Performer of the Year is an individual award, honoring an actor in a show staged in Pittsburgh (touring shows are not eligible). The winner normally has Pittsburgh ties, and previous winners are not eligible; if they were, the selection would be even harder, with many previous winners still active (see full list on Page C-7).
Given those criteria, one name kept coming up: Eugene Lee, who played the grumpy, complex Pops in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Between Riverside and Crazy” at the Pittsburgh Public Theater. That was another superb ensemble, perhaps not surprisingly, because an individual actor contributes to an ensemble and benefits from the ensemble as well.
Although a Texan (and a Cowboys fan), Mr. Lee has some strong Pittsburgh ties, especially via August Wilson, having appeared in eight of the 10 plays in his Century Cycle. One was on Broadway, where he played Eli in “Gem of the Ocean” and was suggested for the role by Mr. Wilson himself. In Pittsburgh, he appeared in “Two Trains Running” and “The Piano Lesson” at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre.
But before “Riverside,” Pittsburgh knew Mr. Lee best for playing August Wilson himself in 2015 at Public Theater, in Mr. Wilson’s 11th play, his one-man autobiographical “How I Learned What I Learned.”
He also has been in and out of Pittsburgh, not just to buy Steelers gear for his teenage son (who has transcended his Cowboys heritage), but also to participate in various panels and readings celebrating Mr. Wilson’s work. Mr. Lee is a “Wilsonian Warrior,” as the playwright called the core group of his favorite actors. When he saw him play Troy in “Fences” in Atlanta, he said, “That’s Troy: all the colors.”
We may see him next as a playwright. In 2018, Pittsburgh Playwrights plans to stage his “East Texas Hot Links,” which has been done from Los Angles to London since it debuted in 1994 and is scheduled to be filmed this spring, with Mr. Lee directing and Samuel L. Jackson as executive producer.
Among his many other plays, the best known may be “Fear Itself,” and he has many TV writing credits, including episodes of “Homicide: Life on the Streets” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
As an actor, he began as a college student in a command performance of “A Raisin in the Sun” for President Lyndon B. Johnson. His early acting work began co-starring with Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson in the Negro Ensemble Company’s famous 1981 premiere of the Pulitzer-winning “A Soldier’s Play.” He has been busy ever since on stage, on screen and as artist in residence and artistic director of the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference at Texas State University, which celebrated its 15th year last year.