Classic Plays of the NEC: The Anthology and how it came to be

Classic Plays from the NEC- The Anthology and how it came to be.

In 1995 The University of Pittsburg Press published a collection of plays produced by The Negro Ensemble Company edited by Paul Carter Harrison and I. For me it was the realization of a dream that I had harbored for quite some time.

Even before my own affiliation with the NEC began I always thought that there ought to be a collection of their works available in print for aspiring playwrights like myself to peruse and read. I even thought there ought to be more than one because there were so many plays I had seen there that I wanted to read and re-experience after I had seen them on stage. Over the years I had seen and bought many anthologies of plays done by other theatre companies so naturally I figured that The NEC with its high record of critically acclaimed works should be represented in this way as well. So the only thing I could figure is that it was an oversight on somebody’s part that needed to be corrected.

Now many of the company’s biggest hits like Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, The River Niger etc. had been published individually and could be found in the Drama section of larger bookstores. Some were available in the Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service acting editions. But a significant number of the ones I thought worthwhile weren’t available anywhere. Somehow, for whatever reason, they seemed to have fallen through the cracks. So around 1980, three years after I had been produced by the company I suggested it to Doug and he thought it was a good idea and encouraged me to move forward with it. And beyond that he made all the play scripts I requested available to me.

Now I had never edited an anthology before or ever thought I would ever be doing one so this was all a new and interesting challenge for me. So the first thing I did was look at other anthologies, analyzed how they were put together and used that as a guideline. After I was finished I set about finding a publisher and thought that it would be easy since, as I said before, an anthology like this was long overdue. But I was wrong. Every publisher I sent my proposal to sent back a nicely worded letter telling me what an excellent idea the anthology was but why it was not for them. The first were the publishers who had put out collections of plays done by other companies. After rejections from them I sent my proposal to any company who had published an anthology of plays of any kind. My proposal included a cover letter and a detailed listing of the plays I had in mind with a sampling of the critical acclaim each had attracted. Also I articulated why I thought such an anthology was necessary and who the potential audience for such a volume would be. Still it was no go. I think in a year and a half I wrote to over a hundred publishers and received a hundred or more rejections.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a stubborn person and have never been. So after all those refusals I decided that the anthology was not such a good idea after all and gave up on it. I had other things that needed addressing, so I moved on.

About four years passed and I had more or less forgotten all about it. By this time my living situation had changed. I was no longer living in New York City or even functioning as a playwright in any primary kind of way. I was now living in Tempe, Arizona, teaching at the State University (ASU) and enjoying it immensely. Playwrighting had become a secondary or part-time endeavor at the most… Anyway, I was at a theatre conference at USC-San Diego where I ran into an NEC Playwright/Director Paul Carter Harrison. We hadn’t seen each in a long time and spent several hours talking about our various activities and endeavors. Somewhere in the course of things I mentioned the NEC anthology I had tried to get off the ground with dismal results. He thought it was a terrific idea and asked if I could send him the proposal that had been so roundly rejected. I said sure. It was a dead issue to me anyway.

To cut to the chase, Paul came on board and said that we should try again. This time he took the lead. The first thing he did was ask if he could change some of the titles I had selected. I said sure. Most of the ones I had chosen hadn’t been published and I explained my rationale to him. He understood but suggested that maybe we would be better off going with some of the well known plays first. And that’s what we did. Almost immediately he got a positive responsive from The University of Pittsburg Press who wanted more information. We put together a more detailed proposal along with copies of all the plays. The idea now had been expanded from one volume of plays to three volumes which we both felt would more properly represent the great variety of worthwhile plays the NEC had presented. In addition to that I thought it would be great if Doug Ward could write the Forward to each volume. In Volume #1 he would talk about the playwrights the company discovered and nurtured. In Volume #2 he would talk about the actors, directors, designers and other NEC personnel. In Volume #3 he would comment on the audiences that came to the NEC, the critics who assessed the work and about the company’s travels abroad. In this way along with the plays there would be a sort of overview history of the company as seen from three perspectives by its Artistic Director. That was the plan but it never quite came to fruition.

The problems began with the first volume when a reader that the University of Pittsburg Press assigned to it objected to several of the titles based on content he or she thought socially or politically incorrect. Paul wrote a letter to the Publisher addressing each objection head on and pointing out the fallacy and sometimes absurdity of the reader’s objections. We were then given the go ahead by the University of Pittsburg Press.

It took close to a year to secure the rights to all the plays we wanted to include. One of the reasons for this is that there wasn’t any appreciable amount of money being offered. I’ve forgotten the amount but it was genuinely miniscule. In fact, if I remember rightly, we all agreed that the money should just be donated to the NEC. And that’s where it went.

The book came out and physically it was handsomer than I had imagined it could be. The University of Pittsburg Press had done a wonderful job. Now it was time to put together the second volume. Paul, who had done all the lead work on Volume #1 said that he was stepping back and I would have to take the lead on this one. That was sensible and fair. I emulated what had been done the first time and ran into the same obstacles. Here I thought that with Volume #1 we had proved ourselves but now we were being asked to do it all over again. Questions about the content of the plays, about the validity of a second volume, about the need for a greater variety in terms of themes and even plots. And every time I answered one question a dozen more would come up. I talked to Doug about it and he pointed out the fact that they were dealing with the plays as though they hadn’t been produced and proved their value in the only crucible that really matters. “Every one of these plays have been professionally produced for a paying audience and have been critically scrutinized by some of the most demanding critics in the country. What more do they want?” I wrote and said that to them but the questions kept coming. Finally I decided that I had had enough. I ended communication with the publisher and never pursued the idea further. From my point of view it appeared that they were making me jump hurdles that I didn’t need to jump. So I just gave it up.

The first volume exists and I think that it’s great. It would be wonderful if some time in the future there could be other volumes of NEC plays. But for now this one exists so why not celebrate what is and not what-might-have-been?

Gus Edwards

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