the Vietnam War and how some Black men chose to be conscientious observers and not fight, even if it meant prison time. One realizes that the draft was a system that the government used to get poor Blacks into the military and it was simply unfair on so many levels. There is something so moving when a drama, and a One Act that was delivered through only three characters (Cephus Miles, Pattie Mae and Woman Two)—portraying over 25 roles–can grip the audience and discuss such relevant, socially significant topics. Topics that are still relevant 41 years later, with how some people still feel about fighting in Wars and the injustices that happen to Blacks in this country. In Art-Williams play “Home” originally performed at NEC and then transferred to Broadway, one experienced a drama which begins in the 1950s and goes through to the Civil Rights Movement, about a Black male–Cephus Miles–coming of age in the small community of Crossroads, North Carolina where segregation is alive and well. Miles is an orphan who was left his family’s farm. He is trying to find his way in life and love. He is also someone who serves five years in prison for being a conscientious objector pertaining to the Vietnam War in which he refused to fight. The One Act play, which took 1 hour and 45 minutes to unfold, found Cephus in love with his high school sweetheart, Pattie Mae. That relationship proved to break his heart, as she went away to college and fell in love with and married, a professional man that showed promise. When Cephus returned to Crossroads after serving the five years in prison, taxes had claimed his farm. Moving to the big city he found himself doing manual labor of loading and unloading trucks, until his prison record got him fired. He went from welfare to getting involved with street life—drugs and prostitution. He hit rock bottom and gets an invitation to come back to Crossroads, someone has bought his farm. When he returns 13 years later, the segregation that had been a part of the town is over, but the townspeople consider him an outsider and spread lies about him being mean. His world becomes improved after he learns that not only is Pattie Mae divorced, but she is the one who bought his family’s farm for them to have a life together. The two find that they left their small town looking for happiness only to return and discover the true meaning of home. “Home” looked at how we are connected as human beings and takes us through the cycles of life that we go through going from adolescence to adulthood.

Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden and Tracey N. Bonner at Court Theatre

When “Home” was on Broadway it remained with direction by Douglas Turner Ward. Playing 278 performances the cast consisted of Charles Brown as Cephus Miles; L. Scott Caldwell as Pattie Mae Wells and Michele Shay as Woman Two.

The timelessness of this play has been displayed in the fact that it has been revived a few times. In the Signature Theatre’s 2008-2009 season dedicated to NEC, “Home” was revived at the Peter Norton Space. It previewed Nov. 11, 2008, opened Dec. 7 and ran through Jan. 4, 2009. The cast consisted of Kevin T. Carroll, Tracey Bonner and January LaVoy. It was directed by Ron O.J. Parson. It was also presented by Rep Stage in March 2013 at Howard Community College’s Horowitz Center and featured Robert Lee Hardy, Felicia Curry and Fatima Quander, with direction by Duane Boutte.

Art-Williams writing about life in the south was perfectly appropriate as he is a child of the South and lived through segregation and racism. Born January 20, 1946 in Burgaw, North Carolina, he was the son of Valdosia and Samuel Williams. His mother was a school teacher and Art-Williams attended segregated public school through high school. He was educated at Morgan State University and is an Artist in Residence at North Carolina Central University where he teaches rules of equity theatre and the art of playwrighting. Art-Williams has had a very creative life. He proved himself to be a versatile actor, as he originally performed in New York theatre in plays including “Black Jesus” in 1973, in NEC productions of “Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide” in 1974 and “Liberty Calland,” “Argus and Klansman” and “Waiting for Mongo” in 1975. Taking on the role of the playwright, Art-Williams (a name change he chose to make before performing in the last two NEC plays mentioned above) wrote “Welcome to Black River,” which was produced by NEC, “The Coming,” and “Do Unto Others”, produced by the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn in 1976, “A Love Play” produced by NEC in 1976, “The Last Caravan” in 1977 and “Brass Birds Don’t Sing”, both at New York City Stage 73 in 1978. “The Sixteenth Round” in 1980, “Eyes of an American” in 1985, and “The Waiting Room” in 2007, were produced by NEC. He wrote and directed the play “The Dance on Widow’s Row” produced by New Federal Theatre in 2000. He has been executive producer of television series like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”. He was nominated for an Emmy Award in 1985 for Outstanding Writing in a variety or Music Program for Motown Returns to the Apollo. He was story editor for “Frank’s Place” which was nominated for an Emmy in 1988 for Outstanding Comedy Series.

Robert Lee Hardy, Felicia Curry and Fatima Quander at Rep Stage

“Home” may have been his only work to reach Broadway, but his plays touch the heart of any audience and completely succeed in relying the Black experience in this country.

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News and Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, a global online magazine.

Categories
Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

The First Breeze of Summer

By Linda Armstrong

“I am a black playwright, I am not a playwright who happens to be black…I am very happy writing about black people. I do not have to write about anybody else.”

Black playwrights have the sacred responsibility of depicting the lives of African American people on stage in a way that is honest, candid, engrossing and inspiring. They are charged with telling stories of Black families that show their love, care, vulnerability, conflicts, spirituality and their beauty. One playwright who definitely understood this sacred duty was the late Leslie Earl Lee. Lee was also a director, and professor of playwrighting and screenwriting. His commitment to authentically depict the lives of Black families is beautifully evidenced by his brilliant, Tony nominated and Obie and Outer Critic Circle Best Play Award winning drama, “The First Breeze of Summer”. The play tells the story of Gremmar, the matriarch of the Edwards family and of the secrets and flashbacks to her youth that she shares on a hot June weekend with her family in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Leslie Lee, famed playwright

This play was close to Lee’s heart, as it was an autobiographical work and the grandson character of Lou, was him as a teenager, getting ready to graduate high school, dealing with issues of sexuality and his blackness and then learning of the devastating secrets in the past of his beloved grandmother. Lee was born in 1930 in the town of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania and grew up in a close, middle-class family. The secret that his character learns on that weekend in June, is that his grandmother had a scandalous past– especially for those times–she had three children, each by a different man and none married her. Gremmar shares her secrets of these three lovers–Sam Green, a Black man, Briton Woodward, a White man and Harper Edwards, a Black man–through flashback scenes. Gremmar feels that her life is nothing to be ashamed of and that she has been a useful person in her family. Lee’s creation of the Gremmar character demonstrates his ability to realize that everyone is human and dealing with feelings of love and passion and sometimes those feelings can result in actions that can impact people’s lives and those of their family members.

The messages behind “The First Breeze of Summer” are definitely timeless. Bruce Webber of the New York Times, wrote after Lee’s death on January 20, 2014, that his work “focused on stretching the boundaries of the African-American experience as it was portrayed on the stage.” In an interview in 1975, Lee said, “I want to expand the thinking of Blacks about themselves.” Lee wanted Black people to see themselves, look deeper into who they are and embrace their beauty—that of the mind and the body. And he succeeded in bringing his vision of Blacks expanding their minds with regards to themselves, certainly with “The First Breeze of Summer.”

The production was first performed by the Negro Ensemble Company at St. Marks Playhouse in the Village, on March 2, 1975. It was subsequently transferred to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where it previewed on June 7, 1975 and opened on June 10, 1975. The production, directed by Douglas Turner Ward, featured a stellar group of African American actors including Frances Foster as Gremmar; Reyno as Lou Edwards; Janet League as Lucretia (Gremmar’s younger version); Barbara Montgomery as Aunt Edna; Moses Gunn as Milton Edwards; Charles Brown as Nate Edwards; Carl Crudup as Sam Greene; Douglas Turner Ward, yes the director, as Harper Edwards and Mosely Anthony McKay as Briton Woodward. Understudies included Bill Cobbs and Samm-Art Williams. The play ran 48 performances.

The play was so well received that on January 28, 1976 it was presented on television as part of Great Performances with the Broadway cast. 

Demonstrating the timelessness of this drama, the Signature Theatre Company brought it back in 2008, as it did a tribute to the Negro Ensemble Company. I am thrilled to say that I was fortunate enough to see this rendition of the production, which was brilliantly directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. The cast was superb! There was Leslie Uggams as Gremmar; Jason Dirden as  Lou Edwards; YaYa Da Costa as Lucretia; Gilbet Owuoro as Sam Green, Quincy Dunn-Baker as Briton Woodwood; John Earl Jelks as Harper Edwards, Brandon Dirden as Nate Edwards; Keith Randolph Smith as Milton Edwards; Brenda Pessley as Aunt Edna.

Yaya DaCosta and John Earl Jelks at Signature Theatre 2008.

September 29, 1987, Lee was a guest speaker in the University of Connecticut’s course—Black Experience in the Arts and this holder of a M.A. in Theatre from Villanova University, told students, “Now, I am a black playwright, I am not a playwright who happens to be black…I am very happy writing about black people. I do not have to write about anybody else.” Lee puts his writing behind his words as he created numerous plays that depicted Black life including: “Elegy for a Down Queen” in 1970, which began his New York City career at La MaMa Experimental Theatre; in 1971, also at La MaMa he did “Cops and Robbers”. He returned to La MaMa in 1997 with “Love in the Eyes of Hope Dies Last.” Lee’s other works included “Black Eagles” about Black fighter pilots in Italy in World War II; “Ground People,” (originally called “The Rabbit Foot”, about Southern black sharecroppers and visiting minstrel-show performers in the 1920’s. “Blues in a Broken Tongue,” focused on the daughter of a family that had moved to Russia in the 1930s as an escape from racism and discovered a pile of recordings by Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and others and reconsidered her heritage. “The War Party,” was about the conflicts within a community of civil rights organizations in the 1960s. “The Book of Lambert” written in the 1970s, set on an abandoned New York subway platform, showed a black intellectual despairing over the loss of the white woman he loved. “Colored People’s Time”, goes from the civil war through to the dawn of the civil rights movement in a series of vignettes. “Hanna Davis” was a play about a well-to-do black family.

Lee’s other creative contributions included television scripts including an adaptation of Richard Wright’s short story “Almos’ a Man.” He also did collaborative work with composer Charles Strouse and lyricist Lee Adams in a musical, “Golden Boy” in 1989 at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. They teamed up again for a musical on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that showcased him as a teenager in Atlanta to the Montgomery Bus Boycott of the 1950s. The show was mounted in 2011 at the Kraine Theater.

Leslie Lee, famed playwright

While “The First Breeze of Summer” was Lee’s only work to make it to a Broadway stage, his works have been performed in off-Broadway and regional theaters, which means that his message of black self-discovery, pride, love and beauty has been experienced by generations and should continue to be known by many more.

Linda Armstrong is a theatre critic with the New York Amsterdam News and Theatre Editor for Neworldreview.net, a global online magazine.