Leslie Lee, a playwright whose award-winning work, much of it with the Negro Ensemble Company, focused on stretching the boundaries of the African-American experience as it was portrayed on the stage, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 83. The cause was congestive heart failure, Heather Massie, a friend, said.
Over four decades, Mr. Lee wrote more than two dozen stage works, scouring American history for his subjects and characters.
In “Black Eagles,” he wrote about Black fighter pilots in Italy in World War II. In “Ground People” (originally titled “The Rabbit Foot”), he wrote about Southern Black sharecroppers and visiting minstrel-show performers in the 1920s. In “Blues in a Broken Tongue,” the daughter of a family that had moved to Russia in the 1930s as an escape from racism discovers a pile of recordings by Billie Holiday, Paul Robeson and others and reconsiders her heritage. An early play, “The War Party,” was about the conflicts within a community civil rights organization in the 1960s.
In “The Book of Lambert,” written in the 1970s and set contemporaneously on an abandoned New York subway platform, a Black intellectual has been reduced to despair by the loss of the White woman he loves. In “Colored People’s Time,” Mr. Lee presented a century of Black history, from the Civil War to the dawn of the civil rights movement, in a pageantlike parade of vignettes.
“One can be Black and also many other things,” Mr. Lee said in a 1975 interview about his writerly concerns. “I want to expand the thinking of Blacks about themselves.”