Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights


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, a global online magazine.

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, a global online magazine.

Long Form Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights


Looking Back at Forgotten Plays by Black Playwrights

A New Series in Honor of Black History Month

Almost 70 Years Later, Take a Giant Step Remains a Vital American Play


Spencer Scott, the hero of Louis S. Peterson’s 1953 drama Take a Giant Step, ought to be listed alongside Willy Loman, Walter Lee Younger, and Joe Bonaparte as one of the great, socially aware protagonists of American drama. Just like those characters, he fights as hard as he can against the country’s failures, and even though he doesn’t win, he exposes something true. 

But as vital as they are, both Spencer and his play are largely forgotten. That’s our mistake. Now is the perfect time to remember them.

To a modern audience, the story of Take a Giant Step will seem acutely familiar: The only Black kid in his tony northern high school, Spencer gets suspended after angrily contradicting a teacher who says the slaves were too lazy to free themselves during the Civil War. When his parents find out, they’re horrified, though not by the teacher. They tell their son that as a Black man, he doesn’t have the privilege of contradicting white people. 

How is he supposed to be happy, he wonders, when everyone he knows just wants him to remember his place?

Peterson understood this conflict. He based the play on his own experience growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, and critics hailed him for his uncommon insight and feeling. After the show played five weeks on Broadway — and returned Off Broadway for an impressive eight months in 1956 — he abandoned his earlier career as an actor and became a trailblazer on Broadway and in film and television. He not only wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of Take a Giant Step, which made him one of the first Black screenwriters in the Hollywood system, but also got an Emmy nomination for Joey, a 1957 installment of Goodyear Playhouse starring Kim Stanley and Anthony Perkins.

Granted, Peterson’s success didn’t always shield him from the very oppression that Spencer tries to fight. The film of Take a Giant Step, for instance, was forced to be re-edited because it was deemed too frank in its language and sexuality. As the critic Mark A. Reid noted in a Jump Cut magazine article about Peterson’s work, onscreen depictions of Black sexuality in the 1950s and 60s were typically limited to lusty madness (like Dorothy Dandridge’s character in Carmen Jones) or violent crime (like the the courtroom description of interracial rape in To Kill a Mockingbird). In this thick of this era, it was considered taboo for Spencer to have everyday confusion about growing up and meeting women.

Undaunted, Peterson kept writing about social issues. His 1962 play Entertain a Ghost examines interracial relationships, as does his sweeping 1979 drama Crazy Horse. In 1983 he wrote Another Show, about the rise adolescent suicide, specifically for his students at SUNY Stony Brook.  

None of these later plays were as successful as Take a Giant Step, but Peterson still had an undeniable impact on the arts in America. Along with laying a foundation for other writers of color, his work also highlighted a generation of Black performers.  At the age of 17, for instance, Louis Gossett, Jr. made his Broadway debut playing Spencer, and before he became a superstar pop singer, Johnny Nash played Spencer in the film. Ruby Dee also appeared in the movie, while Beah Richards, Bill Gunn, and Godfrey Cambridge were among the stars of the Broadway and off-Broadway productions. (It’s worth noting that Gossett briefly reprised his role in the Off-Broadway run as well.) 

The astonishing cumulative success of these performers just burnishes the legacy of both a play and a playwright that are ripe for rediscovery.

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