Douglas Turner Ward, author, actor, director, artistic director and guiding light of the Negro Ensemble Company for nearly 30 years, was born on May fifth, 1930 in Burnside, Louisiana, under the name of Roosevelt Ward, Jr. He spent his early years on a Sugar Cane Rice plantation where both his father, Roosevelt Ward, Sr., and his mother, Dorothy (Short) Ward, worked as field hands. During his eighth year, in order for young Roosevelt to get something resembling an education, the family moved to New Orleans where his father became a forklift operator and then a foreman on the docks. Ward, Jr. was sent to a two-room school where a black non-accredited teacher had developed her own system of teaching. “You started at first grade and you were passed when she thought you were ready to be passed,” Ward explained in a taped interview. “That meant you could stay in one grade for a week or a year. It all had to do with how slowly or quickly you learned.” And because he was a fast learner, with a passion for reading, Ward, Jr. moved from grade two through grade seven in two years. He was then enrolled as a student at Xavier University Prep, an all-Black Catholic High School in New Orleans where, along with his studies, he ran track and played football.
“As soon as I learned my ABC’s, it seems that I fell in love with words. Words as expression and ultimately, words as art, I guess. And this led me to being an avid reader. I began to devour books wherever I found them. And that set my course in terms of my interest in literature . . . . Then in my second or third year of high school, I was in the chorus of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’ This happened because my aunt was the star of the production as a singer. But I never paid much attention to theatre as being of any particular interest.”
After high school, Ward, Jr. enrolled at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio in 1946, where he was hoping to obtain a football scholarship to a prestigious college. But that didn’t happen because Wilberforce didn’t have any kind of football program. And, although he was a journalism major, Ward, Jr. found time for theatre. He became a member of the Wilberforce Players, “mostly because I found out that the girls in the Drama group were allowed to stay out beyond the curfew,” Ward explains.
One year later he transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. This time he did get to play football but a serious knee injury halted his athletic ambitions. It was about this same time that he became deeply involved in political activity both on campus and off. But this was not a new development. Ward, Jr. had always been interested in politics, even during his high school years.
“It began with the realization of my relationship, as a black person, to the dominant white society. How it was designed to suppress all black attempts at self worth, self sufficiency and self pride . . . . I had already read some black history and realized that there was nothing natural about the role black people were assigned to play in the American Society of that time. It angered me, it stirred me up, it made me want to do something about it. So, I became active in all sorts of political groups.”
But in 1947, it was at the University of Michigan that Ward, Jr. discovered his true political direction. One that he carries right up to this day. It came via a white graduate student who, in his late twenties, was somewhat older than the average college student due to the fact that he had served in World War II. Ward met this man at a local NAACP meeting and they became friends. As they talked and exchanged ideas, the man would ask Ward, Jr. if he’d read certain writers naming authors and books young Roosevelt had never heard of. One day, he gave Ward, Jr. a pamphlet called “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx. Ward read it and discovered a voice that spoke to all he had experienced and thought about.
“It wasn’t intellectual to me. It was real. After that, I became intensely interested in where all these ideas came from and who wrote them, etc. And the more I read of the Marxist ideology, the more I identified with its ideals.”
“Everything I read began to translate itself organically to my own experience. So, it wasn’t just an intellectual affinity I had with Marxism. It was more than that. It was organic and natural . . . which is why, even today, I never have any need to separate and overtly talk about my leftist philosophy or ideology. It is so organic to my thinking, that it manifests itself in everything I do or say.”
He remained at the University of Michigan for only one year, then in 1948 he moved to New York City because he felt it was the capitol of Left Wing Political Movement. Once in the city, he became very involved with the Progressive Party’s attempt to get Henry Wallace positioned as a prominent presidential candidate. The irony of all this, Ward explains is, “I had just reached eighteen and couldn’t even vote. Yet, I became a youth leader of sorts, which was my situation for about three years. I was out on the street corners of Harlem; leading and fighting for political candidates before I could even vote for them myself.”
During that time, he met and became friendly with Lorraine Hansberry, future author of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Lonne Elder, future author of the NEC’s first major commercial success, “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.” Lorraine, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, had moved to New York and was involved with the Henry Wallace campaign. There she met Ward and later became engaged to his roommate, a handsome character named Roosevelt Jackson. Lonne Elder, who came out of Jersey City, was also a friend of Jackson’s and a member of the Progressive Party movement as well. The three became close friends, spending much time together drinking, talking and arguing about all sorts of things including art, politics, race and literature.
Street Corner Radical
Throughout all this, young Roosevelt Ward, Jr. was making quite a name for himself as a street corner radical. This was during the late 1940s, when the seeds of McCarthyism was just becoming the scourge of the land. Ward was out on the street making speeches, handing out pamphlets and urging people, black people especially, to attend political rallies and meetings that championed Socialism and Marxism as alternatives to American Capitalism and Democracy. He even began writing during this time. First speeches, then dramatic skits.
“Just to lighten up the heavy political raps, I started writing primarily satirical things. And, ultimately wrote my first performance piece. It was called Star of Liberty, concerning the rebel slave Nat Turner. This little play, which was only a half hour long, was performed before an audience of nearly 5000 people at a rally. Well, the response to this play at the rally was very thrilling. I was nineteen years old when I wrote this piece and that led me in the direction of trying to write more directly for the theatre. Because up until then, I’d been messing around with short stories and other genres. Sports writing had been my primary interest, but now drama was beginning to take the focus.”
But before Ward could probe deeper into his newly discovered interest, he was arrested for draft evasion and transported from New York to Louisiana in handcuffs.
The year was 1949. Roosevelt Ward, Jr. by this time had become so well known as a radical youth leader, that he was given a full time job as organization secretary with the New York chapter of the LYL (Labor Youth League). And he was also in charge of the Harlem Branch of the LYL. When the Korean conflict occurred, he became quite outspoken against American participation in the war. His stand was not only public, but it was also well publicized in the local newspapers. Being of draft age himself, Ward, Jr., two years before had made an error concerning his draft registration that would later return to haunt him.
In 1948, just after he dropped out of the University of Michigan, Ward, Jr. had returned to Louisiana for three months before going to New York. While in Louisiana, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday and dutifully went to the draft board to register his name. Three months later, he moved to New York and notified the Selective Service officer that he was doing so, assuming that his records would then be transferred to New York. But they weren’t. Then, for the next three years, while he was busily making a name for himself as a street corner politician, the draft board kept sending forms and letters to his parents’ house in Louisiana. The parents would then forward them to young “Rosie Ward” as he was then called, when they knew where he lived. Often he lived in so many different places that he was difficult to locate. Ultimately, he was sent an induction notice that he didn’t know about. His father, Roosevelt Ward, Sr., had to travel to New York City in order to locate his son so he could fill out the form and send it back.
“I filled it out and sent it back, then promptly forgot all about it,” Ward says. “Then, one day right after I turned twenty-one, they came and arrested me for ‘draft evasion.’ Now this wasn’t so. I had filled out the form. I had tried to stay in touch, which is why they knew where to find me. But this was the excuse they used to get me off the streets and out of circulation due to my outspoken views of the war.”
Ward, Jr. was returned to Louisiana where he was brought to trial and sentenced to three years in prison. He was imprisoned for three months and there was an appeal. During the two-year period while waiting for the appeal to be heard, Ward was released but was restricted to wait out the time in Louisiana. He was told that he could not specifically return to New York. “Clearly they didn’t want me to leave Louisiana. So, I decided to spend the time in New Orleans.”
One year after the appeal was filed, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original decision. “After that I made up my mind that I would probably be spending three years in prison.” But, a second appeal was filed. That second appeal also took a year to finally be heard. But this time, the Supreme Court overturned the original decision and Ward was free to travel as he pleased. “I call it my two years of exile. But fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled in my favor. Actually, there was no ruling; they just said that the State had no case and threw the whole thing out.”
Almost immediately, Ward returned to New York and began once again to live in Harlem. He also worked in journalism, first as a sportswriter, then later as general editor of The Daily Worker, a left wing newspaper. But his involvement and interest in being a political youth leader began to fade. While in New Orleans, Ward had begun to write a full-length play called “The Trial of Willie McGee” based on an infamous case of a black man named Willie McGee executed for supposedly raping a white woman. “When I got back to New York, I finished this magnum opus of a play. Then I got together with Lonne and Lorraine and the three of us read this play at a room in the Hotel Theresa uptown. And that became one of the things that helped to convince them that they should pursue careers as playwrights themselves. I mean this play ran four to five hours. And just the sheer fact that I was able to write something that long and that big made them say, ‘Well, maybe we should try it, too.’”
Lonne Elder’s version of the story goes this way:
“When I was very young, I dropped out from college. And I met another dropout from college, and we were living together in a flat in Harlem. And he wrote this play. I liked the play very much but was amazed that he wrote it. And, interestingly enough, he gathered up his friends to read it and ironically, two of his friends that read the play – one was myself and the other was Lorraine Hansberry. We read the play. And from that point on, I became totally immersed in theatre. That roommate was Douglas Turner Ward, and that’s how it all began. That’s how I started writing plays.”
The desire to write plays became Ward’s vocation. And in 1953, in order to learn more about the dramatic process, he decided that it was necessary to learn what acting was all about. Ward had done some acting in high school, college and even served as the narrator of The Star of Liberty play. It was always said that he had a good speaking voice and a compelling presence, much of it nurtured and developed during his time of street corner political activity, but he felt he needed to learn more about the seemingly simple yet extremely complex art and so, he enrolled in Paul Mann’s acting workshop and studied with both Paul Mann and his assistant, Lloyd Richards.
“Paul Mann was one of the best acting teachers in America. But, more important than that, is that he had philosophically committed himself to teaching and dealing with non-majority, non-white students without paternalism during a time when other acting teachers were just not interested in the minority students because they didn’t think they would ever succeed in making a meaningful place for themselves in theatre or film.”
Paul Mann with fellow teachers Lloyd Richards and Patricia Benoit
“Paul, for his own reasons, consciously often went out of his way to welcome and accommodate black and minority students. He gave many of us full scholarships in order to teach the craft of acting. The list of his former students includes Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Barbara Ann Teer and Cicely Tyson among many others.”
“Lloyd Richards was his assistant. So, this was not a situation of a white teacher teaching blacks. He had a black partner in a virtually equal position. And, Paul was tough. He took no nonsense and did not indulge in any of that romantic foolery that, because we were black, our talent was natural. No, he insisted that we learn acting as a craft. And, whenever we went in with crap, we were told it was crap in no uncertain terms.”
Ward remained studying with Paul Mann for three years while working for The Daily Informer. When the paper finally closed, due to a lack of funds, Ward shifted to acting. His first professional job came by accident when a friend and former student of Paul Mann’s acting workshop, Phillip Meister, met Ward on the street and offered him a job in the 1958 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh starring Jason Robbards, Jr. and Robert Redford. Meister was stage manager for the production and needed somebody to understudy Robert Earl Jones (father of actor James Earl Jones) in the production. The pay was five dollars per show. Ward took the job and, when asked how would he like to be listed in the program, he said, “As Douglas Turner, not Roosevelt Ward, Jr.”
“The name Roosevelt Ward, Jr. had been established in press as a journalist and political dissident. Now that I was starting on a new career, I wanted to begin with a clean slate. I wanted to be perceived totally as an actor, without any other opinion, positive or negative, intruding from my past activity. Not that I was ashamed about any of it. No, that wasn’t the reason. I just simply wanted to start with a clean slate.”
“The name Douglas Turner was a combination of Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, two of the most admired figures of our black past. Douglass, the black intellectual freedom fighter, and Turner, the Messianic revolt leader who just got up one day and fought the system spontaneously. Later on, it became too complicated to remain just Douglas Turner, so I added my own last name to it and became Douglas Turner Ward.”
One year later, Douglas Turner auditioned for his former teacher, Lloyd Richards, now a director, and landed a small role in the Broadway show, A Raisin in the Sun, written by his friend, Lorraine Hansberry. He played one of the moving men and understudied the lead role of Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier. Also, in the cast was Lonne Elder. Raisin ran for 530 performances on Broadway. During the last four months of the run, a young actor out of Philadelphia named Robert Hooks was hired as an understudy replacement. Quickly, he became friendly with both Ward and Lonne Elder.
Robert Hooks explained:
“I had done a lot of stuff around New York, but finally in my first professional show on Broadway was the same play that prompted me to come to New York in the first place, A Raisin in the Sun. Later, I toured with the show for more than a year. By this time, Doug had taken over as the lead, Walter Lee Younger. And I was playing one of the two young men. Doug Ward, Lonne Elder and I became the Three Musketeers on that tour. We were meant for each other in life, I guess, because we’ve been friends ever since.”
When he returned to New York, Ward landed a role as Archibald in the now legendary production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. After The Blacks, he went from show to show, making a name for himself as a reliable and talented actor. He also appeared in several nationally aired TV shows, East Side, West Side, Dupont Show of the Month, and Studio One. Yet, despite his success as an actor, Ward still maintained that he was a writer and that playwriting was his first priority. And right from the beginning that had always been clear.
Lloyd Richards, who directed A Raisin in the Sun, remembers:
“. . . Lonne was a playwright and Doug was a playwright. That was clear. I was conscious of that. And, as a matter of fact, in hiring them that was even discussed. And their need for having time and opportunity (to write).”
So, Ward continued writing.
Robert Hooks, in the meanwhile, was also making a name for himself as an actor. And in 1964 got a breakthrough role in Leroi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) controversial drama Dutchman.
“While we were touring in Raisin, Doug, Lonne and I would talk all the time about the unfairness of theatre in America, how it was designed for white playwrights, white directors, white actors, white dancers and whatever. And it was unfortunate that there was just an occasional black play. So we talked abut the need for a permanent institution. And because of these talks, I started a small theatre in New York called The Group Theatre Workshop.”
“I was doing Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre downtown and I was living in Chelsea at the time. And one Monday night, which is the actor’s night off, I was asked to come and speak at the Hudson Guild in Chelsea about Blacks in the Theatre and the various problems they were having to face. The talk was well received and afterwards the kids came up to ask all sorts of questions. Now I lived right across the street and knew most of these young people. So I said, “If you’re really and truly interested in theatre, come over to my house. I’m off on Monday nights. Let’s talk about it and see if we can work some things out. And maybe I’ll spend some time working and teaching workshops. And that’s what happened. They came and six grew to sixty, because kids started coming from all over the New York area. So in my living room we started The Group Theatre Workshop, I along with Barbara Ann Teer and a lot of other dedicated friends including Adolph Caesar. And in my apartment, in my living room, we knocked out a wall and built a theatre. Eventually I was evicted from this place after the landlord found out what we had done. But it was time to be moving on anyway. So I got this loft on Nineteenth Street and Sixth Avenue. And that’s when we really grew into becoming The Group Theatre Workshop.”
The Group Theatre Workshop
The Group Theatre Workshop attracted interest and concern in the neighborhood, for no one was really quite sure what was going on. What were all these black kids doing in that apartment every Monday night? Were they partying? Was this some sort of unofficial community center or drug shop?
Word got back to Hooks about the neighborhood’s concern. He thought about ways of communicating what was being done and decided that the quickest, most effective and simplest method would be to put on a show and invite everyone in the neighborhood to come and see it, free of charge. The show would consist of improvisation, poems and a one-act play called Happy Ending by Douglas Turner Ward. Happy Ending was one of two short plays by Ward for which Hooks had been trying to raise $35,000 to produce professionally Off-Broadway. Putting it up in an evening like this would give Hooks and others a chance to see the show on its feet and also test its effect on an audience. Jerry Tallmer, a writer for the New York Post, was invited to see the work and wrote a rave review the following day about what he saw. That review strengthened Hooks’ resolve to produce Ward’s plays off-Broadway.
“At that time there weren’t many Black producers. The LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) play (Dutchman) I was in, was produced by white producers and that was fine. I’m glad they produced it because it was a very important time and a very important theatre piece. But it was also time for Blacks to move into producing. A lot of whites didn’t like that. And a lot of people didn’t think it would happen or should happen. Some people, many people began saying things like, ‘Robert Hooks, he’s an actor. What’s he doing producing? We’re the producers, we’re the ones that are supposed to be doing that.’ But the truth is I’ve always been a producer. Even back when I was younger. Even before I came to New York, I was producing theatre. So this was natural to me. And also, just because a person acts does not mean that he can’t produce. Also we had two hilarious plays. You see, during that time in Black Theatre we were dealing with the revolutionary movement by wonderful writers like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Ed Bullins and people like that. But they were writing serious plays. Doug Ward was writing comedy. Satire really, which was every bit as revolutionary as the serious plays. The only difference is they were funny. Really funny and this appealed to me. And I knew if we put a quality production together it would work”.
In the process of putting a “quality” production together, Robert Hooks hired Gerald Krone.
Hooks, Ward, and Gerald Krone (far right)
“It was during the 1960s, I had a management company that managed off-Broadway productions primarily. And Doug and Bobby were involved in Day of Absence and Happy Ending. At that time, Bobby was very interested in the possibility of having an all black company. Black theatre managers, black designers, black everything. But there are not really too many of those people around. And so, because I had at that time one of the most successful or certainly one of the most prominent management companies, Bobby came to the company and asked us to manage the production of Day of Absence and Happy Ending. And it was during that period of time that our relationship with each other evolved. And it was out of the production of those two plays that the whole concept of the NEC evolved.”
Barbara Ann Teer, who now runs The National Black Theatre, was Robert Hooks’ partner in the Group Theatre Workshop. Teer had been a dance major at the University of Illinois, had gone to Europe, and then returned to the U.S. via New York City. Here she became a friend of Doug Ward and Robert Hooks during the run of A Raisin in the Sun. It was also during this time that due to a knee injury Barbara decided to switch to acting as her profession, rather than dance. She also discovered that she shared the same dream as Robert Hooks: “To create an ‘art standard’ for black people.”
Barbara Ann Teer:
“I was fascinated by the emotional outpouring of teenagers in those days. So I created an art standard. And there were no plays, there were no written works for them to do, so I had to write them and I had to train them.”
During all this activity, Doug Ward was not directly involved with the Group Theatre but then due to Hooks’ interest in producing his plays, Ward was invited to participate. “Doug of course was the master in the theatre domain,” says Teer, “and we were like Uncle Doug’s kids.”