A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison
We were together for one week this summer at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony to inaugurate a new program called The August Wilson Theatre Poetics for which Paul was the host. We spent quite a bit of time together. And I took one of these times to talk to him about Douglas Turner Ward, the blog and about serious black theatre in general.
GE: As you know I have this blog called The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly. What in your view is the validity for such a blog?
PCH: Well, as you know, we don’t have reference points any longer in terms of what was going on in black theatre during say the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. So generally speaking unless you’re a university student addressing that specific subject, there are no reference points as to what has been happening in black theatre in the last fifty years. Its evolution and development. It’s amazing really when you come to think about it. So a blog of this kind provides some kind of record or history of a very lively and fruitful period in our development.
GE: Starting when?
PCH: If we look back on it I would say starting in the early fifties. And definitely with A Raisin in the Sun which was 1959. That would become the anchor. Then you had The Blacks by Genet. It wasn’t quite African American but it was an opportunity for black performance in a certain kind of way. Beyond this we get to Baraka’s Dutchman, Doug Ward’s Day of Absence and the works of Adrienne Kennedy and so on. This is somewhere around 1964, 65 when the idea of the Negro Ensemble was coming into being. I think they actually started around 1967 or 68, somewhere around there. So we’re talking about a certain works by black writers that made an impact on the stage in a different kind of way during that time…So what you have is a blog with Douglas Turner Ward as the center and that is appropriate because he was the one responsible for the emergence of so much black work, black theatre writing. And not just in terms of being a producer but also as a dramaturg. I think he was intimately connected or involved with every piece of work that wound up on that stage. So that any writer whose work was done by the NEC at that time had to pass through Doug’s scrutiny. His dramaturgical scrutiny. They would have to pass the test of validity for his company…The problem is young people in these times don’t have much of a frame of reference as to how all this work emerged. So this blog provides them and anyone else who’s interested with the opportunity to look back and also come into contemporary connection by being able to hear and engage with contemporary voices ad talk with them as well. Talk about the NEC, address how important it was and what it contributed to our theatrical landscape and heritage.
The NEC as we knew it ceased it’s functioning around 1988 or 89 and has not been operating as it used to. But for around 20 years we had the NEC developing and presenting new work by black dramatists on a regular basis. This blog helps with that point of reference for discourse and discussion of the work. And by that I mean serious discussion and not just celebration like: “Well I remember when so and so had a play on.” etc. No, not general conversation or talk as a homily. I’m talking about serious, challenging discussion about the work, its impact and its durability as drama and as black drama too.
GE: There is a new NEC which I will distinguish from the former by calling the version that Doug ran as “The historic NEC” and the current incarnation as “The New NEC.” How do you view the difference?
PCH: Well, the current NEC, the NEC of let’s say the past five years or so strikes me as a club. It’s sort of clubby. They’re not producing serious work. The call themselves “The Alumni of the NEC”, the people who are involved…And there have been attempts in the last ten years to revive the NEC in what we’re now calling the Historical NEC that had a particular kind of mission. That mission was develop new work and to establish a highly professional presence on the American Theatre scene. That presence has not happened since the Doug Ward period of the NEC. They’ve fallen away from prominence. The new NEC is only connected to the old version by name. To me it’s a kind of clubby situation not necessarily with bad intentions. I think its intentions are locked down in a situation or mode of not just survival but revival of what it had been. But in order to do that you must have the underpinning of strong leadership and guidance. And a real sense of mission and purpose other than simply doing a show or being part of a play.
Now interestingly enough I might be getting involved with them. I wanted to commit one of my works to this new inauguration of the old company just by way of maybe reviving or giving them a sense of legitimacy. When I mentioned that to one of the prominent people of the historical NEC this question was asked; “Why would you want to revive that?”…Now it might be naive of me to see that happen. To see them recover and revive the professional values that Doug Ward had put forth in the works the company had been doing 20 years ago. We’ll see. But I do believe that that there’s a distinct difference between what had been done , the purpose for doing it and the outcome in terms of serving the careers of so many black actors, writers, directors and other theatre personnel. It brought so many of them into the professional theatre, filmmaking and television as we know. So it had a function and did it, which is what this new organization doesn’t seem able to do. Still we’re going to try with my play The Great Mc Daddy and see where that takes us.
GE: A visionary leader it, seems to me, is what this or any other theatre company needs. One that can view the larger picture as well as the immediate circumstances. And one with a plan of action that can animate creative excitement and take the theatre in a new direction. Does that sound reasonable to you or even sensible?
PCH: Yes, that’s what the historical NEC did all those years ago. For instance I can recall vividly a time in 1969 or 70 when I was teaching at Howard University and the NEC came there to do a show. Esther Rolle, Doug Ward and all those others were there and these starry eyed students including Phylicia Rashard , her sister Debbie and several other who since then have turned out to be excellent performers and theatre artists. People like Clinton Turner Davis and others. They were all students of mine at the time at Howard and their eyes lit up when the NEC cast and creative personnel came around to visit the classes and to talk to them at the Fine Arts Building. They stood around in awe. That’s how they felt about the NEC. Today you couldn’t get the current NEC people to walk into a room and create a sense of awe based on the work they are doing. Those students saw with the old NEC people where they wanted to go and who they wanted to be. And interestingly enough most of them did actually work for the NEC at one time or another. That’s the kind of legacy the old NEC created.
So for me a blog like The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly provides us with a forum and a clearing place where all these histories, legacies, ideas and discussions can be recorded, discoursed, challenged and preserved.
GE: Thank you Paul, well talk some more.