HISTORY’S FORGOTTEN FIGURE

“The Ballad of Billy Lee” sounds like another hackneyed country song about a son of the South and his wayward wife, but it’s actually the title of a new one-man play about an African-American slave who was not only George Washington’s valet but also his close companion in both war and peace. An accomplished horseman, Lee was a war hero alongside the general at Valley Forge and beyond; he was later responsible for the future first president’s private papers at the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.

Playwright Len Lamensdorf is a Santa Barbara author who has published several award-winning books, including historical fiction for young adult readers, and wrote the feature film “Cornbread Earl and Me,” in which as executive producer he cast Laurence Fishburne in his first motion picture. Santa Barbara actor Henry Brown stages the first public reading of “Billy Lee” on Sunday afternoon at Fess Parker’s DoubleTree Resort, and both author and star will take feedback from the audience after the show.

Lamensdorf discussed the new work recently.

Q. How did you learn about Billy Lee?

A. Last year for my birthday my wife gave me “1776,” by David McCullough, and inside she wrote, “I’m expecting a Pulitzer Prize from you, too!” I found Billy Lee on a couple of pages in the book, which whetted my interest. Then I read another reference in another book. I was so interested that I researched it online and in books and in talking to the folks at Mount Vernon, and I was amazed. Billy Lee had a profound effect on Washington, who started out as a fairly typical slave owner. But with the passage of time with this extraordinary person, Billy Lee – who became really his closest confidant – his views changed. By the end of his life, Washington had become strongly anti-slavery, and you have to give Billy Lee some of the credit. The others talked a good game, but Washington was the only Founding Father who set his slaves free, and Billy Lee was given a lifetime pension in Washington’s will. I realized that this was a story that needed to be told, so I wrote a book from which the play has been extracted.

Why is this figure important?

There have been so many books recently about Adams, Jefferson and Hamilton that take up this era, but give Billy Lee so little attention. It troubled me. It is an outrage that this man who had done so much had so little recognition. How could it happen that this literate man, who handled some of Washington’s most important papers, went unnoticed in history simply because he was a black man?

Why did this story speak so strongly to you?

I am very interested in history and I’ve had an interest in the relationship of the black community to society at large for years. There is a great gap in understanding the role blacks played in the founding of the country. I felt moved by it, and I think it should get an airing.

Why did you add music to the show?

To make it more interesting. It’s mostly songs from the time period. For example, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” isn’t a sixties song, it’s from 1692, written by the slaves. The ships couldn’t get into the harbor, so they let the slaves off at the Boundary Islands and they rowed ashore. Music was the way the slaves expressed their yearning for freedom. To frame the story, I also wrote two songs for the show: “The Ballad of Billy Lee” as an introduction, and “Jump The Broom.” That refers to a ceremony that blacks did back then when they got married – sweep clean the past and then jump over the broom. It seems the ceremony is coming back in modern wedding of African-Americans.

You cast Henry Brown as Lee for this reading.

He’s very intelligent and experienced, so it’s become something of a collaboration. He’s had significant input – I write the words but they’re not very meaningful without Henry’s reading. He understands the character to some extent better than I do.

Where does it go from here?

I expect we’ll have a longer run, full productions here and in major cities eventually. We have high hopes that this could also be a TV movie or mini-series. I think it would adapt very readily to the kind that [American documentary filmmaker] Ken Burns does. And I hope it will appeal to schools across the country.

So how about that Pulitzer?

Maybe someday. My wife seems to be psychic sometimes, but I don’t know about it for this one.

Continuing the Legacy

Tchaikovsky’s classic holiday ballet “The Nutcracker” gets produced all over town every Christmas, but no production comes close in size or scope to Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s fully orchestrated version, staged with authentic costumes and danced by a full cast of children and adults.

The 32nd annual production – slated for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the Arlington Theatre – also marks the first that Denise Rinaldi is handling as the solo artistic director, after her former partner decided to move on. We asked Rinaldi to fill us in on what’s new.

Q. Is it your goal to remain as traditional as possible or to modernize and change with the times?

A. We want the traditional look, so the structure of the show isn’t going to change much. Ours is the only one with the full orchestra and all of the accoutrements of the classic ballet. But every year we do try to do something different. This year, because I have full control, there’s a lot of new choreography. It’s the same finale, but there are plenty of new things for those who come year after year. For example, the Snow core is different, so is Waltz core. All the variations are different. What I’ve tried to do, to some extent, is to gear the choreography to the level of the dancers. For the audience, it needs to look as good as possible, so with our mix of professionals and pre-professionals we arrange everything to make them look as beautiful as possible.

I noticed that there are no guest stars from Russia as in recent years.

No, there are, but I just got their bios very late. One of our dancers was trained in Russia. And our Sugar Plum/Cavalier, Corina Gill, trained in San Diego, and is currently splitting her time between State Street [Ballet] and the new LA Ballet. She’s just a gorgeous dancer.

What keeps you coming back and why should the audience return year after year?

There really is nothing like being in the theatre with live music and live dancers – no computers. That personal experience, that human touch in this day and age is wonderful.

And for many families, it starts off their holiday season. But for me, it’s fun to watch the kids grow up. Someone who started as a little Ginger Snap the next year they’re in the party scene, and then a soldier the next. Our Snow Queen this year started with us and is now a professional dancer. When I’m tired after all the late nights, that’s what keeps me going. It’s worth every minute.