Strong and Ready

The Ballad of Billy Lee by Len Lamensdorf and starring Henry
Brown at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, Sunday,

As great American heroes go, George Washington enjoys a durable
preeminence. He’s a double threat, as both a military commander and
a statesman. billy_lee.jpgThe whole “first President,” “father of
his country” mythology still packs a wallop. And even that wacky,

apocryphal childhood story about the cherry tree
has its charm.
But the General has never been much of a buddy figure.
Washington was never just one of the boys, and it can be hard to
think of him as anyone’s sidekick. Len Lamensdorf’s remarkable new
script about Washington’s slave William Lee succeeds not only in
putting Washington in a useful new context, but also in managing to
create a character in Billy
that can stand next to Washington without disappearing in
his aura.

Billy Lee is a real
historical figure
about whom a fair amount is known, including
the fact that he was mentioned by name, set free, and left a
lifetime remittance in Washington’s will. William_Lee_%28detail%29.jpgThe Ballad of Billy Lee begins
with the marvelous Henry Brown coming onstage and letting us know
immediately that we are hearing from an older man, who says, by way
of introduction, “You shoulda seen me when I was younger!” From
there the show takes us on a wild, unpredictable ride shoulder to
shoulder with George Washington, from before the battles of Concord
and Lexington through life at Mount Vernon and the entire
war—including the notorious winter at Valley Forge—all the way to
the Constitutional Convention, Washington’s inauguration in New
York, and his eventual death at home in
Mount Vernon
. What emerges is both familiar—Lee yearns for
freedom, and observes the colonies’ progress towards democracy from
the embittered proximity of slavery—and strange, as the competing
demands of military obedience and racial solidarity make for some
intense contradictions. Along the way, Billy Lee manages to find
(and lose) the love of his life, break both knees, get drunk, play
the banjo, sing a bit, and tell some incredible and dramatic

It’s hard to say where this remarkable project is headed next.
Brown seems born to play the role, and it would be a pity for him
not to be a part of whatever ends up being the next stage in its
development. Yet, at over two hours, the material sprawls well past
the breaking point of even the most patient monologue fan. No doubt
this is the most obvious course, but it does seem like The
Ballad of Billy Lee
could be a great film.


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