Saturday, February 24 , 2018, 8:34 pm | Fair 51º

 
 
 
 

Review: ‘The Ballad of Billy Lee’ Tells the Story of George Washington Slave

What does the average person know about George Washington? He was the nation’s first president, of course, and it’s widely believed he had wooden teeth, which is why he is so unsmilingly somber in his portraits.

Henry Brown
Henry Brown

Yet Plaza Playhouse Theater’s The Ballad of Billy Lee, an original one-man show written by Len Lamensdorf and directed by Asa Olsson, brings into focus further detail about the man himself as well as the history and politics of the times, through the eyes of an American-born slave, William Lee.

Bought by Washington as a teenager, Lee served as his personal valet and huntsman at Mount Vernon, rode by his side into battle, and became a close and trusted companion.

Henry Brown is a talented and seasoned actor who does a beautiful job with what is essentially an evening-long monologue. Yet in the course of the story he has occasion to briefly portray several supporting characters, including Washington himself.

He does this extremely well, finding subtleties of tone and posture to bring them to life. His ease and comfort with the material allow the audience to be immersed in the experience — a fascinating blend of American history, personal memoir and expert storytelling.

Songs of the era, in Brown’s rich and resonant voice, are well-used to evoke the spirit of the times during and after the Revolutionary War.

We learn that Washington was athletic, kind-natured and thoughtful, and that his dentures were made of ivory, not wood. He did everything possible to avoid splitting up families when buying and selling slaves, and rarely authorized physical punishment. Yet, in the many discussions Lee initiated with him regarding freeing himself or other slaves, Washington was circumspect, stating that while he himself hoped for an end to slavery, all had to happen at the right time as the wheels of policy turned in the young nation.

Lee’s life as a slave was unusual in that he learned to read and write, to ride and hunt, and was the close confidant of such a notable statesman. He was also the only of Washington’s slaves to be declared free immediately upon his death, decreed to be cared for for the rest of his life. While he was elated to be freed, it must have been painfully clear to him that this long-sought freedom only came after many opportunities for happiness and success in life had passed him by.

He lived out his years as a shoemaker at Mount Vernon, struggling with alcoholism. In the end, the figure of William Lee is both triumphant and tragic, and The Ballad of Billy Lee provides the audience with a deeper taste of the bittersweet history of our country. Keep an eye out for future productions of this gem.

— Justine Sutton of Santa Barbara is a freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer.

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