Actors, Directors, and Other Theatre Professionals

Actors, writers, directors, producers and other theatre professionals on the NEC.

The number of people the NEC has had an impact on through its existence, its productions, its standards as a professional Theatre Company along with the inspiration and confidence it inspired is innumerable but here are a few comments from many who were directly involved in one way or another with them during the years of Doug Ward’s tenure. 

Ed Burbridge – set designer

The NEC personally gave me a place to grow… Now I had worked before the NEC came along. I had designed on Broadway and done a lot of other work. But the NEC gave me a consistent place to work. A place where I could work “hands on”, where I could spend the night if I wanted to, which I didn’t often want to do, but I did. It gave me a place to try things out. And it gave me really direct contact with the actors, the director and importantly, with the playwright. We were actually working with the authors that were there and present. That’s a big difference. You could actually sit down at The Orchidia Resturant, which was just down the street from the theatre, after work and talk to the author and find out what the author meant. That’s invaluable for a designer.

Ed Bullins – playwright and educator (The Taking of Miss Janie – Northwestern University)

Well, there’s black theatre now in St. Louis now and in Atlanta and much of that is due to the NEC and its projection of itself and its work in black theatre. Black theatre is now in the classrooms. I teach Black Theatre Performance and things like that at places like City College in San Francisco and other places. But those courses are being duplicated in many other educational institutions across the country. And one of the institutions which was the foundation of black theatre in this country is the NEC.

Rev. Calvin Buttssubscriber

I was proud of the NEC as I am about Morehouse College. I grew up in New York but it was only when I went to Atlanta, in that kind of experience, where I was surrounded by black professionals who were extremely competent, that I realized how powerful our people really are and how we had developed in America. And the NEC really reinforced that even more in the theatre. Culture plays an important part in our lives. I mean Africans in America gave America its only original art form in terms of jazz basically. And DuBois would say: “We gave America its only fairy tales and its subtle sense of song amidst its money getting plutocracy.”

Rosalind Cash – actress (1938-1995)

At the NEC I stood a little taller and spoke a little clearer and walked with a little more certainty during and after the NEC. You see I was a little timid before the NEC. It was like: “Excuse me; I’m just a humble, poor black actress. But when I went to the NEC it was: “You’re an actor, you deserve your spot.” …You see, during the time of integration I was integrated into shows. But in many of them I was just a piece of furniture put there to satisfy the demands of integration. At the NEC I felt like I was home, like I had my little family. I have my memories and they’re precious. I had an experience that I think was unique. I was able to train and work in a compatible atmosphere and be appreciated. I liked the fact that they didn’t have a star system there or a pecking order. Everyone was equal and that was great. I still feel a connection to the NEC and I always will.

Zaida Coles – subscriber / fund raiser

The NEC makes it possible for the average person to see theatre that relates to their life experience without paying an arm and a leg to do it. Now that’s not to say that the NEC couldn’t prosper by charging more and I certainly hope they won’t charge more, though they need the money. So that’s where fundraising comes in. But what they do is valuable because they’re keeping it within the scope of the average person who wants to see theatre and theatre that relates to their life.

Lonne Elder the 3rd – playwright and screenwriter (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Sounder) 1927 – 1996

The NEC caused a number of people in the black communities across the nation as a whole to all of a sudden recognize that there’s this place you could point to with a certain degree of pride. It changed a lot of lives. I was working with a young man doing a show and he remembered when we would come down South on some tour. He was in school and they went to see the show and he said that it changed his life. That’s when he made the decision to become an actor because he knew there was a possibility. Never before had he thought it was possible.

Charles Fuller – playwright (A Soldier’s Play)

Theatre in America is fundamentally a very segregated institution, unfortunately. In the mainstream theatre for the most part we never see ourselves in any meaningful way. We never have much of ourselves as a people operating and functioning as human beings in the United States. Most of the theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights on a regular basis. If they do it’s only every now and then. Well part of the problem is that we function in society every day of the week. Douglas and the NEC for a very long time with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre….And in doing so, I think that the NEC through its consistent work really changed attitudes in a strange kind of way. The company raised the level of consciousness in the US with regard to what black people can do, the kinds of things they can think.  That I think is very important and it will probably have a lasting effect far beyond anything I can imagine.

Norman Jewison – film director (In the Heat of the Night/A Soldier’s Story/Moonstruck etc.)

The NEC besides providing like all private theatres, an outlet for artists and a source of encouragement and hopefully confidence in young people, especially black writers and directors and actors and scenic designers and so on provided history. I think part of the theatre is dealing with one’s history. This is what most plays are written about. They’re written about our feelings. And through theatre we can learn about the past as well.  I think constantly at the NEC you see this Black history in America being used as a source of inspiration. So I think it is very important. And I think that it is also important for the white community because it constantly gives them insight into their own history and their own relationship with Black Americans.

Woodie King Jr. – Theatre administrator (The New Federal Theatre)

We looked, saw and said; “Well if the NEC can do it maybe it’s possible that my dream could be realized. They do four plays a year and I’m inspired, I’m moved. I see acting like I’ve never seen before. And it’s the same with direction. Then I go back to the University and I say: “Well I know this is possible because when I get out I know there’s an institution that exists that I might be able to go and work in. That’s what I think happened across America. So Black theatres in particular are, in a sense, indebted to the NEC. And in a sense, indebted to the contributions of Douglas Turner Ward.

 Sylvester Leeks – journalist

In terms of accomplishment and the NEC I think you have to say, first it survived. That in itself is a miracle. No one gave it five years. Frankly I thought that once the first grant from the Ford Foundation was exhausted it would probably just peter out like so many other groups have done. And number two; it has left its footprints in the sands of time in Black culture and Black American culture. It has brought awareness to the world because it’s done productions all over Europe as well America. And insight into the black psyche. And it has left a repertoire of plays through its production of them for others to come along and either duplicate or supersede. I think that’s perhaps the best way to put it.

 

W. McNeil Lowry – Ford Foundation Administrator (1913-1993)

They came along and said to these young, aspiring black people “it can happen to you.” This to me their greatest accomplishment and their greatest legacy.

This was done through the training program, the existence of the training program. That became a factor that others couldn’t ignore. So that when the NEC started going around to black colleges their young people didn’t say “Maybe someday this will apply to blacks” because they were looking at a tour by some small white company.  They say: “Look, this applies to people who graduated from colleges like ours, or didn’t graduate at all. Who came out of high schools and other places.  And here they are, theatre professionals.

Joseph Papp – Founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (1921- 1991)

Although the NEC has demonstrated that some of their plays can move into the commercial arena, it doesn’t need that justification at all. Its existence is its own justification. It has done excellent plays and important work. Black writers have to write for black actors and that is important.

 

C.T.Perkinson – musician/ composer (1932 – 2004)

I think NEC’s community was the New York theatre audience. And I think with its growth over the years it has impacted favorably. They produced work that otherwise would not have been seen, some of which have gone on to becoming films, which give you a much broader, larger audience. And they’ve impacted favorably upon that larger audience. So they began with this microcosm, so to speak, of New York and blossomed into that audience of America.

 

Lloyd Richards – Director (Fences) and Educator (Dean: Yale School of Drama) (1919 – 2006)

The NEC was not the first black company. There had been others before it. But it came at a time when many things were in question, when there was a social revolution taking place in this country. And it significantly demonstrated in its time the potential and the artistry of black people. And it manifests and realized the possibility for accomplishment, both in terms of the artistry of the theatre and the technical artistry as well as the writing artistry. It manifested that and it permitted people to say: “Hey wait, that is possible also.” I think it spoke for its time I think it demonstrated those things in a very important time.

Esther Rolle – actress (1920 – 1998)

You didn’t have to be white or blonde or thin to do this really. You just had to be you. And that was, for me, the most wonderful thing that could have happened because I didn’t have any of the requirements that the establishment said they counted at the time. My skin was black; my hair was short and curly. I wasn’t exactly Twiggy and I wasn’t twelve. So the chance that the NEC gave me I shall be eternally grateful for. And it gave us all the same chance.

Roxie Roker – actress (1929 – 1995)

The company is important for those things we don’t always stress: the backstage work. Training technicians, wardrobe people, lighting people, directors etc. It’s all there. And if you didn’t have a place like the NEC in which to work and learn, where would young black performers or artists or technicians het the opportunity? There needs to be many more companies and we hope that many more will be formed. But the important thing is that it launched us out into the commercial world, the commercial theatre and what have you. And my gosh, what more could be said than that?

 

Michael Schultz – Stage and Film director

The legacy of the NEC is almost its motherhood. It gave birth to most of the dramatic actors that are on screen today. At least in the past ten years. Roz cash, Moses Gunn, Esther Rolle and the list goes on and on. It definitely started my career with a major splash. But what I think will live in is the worth of the writers it produced because that’s what always lives on. They have been responsible for creating at least four classic pieces to my way of thinking.

Denzel Washington – actor

I grew up in beauty parlors and barber shops. So when I had a special affection for Ceremonies in Dark Old Men because it takes place in a barber shop setting. And I said to myself when I saw it: ‘This is what my life is all about.” And it was one of the first opportunities where I really saw a part of my life reflected on (TV) the screen, and I felt as though I belonged. So I wanted to know who was responsible for that. And it was the NEC. So I tracked them down over the years and finally got a chance to work with them in 1981.

Samm-Art Williams – actor-playwright (Home) and producer (Fresh Prince of Bel Air)

I think that the NEC gives the writer a chance. That’s all you can ask of a producing company; is to let the writer see his play. The primary concern initially is the writer. That’s one good thing about Doug that you can always depend on. It’s constant and as sure as rain; the writer will have his say.

Hattie Winston – actress

Part of the vision of the NEC was to develop an audience that had never experienced theatre before. Particularly people who had never even been out of Harlem. When they saw themselves on stage there was pride. They were very proud. NEC was not just fifteen actors who were on stage. NEC was an entire community. The NEC was the audience because they saw themselves and it was exciting. It was absolutely exhilarating because they identified so passionately with what was happening on stage. They would talk back to us on stage. “That’s right! Yes, I understand what you talking about sister. That’s gone girl, tell me about it.”

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