Gus Edwards and the NEC
It was during the eleventh season (1977-1978) that I became involved with the NEC. They opened the season with two of my plays The Offering and Black Body Blues in repertory. There was quite a bit of newspaper coverage given to this event because it was the first time that the company had ever committed to presenting a playwright in such a manner. It identified me as special or unique and of course, set up all sorts of high expectations in terms of the quality of the plays.
For me, it was a dream come true. Something I had never anticipated, even in my wildest flights of fantasy. How it came about had something to do with luck, timing, and happenstance.
As a teen on the island (St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), I’d always dreamed about a career in show business. Movies mostly, but the stage as well. I had acted in school plays and had even written a few without any kind of guidance. I just sort of imitated what I had seen and read and hoped for the best. But since I never showed them to anyone so I had no idea if they were any good or not. Nevertheless I persisted in writing plays.
Years passed and I continued with the forlorn hope that someday perhaps luck might come my way and I would get something produced.
I was working at this popular restaurant on the Upper East Side when I developed a nodding acquaintance with a customer who came in on a semi-regular basis. What made him stand out among the dozens of people I encountered in the daily run of things is that he was a white male, somewhere in his mid-thirties, always accompanied by three or four young black people in their upper teens. They were friendly and always a pleasure to serve. Then one night when I presented the bill, the man discovered that he had forgotten his wallet at home. The young people with him didn’t have enough to cover the bill and he was very embarrassed about it. He told me of his dilemma even offered to let them wait in the restaurant while he hopped a cab to rush home and get his wallet. I told him it wasn’t necessary, that he could pay the check the next time he came in. “But you don’t know me.” He said. I told him that he had been in enough time that I felt as though I did. He seemed very relieved and asked if I was sure. I told him yes and that was it, he left with his entourage. The next evening he came in and paid.
That brief encounter over the bill broke the ice and we became more than waiter and customer we became friends. I found out that he was a minister whose parish was located in East Harlem and that the young people who accompanied him were members of that parish. In time, he became friendly not only with me but with everyone who worked in the restaurant and we would attend his services on special days like Christmas and Easter. He counseled and performed marriage services for several members of our staff and also gave memorial services for family members who died (my mother was one).
Somewhere in the course of things, he asked about my future ambition since no young person in New York is ever waiting tables for the love of the profession. And for some reason, I did an unusual thing for me. I told him I was an aspiring playwright. Why it was unusual was because I almost never told anyone, not even my close friends, what my ambitions were. I didn’t think it was any of their business. I also felt that the question was too personal. But for some reason or other, I told Harold (that was his name, Reverend Harold Eads) the truth. I told him that I was trying to be a playwright. He then asked if he could then read one of my plays and again I broke another of my long-standing rules and said sure.
The play I gave him was one that I had been working on for close to eight years, writing, rewriting, more rewriting, and cutting, cutting, cutting. Finally, I had what I thought was a finished copy. And after going through more than a dozen title changes the play was called The Offering. Harold read it, told me how much he liked it, and asked permission for him to give it to Douglas Turner Ward, Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company.
“You know him?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m on the company’s board of directors.”
I told him yes, and promptly forgot all about it.
More than a year went by and then one Saturday afternoon, Harold came by the restaurant for lunch.
“I think you ought to call Doug Ward at the NEC”, he said to me, “He’s had your play more than a year now. I think you ought to give him a call to see what’s up.”
“Maybe he hasn’t had a chance to read it yet”, I said, “A place like the NEC must receive hundreds of scripts so it probably takes a lot of time to get through them.”
Again, he reiterated his suggestion that I call Doug Ward and again I indicated my reluctance. Finally, he said,
“I had dinner with him and his wife last night. And all he could talk about was your play and how much he wanted to produce it.”
I still didn’t quite believe him. Not that I thought he was lying but that perhaps he was overstating Ward’s enthusiasm.
“So why doesn’t he call me then?” I asked.
“Because he says he’s got several productions scheduled over the next two years and won’t be able to get to yours until after that. So he doesn’t want to commit himself until he can schedule you in a definite slot.”
Again, I heard what Harold was saying and believed him but I was still skeptical. Was Ward saying that as a way of softening his rejection because Harold (a friend) had given him the play? I knew the routine. Three years would go by, I would hear nothing, and all would be forgotten. Or even if I called, he could say that circumstances have changed or that Harold misinterpreted what he had said or some other excuse.
“Are you going to call him?” Harold asked. I was a bit surprised by his insistence but I was adamant. Now because I was so reluctant and so firm about it Harold came up with a solution. He would take me to see one of the plays at the NEC and invite Doug to have a drink with us afterwards. This sounded like a good idea so I said sure.
We went to the St. Mark’s Theatre and saw the play Livin Fat, which Doug directed. After the show, we waited for him in a little café downstairs of the theater. He came in, said hello to Harold, and laughed when I was introduced.
“I thought something was up,” he said to Harold, “Something in your voice told me this wasn’t just about having a casual drink. Now I see.”
Then he sat down and proceeded to tell me how much he liked my play and how many times he read it over the year.
“My first intention was to put it aside because nothing much happens on the surface. But, something else told me to look at it again. So I put it at the corner of my desk and moved onto other things. A few months later, I read it again and just as I suspected, there was more than meets the eye in the play. A lot of it is between the lines, in fact, most of it is. And since that time, I’ve read your play six or eight times and each time I read it, the more I find. I definitely want to do this play but I don’t want to give it to anyone else to direct. They won’t know what to do with it. So I have to wait until I’m available so it can be done right. And also, because of the kind of play it is, I’ve got to schedule it in the right slot and prepare our subscribers and public for it too.”
When I asked about some kind of contract or firm commitment, Doug said,
“I don’t sign contracts until we’re moving into the actual production. Until then, my word is my contract.”
I believed him and spoke no more about it.
What did I know about the NEC at this time? Nothing much, except that they had produced several black plays that were well received. I also knew who some of their better-known actors were and that was about it. Oddly enough, I had seen Douglas Turner Ward on stage; he played one of the Moving Men in the Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier. I had also seen him in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Kirk Douglas on Broadway. But I never made the connection until long after, when it was pointed out to me. So as I said, I knew nothing about the NEC or their open policy of reading scripts, how they came into being, or what their artistic mission was, or anything. I had seen a few of their productions but it had never occurred to me to submit stuff to them or even audition there for acting work. Because based on what I had seen, I felt that their standards were so high that I could never match up. So, rather than be turned down once again, I just never approached them.
After that drink with Harold and Doug, two years went by, and in that time I wrote two other plays. And since Doug had liked The Offering so much, I sent them to the NEC’s office addressed to him.
One morning while I was at work, (by this time I had changed jobs and was now tending bar) when a call came in. The person on the other line asked for Gus Edwards.
“This is Gus.”
She identified herself as Doug’s secretary at the NEC and said that they wanted to do two of my plays in the same season. The purpose of the call was for me to come down and sign the contracts. I went down, signed the contracts, and the process began. We talked about the plays and how they would be presented. I attended auditions and was consulted about everything having to do with the plays and how they would be interpreted. At the same time interviews and publicity brochures etc were being prepared that would introduce me and my unique situation to the NEC and the New York theatre going audience at large. In their subscription brochure this is how it was described.
The NEC will launch its 1977 – 78 season with an innovation in programming, mounting Two new full length plays by the same author, in repertory. These works The Offering and Black Body Blues will open separately and then alternate in repertory on a week- to- week basis.
In Gus Edwards the NEC is introducing a unique talent, a playwright of great originality. Edwards’ territory is the outer boundaries of the black experience. He portrays people isolated from the mainstream of Afro-American life functioning on the borderline of existence, yet depicts them with such compelling intensity and ferocious eloquence until they command primary attention.
The plays opened to mixed, but mostly positive reviews, especially The Offering. And ten years or so later in 1988, when Doug Ward was being interviewed by Arthur Bartow for the book The Director’s Voice, this was his comment on thequestion: “There have been so many major plays and black authors to come out of the NEC. Was there a signal work?”
“NEC over the years has been very eclectic, however, at one point; it got stuck with the success of its domestic dramas. The critics and the public embraced the more realistic plays. We did them before white theatre went back to doing them, because they were considered old-fashioned in the late nineteen sixties. They were a minor part of our total work.
Gus Edwards’ The Offering, which we did in 1977, was probably signal to NEC. Gus’s style in that play is very often compared to Pinter’s—as much of the play appears in its silences as in its dialogue. If you looked at the play, line by line, you might think there’s nothing there. A director has to know what he has in hand and be able to visualize what is between the lines.”
Black Body Blues opened and was sort of lost in the shadow of The Offering until Walter Kerr, senior critic for the New York Times, wrote an op-ed column in the Sunday edition entitled “Is the Get Whitey Play Obsolete?” in which he asked the question “Have black playwrights now surrendered the signal note of rage in exchange for a much more complex view of things?” This was considered a new direction for black dramaturgy at the time and I was credited with being the one who brought about that change.
So my beginning with the company started officially in 1977 but it really begun at least three years earlier when Harold arranged for us to have that drink together.