Signature Theatre Remembers 2008-09 Playwright-in-Residence Leslie Lee
Tony Award-nominated Playwright Leslie Lee passed away at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in New York City due to complications from congestive heart failure on January 20, 2014, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, as he was making final revisions to his musical about King (written in collaboration with Charles Strouse), currently titled Before the Dream.
Playwright Leslie Lee was born in Bryn Mawr, PA on November 6, 1930. He was Executive Director of the Negro Ensemble Company and a founding artist of La Mama E.T.C. He was also Signature Theatre's Playwright-in-Residence during the 2008-2009 Season celebrating the Historic Negro Ensemble Company. His plays have been produced both on and off Broadway, and he wrote extensively for film and television.
Signature Theatre's Founding Artistic Director James Houghton said, "Leslie was a beloved member of the Signature family. His significant contribution to the American theatre was at the forefront of giving voice and insight into a severely underrepresented part of our community. His generosity of spirit, his humor, and his irresistible smile will be deeply missed by all who were lucky enough to know him."
After receiving his Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology and English from The University of Pennsylvania, Lee worked for several years in cancer research at Wyeth Laboratories in Villanova, PA. He earned his Master of Arts degree in Theatre from Villanova University.
Lee taught for The Goldberg Department of Dramatic Writing Program at the NYU Tisch School the Arts, MiddleSex Community College, Hunter College, Wesleyan College, Rutgers University, The New School University, Goddard College, The Negro Ensemble Company, and The Frederick Douglas Playwriting Workshop. In 2008, the U.S. Department of State sent Mr. Lee as a Cultural Envoy to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to teach Playwriting at the Intwasa Arts Festival.
His acclaimed play The First Breeze of Summer, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and starring Leslie Uggams, enjoyed a successful revival in 2008 at Signature Theatre, winning nine Audelco Awards. The First Breeze of Summer was originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company and went on to win an Obie Award for Best New American Play as well as an Outer Critics Circle Award. Subsequently, the play moved to the Palace Theatre on Broadway, where it received a Tony Award nomination for Best Play. Many of his plays have been produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, the Black Rep in St. Louis, and Crossroads Theatre Company in New Jersey. His plays include The War Party, Colored People's Time, Blues in a Broken Tongue, The Rabbit's Foot, Black Eagles, Elegy to a Down Queen, Cops and Robbers, Hannah Davis, The Ninth Wave, The Book of Lambert, Mina, Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things and the musicals Golden Boy with songs by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams, and Phillis with Micki Grant. His new musical Before The Dream, written with Charles Strouse, had a recent reading in New York.
Lee's television and film work includes The Vernon Johns Story, with James Earl Jones and Mary Alice; Two Mothers, Two Sons; The Killing Floor, with Alfre Woodard and Moses Gunn; and adaptations of Richard Wright's short story Almos' A Man, with LeVar Burton, and The First Breeze of Summer. His documentary work includes Langston Hughes, the Dreamkeeper; The Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth Regiment; Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey; and Culture Shock: Huckleberry Finn.
Lee received several awards during his career, including the Arthur Miller Outstanding Playwright's Award from the University of Michigan, the National Black Theater Festival August Wilson Playwriting Award, the Isabelle Strickland Award for Excellence in the Field of the Arts, and the Joe A. Callahan Award. He received a Rockefeller Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, a Shubert Foundation Playwriting Grant, and a Mississippi TV Award. He received special mention for an award among Black Film-Makers. He was honored with The Knights of Columbus and Kappa Alpha Psi Awards, and on the Bushfire Theatre of Performing Arts Walk of Fame. Mr. Lee was named a Kentucky Colonel. Most recently his career was celebrated by two Audelco Awards and the NAACP Image Award.
Funeral Services will be held at Saints Memorial Baptist Church in Bryn Mawr, PA. A Memorial Service Celebration will be held at Signature Theatre in New York City. Both dates are to be announced.
Photo by RD/Leon/Retna Ltd.