Category Archives: Issue #1

The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly Issue #1

WELCOME TO OUR FIRST ISSUE!

Douglas Turner Ward co-founder and Artistic Director of the famed Negro Ensemble Company (or: NEC) is one of the most important artists/contributors to the American Theatrical scene in the past half century. His list of accomplishments as actor, playwright, director, producer and dramaturge are so numerous that they have become legendary. For many years he has been called “The Godfather of Black Theatre” and rightfully so.  Because through the plays he produced, the actors he introduced through those productions  and through the people trained under the auspices of the NEC he revitalized American Theatre and made the African American theatre artists and craftspeople a permanent part of that landscape.

It is to his work, his achievements and his vision that this quarterly is devoted. With each issue we will be bringing you interviews, narratives and historical information along with other assorted data concerning this man and the state of African American Theatre then and now.

Editor’s Note

Over the years I have known Douglas Turner Ward which goes back to 1977 when he produced my first play, I have been taping our conversations on a regular basis in order to preserve his opinions on various aspects of both the history of the Negro Ensemble Company and his perspectives on African American Theatre.

The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly is an attempt to call attention to this important figure  who deserves recognition for both his body of work and his achievements in situating Black Theatre into the corpus of contemporary American Theatre.  As editors, we feel it our responsibility to record and publish this material so that others may share and engage with the ideas of Douglas Turner Ward.

Gus Edwards, Chief Editor

Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

Advertisements
Tagged , ,

Doug Ward: The Early Years

Early Years

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.”

Three Friends

Lorraine Hansberry

 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.”

Lonne Elder

Paul Mann

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.”

Name Change

“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

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.

Robert Hooks:

“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.

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.”

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Talking With Doug Ward

Over the years since we met in 1977 I have been interviewing Doug Ward via audio tapes almost continuously. Here is a sampling of one such interview.

GE: If you had to advise someone with the highest intentions about trying to create a black theatre today, what would you tell them?

DTW: First of all I would tell them not to do it…I’m joking but I’m serious too because it’ll take up the better part of your life. But if you don’t mind the commitment and felt passionately inclined then I would say they would have to study in minute detail the history of the NEC because all the lessons are there. They will be able to have something to give them a concrete measure or yardstick or maybe a point of departure. But it’s there at least as a guideline. It may take them somewhere else but still it provides them with a model of what has been done before. It gives them something to look at and say: “Oh I see how it was done before.” As a result, they don’t have to start from scratch because other people have done it…

When I created the NEC I was absolutely instructed by what other people, other institutions had done. Some things were positive other lessons were negative like the situation when the American Negro Theatre (ANT) did that successful production of Anna Lucasta uptown in Harlem that somebody picked it up and moved it to Broadway taking the cast people along with them, including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who I think met in that production. Anyway, it caused jealousy and many other problems among the members not selected to go with that production. And may have ultimately led to its demise.

So when I had the opportunity to create the NEC I made up my mind not to let that happen. And when we were faced with the same situation when Ceremonies in Dark Old Men came along I said “No. I know we should not go to Broadway. It is too early.” We were at exactly the same junction as the ANT all those years ago. The move would interfere with too many things. It would’ve destroyed our credibility for what we claim we were supposed to do and probably lead to the same result. So without getting theatrical about it, you have to draw on concrete examples and draw your own conclusions that will help instruct you in terms of what you have to do.

Now, the biggest and most important question in terms of what I would tell somebody is that you have to have a vision. It is not enough to want to do something just because you want to become rich or be a star and so forth. You have to have a large vision in terms of what you want to accomplish artistically. You have to have a vision that is bigger than just the minutiae of small scale goals. You have to have an overview because that will sustain you in the times when you will be facing all kinds of disappointments and criticisms and things of that nature. You need to have a larger vision and beside that you must develop a standard of artistic value and quality. And I will take credit in an arrogant way to say that the thing that helped the NEC through the years was my high artistic standards. They were higher than the average therefore they helped me to sustain the company and make sure that the work we did was always of superior quality. Even in failure, when we did not realize our ambitions for a particular work, many of our failures were better than some other folk’s successes.  That only came from the fact that I had high, very high artistic standards. High standards of what I wanted to do in terms of creating black theatre. I mean black theatre doesn’t interest me when somebody has mediocre intentions. It is only worth the effort when it is dedicated to excellence.

GE: I know there were many things the NEC couldn’t do. Many unrealized artistic ideas and programs that were thought out in some detail but for one reason or another, mostly having to do with lack of money, the company wasn’t able to do. Could you talk about them?

DTW: There were so many, where do you want to start?

GE: The Director’s Project.

DTW: Let’s see. In my mind and on paper it was called ‘The Director’s Choice Program’ and it came about this way. A few years after I became a director I began to realize that the only thing that could stimulate a director’s ability to even have a chance at doing their best work or the best work he or she is capable of was when they are totally committed to the project through their artistic desire, choice or stimulus…Look, basically and pragmatically, a lot of people, a lot of directors figure that once they’ve reached a point where they’ve acquired a certain level of craft skills, they think they can simply apply that skill to whatever project you assign them and get excellent results. It’s almost like you’re just a craftsman. Like what people believe about working in movies, that once they acquire a certain degree of technical skills, all they need to do is become a hired hand and they can turn anything they’re assigned to into something worthwhile and even terrific…Now I know that in the theatre the odds are so much against a director doing what he or she is capable of doing until that person is totally engaged, that there is no reason for them to do anything else. In other words, they have to be engaged and committed almost one hundred percent artistically, without any distraction or stress.

Now once I came to that conclusion, then I realized that you just can’t shop projects out to directors. In the early days when I didn’t know better I thought that all I had to do get a good play, match it with a good director so long as he or she was favorably inclined toward the material and the end result would be a full and vital realization of the work. But then what I found out was being ‘favorably inclined’ on their part really represented their subjective point of view that was embracing many different ambitions. I mean being ‘favorably inclined’ for many directors just meant that they were getting a chance to direct. And that would ad another credit to their resume’ and further establish their credentials. But in any meaningful way, like I’m talking about, they didn’t give a damn about the play or the project. Their egos were telling them that they could turn shit to shinola. And for those people that was all it was. But that never works. We’re not geniuses enough as writers, directors, or actors that we can turn out great work willy, nilly, no matter what our feelings are about working on it. That we are so expert in what we do that we can take anything we put our hand to and turn the project into gold.

So Gus, once I reached that conclusion, I said that in order for directors to reveal their capabilities, their potential and their talent, the first step was that they had to be 100% desirous in doing the play. So the basic premise of the ‘The Director’s Choice Program” was that first and foremost the director had to select the play or project he or she wanted to do. That was the bottom line. They had to select the work and convince me that they had a viable and passionate reason for wanting to do it….Now by this time we had in our files over a hundred plays that they could select from. They could read them all and select one. They could also select plays from writers they knew, or they could bring me a project from outside. Once again, as artistic director I didn’t want to select what I thought was a good play and then just put them on it. Because by this time anything I gave the directors they’d say yes to and try to talk enthusiastically about how much they loved it only because they knew it would give them a directing credit. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be totally their choice, first and foremost. Then once they made their selection we, the company, would give them the resources to do it. Not in a full scale production at first for the simple reason that I didn’t want the directors to have the burden of the institution’s reputation riding on their choices. I wanted them to be free of all external pressures and burdens. I just wanted their total concentration to be on the work. So what I devised is that it would be done workshop style, therefore it wouldn’t be reviewed. It wouldn’t have judgmental pressure on it. I worked out a form where the work could be discussed and even praised in a reasonable and professional manner. Not some bullshit session where the audience says ‘I like this’ or ‘I didn’t like that’. This session would be with me, the director and whoever else’s judgment we trusted. We would discuss what the results were and how we would proceed beyond that. I called it The Director’s Choice because I wanted to see what directors would do given these options.

Now of course if somebody brought me a project that was so horrendous that I would have to say no, or say; “Look, I think that this material is so bad till you almost prove to me by the selection you made that you’re not a good director. Because you don’t even know what the hell to select.” But even with saying that it should be understood that what they selected didn’t have to be on the level of what I would have chosen to produce. All I had to be was positively inclined toward the material selected and the rest would be left up to the director. All they had to have was a valid concept that I thought was worth being attempted and I would say yes. I would then provide them with class A actors because far as I was concerned The Director’s Choice Program couldn’t work with mediocre actors. So I would provide them with the same level of actors that we were hiring for our mainstage productions. So if the project failed or just didn’t work I didn’t want it to be because of poor acting or any such thing. And also it wouldn’t be due to the fact that the actors or the director were rushed into production circumstances. I wanted them working under the best possible conditions. So since it wasn’t a full scale production they could work at it as long as they felt was necessary.  And they could work at it in stages, starting with a staged reading perhaps, then a fully staged reading  with blocking and movement but no costumes or set. Or some could even be fully scaled productions in a skeleton fashion. So, as I said, the field was wide open and the choice was theirs. And the end result would be theirs as well.

Gus, my ambition was to make this a regular part of the NEC, like The Playwright’s Workshop, an independent entity that would function in a way that I just described. But once again, none of it came to fruition due to the lack of funds. We applied for grants all over the place but didn’t get any of them. I even looked at our own budget to see if there was some way I could make The Director’s Choice Program a possibility. But it wasn’t possible. We couldn’t even meet our own basic budget, so there was no room at any point for it…Hey, I’m still sorry we didn’t get a chance to do it, because I think the results it would’ve yielded would have been a significant contribution not just to the artistic viability of our theatre but for other theatres as well. Because as I have always said, the NEC couldn’t produce all the worthwhile black plays we received or hire all the excellent black actors that were out there. But if we showed who they were and showcased their abilities in some way other theatres, white or black, might create opportunities. But it wasn’t to be. That’s all I can say, it wasn’t to be.

GE:  I’d like to talk about reviews and critics. I know that right from the beginning you always had questions about the necessity of reviews and quality of those reviews in terms of assessing black plays.

DTW:  My feelings about reviews and critics, whether they are necessary or not, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally, you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean, you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. Unfortunately, in my experience I find that in the main, criticisms and reviews do not usually do that. And that they were at an even greater disadvantage when looking at and attempting to assess Black Theatre. Because when it came to what Black Theatre and the NEC were doing, they were one, two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. It wasn’t just because ninety-nine percent were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on onstage could be brought by anyone of any color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and practices of the lives being presented. It’s just that it was very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from even their own background and culture. So after a while, I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.

Now as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from, several of these critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole, this was not generally true. Now I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to, I’m talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were enthusiastic about to me, frequently, the angle of dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed to be only able to deal with things they could label with terms like ‘the family play’ or ‘the black protest play’. And the problem there is that they of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore, would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and then appraise some of the work that we were doing.

I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as Artistic Director or actor or writer, I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer, and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say ‘Oh that’s right. I know they’re right about this. And I can make it better or improve on it just because they pointed it out to me.’ There were very few times where critics and reviews were helpful on that level.

GE: On what level?

DTW: On the level of being a middle-person to their own public. ….Now from a pragmatic perspective, they could be helpful yes, after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint, they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. But with a black audience, only residually so. Because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC, it wasn’t that significant. The NEC had already succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never that much affected by whether the New York Times, The NY Post, or The Daily News liked our shows or not. But that is not to say that the black public didn’t depend on these organs for information. Things like discovering that the play was there, that it had opened, and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented, they liked what they were seeing, and that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. This is why they came. Not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion maker’s advice. So with a rave review in the Times, the percentage of our white audiences would go up for those plays. But this wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.

But to go back to the subject of critics. The ideal function of criticism in our case would have been to give us outside views that were somewhat insightful and knowledgeable. Toward this end I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I am sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.

GE: But you did try as I remember.

DTW: Yes, but first let me say I felt and still feel that a majority black audience attending our plays was an absolute necessity. The reason being that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping any aspect of black life, they’re going to point it out to us. More than point it out, they’re going to curse us out for it. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you that you’re full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. These folks speak up and that’s what I always found wonderful about them.

GE: Didn’t I hear that in  search for a representative black audience at each of its performances, the company might go so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order to assure that they would go specifically to African-Americans who might come later?

DTWYes. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them, we would have a house that would be maybe ninety percent white folks and ten percent blacks. Because most black folks didn’t read reviews they generally came out of spontaneous response or word of mouth and they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to ensure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty-fifty, I asked the people at the box office to hold back fifty or sixty seats for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up the sign that all tickets for the day were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling the black folks that we had seats available for them. I did it because I felt it was important to have them in the audience.

GE: Can we now talk about the efforts you made to get black theatre critics more involved in the process?

DTW: Well Gus what I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that Black Theatre now exists. And because it does, we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper, we should come up with special ways of making sure that black critics’ opinions were occurring. So, with the opening of The River Niger, I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways Magazine, Joseph Okpaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press, Lindsey Patterson, editor of Black Theatre: A Twentieth Century Collection of Its Best Plays, and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence Magazine. They were invited under the proviso that whatever they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play, their opinions were their own. We would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given was about the word count. Only because we had a certain amount of space in the New York Times that we were paying for, and as I remember, it wasn’t cheap. But even with that, a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. And if you go back to look at the way they were printed, you’ll see we had to use two or three different types of print- face in order to make them fit. But still, black critics were represented. The irony of course is, that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say the Mel Gussow review in the Times. So it was obvious that these reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying to have them published.

Note:

The top of the ad in the New York Times (3-28-72)which printed the reviews  read The Negro Ensemble Company, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black Theatre Criticism Presents the Opinions of Four Black Reviewers Invited to Appraise its Tuesday, December 5th Opening Night Performance of Joseph Walker’s play, The River Niger. The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited, whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space. Then the reviews followed.

DTW: We did it again with the opening of Charles Fuller’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep in 1974. Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American Magazine, and Lindsey Patterson were the critics invited. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was really hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinions would be given a hearing in a regular way. And not just in a weekly or monthly magazine, but in a daily newspaper. I selected the New York Times because it was a major paper with a large circulation and readership. I wanted black critics to reach the same audience as the white critics for the paper. But like I said, ad space is expensive. We ran out of money and couldn’t get any grant monies to continue it. And the other black theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested, or wasn’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important.

You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say twenty five or thirty years later in search of history or research, they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said, we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen.

GE: When I first met you and we started talking one of the things you mentioned was the possibility of having two theatres. A large mainstage theatre and a smaller experimental space. Could you elaborate on that?

DTW: Sure. The idea, and I guess this was more like a dream or a fantasy, but the idea was to get to the point where we operating two theatres. One would’ve been a 750 seat size house and the other would’ve sat maybe 100 at the most. In the big theatre I would’ve put the big sort of, for want of a better word, conventional type work. And maybe some Shakespeare adaptations maybe an all black Shakespeare season or something like that. We had the actors who could do it. All they needed was the opportunity.   And in the other space, the more experimental type work. The kind of stuff you and I like to do. But there were others as well. People like John Scott and that cat (Silas Jones) who wrote Waiting for Mongo which we did in our sixth or seventh season (actually it was their eighth). They weren’t the only ones I was constantly getting scripts that would’ve fitted such a theatre. So that’s what our season would’ve been like. The big stuff in our mainstage. And I would have liked to do six plays instead of four. And in the smaller space even more plays but with shorter runs.

GE: So why didn’t that come about?

DTW: Gus we had enough problems maintaining what we had. We couldn’t expand. In fact we were cutting back all the time. So it was what I was telling you, a dream, that’s all. Just a dream.

GE: But at the time when we spoke about it you didn’t suggest that it was just a dream. You made it sound like it was a firm plan for the future of the NEC.

DTW: That was probably during or just after the run of The River Niger on Broadway. We had a little extra money and for a year or two it looked like we might be able to do some of the ambitious things I was thinking about. But that didn’t last for long, believe me.

GE: Did you tell anyone else about these ideas?

DTW: Probably Gerry (Krone) and Bobby (Hooks), maybe my wife and you. But that was about it. In fact Joe Papp at the Public (Theatre) did something like that one season. But to me that was more like a stunt. My interest was to do it more consistently. Maybe one show a year at least. I was also interested in doing Brecht, Sean O’Casey and Chekhov as well. That was another major interest I had.  In fact in our first season I did the transfer of an Australian play (The Summer of the 17th Doll) into a black play for the company. I adapted it. But when I say adapt I mean I didn’t change any lines of the dialogue. I changed the location from Australia to Louisiana and also some bits of slang that was unique only to Australia. But other than that I left the play intact and it played truthfully. And nobody who saw the play would ever think that it was set in Australia originally.

GE: So it would’ve been the business of adapting plays from other cultures to ours?

DTW: No, not exactly, the idea was a little more thought out than that.. Take the great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey for instance. That’s someone whose work I really would’ve liked to have done. Of course you would need excellent actors. But let’s assume we had that, I think that excellent black actors can and would do a play like Juno and the Paycock better than most white American actors.  Ethnic wise O’Casey in that play and several others was investigating  a period of Irish revolution  and the ghettos of Dublin which were almost like the ghettos of Harlem. He was writing of working class Irish life which is very close to ours here in America.  For this reason and others I claim we have a more natural ability to do those works because we would be bringing to them a felt organic experience. For most white actors or white company, given their middle class upbringing, this would have to be realized through an act of will. But we naturally come from the same type of background and deal with the same types of frustrations and limitations…Now, I told this to several audiences and theatre people in Dublin when I was there doing Home with Sam Jackson. Soon as I got there I was interviewed by all the major papers, The Irish Times and all the others and I said that stuff to them as well. And the first questions they asked wasn’t about why or any of that. The first question they asked was: “When are you going to do it?” They were more than interested, they were eager to see black actors tackle those roles. It threw me off a little how interested they were. But then I had to explain that my budget was too constricting for me to do what I was talking about. I meant it but I didn’t have the means to make it a reality.

GE: Did you ever attempt to get a grant that might’ve supported that?

DTW: Gus, we had trouble getting grants to support our existence. So this was a luxury that couldn’t be considered in practical terms.

GE: This brings us to another unrealized dream. Doing African plays. I know you did one or two and a few readings but the plan was for a more ambitious pattern, wasn’t it?

DTW:  Well on one of my trips to Europe I wound up in Paris for about two weeks. While there I went to book shops where I found several volumes of African plays written primarily by Africans in French. I bought several volumes and brought them home. This was true when I went to Africa too. In fact I have about 40 volumes of African plays in my office right now. I tried to get a grant to have them translated and then ultimately produced because I thought that they would provide an expansion of our mission about putting black life on stage. I didn’t get the grants but it just so happened that I had a Latino woman in our development office who spoke French fluently. I asked and she gave me a rough translation for a couple of them so that I could see what was there. In fact, I did get to do some of them in our reading series.

GE: I know. I saw some.

DTW: But once again we couldn’t because we didn’t get the money. We tried lots of avenues and wrote lots of proposals but it was no go. It was the same with The Women’s Project I wanted to do. Similar to The Director’s Choice Program I wanted to do one where black women playwrights, directors and actors would get together and develop their own projects. The closest I got to that was the season (1978-79) where I did Daughters of the Mock and A Season to Unravel under those circumstances.

GE: What about the series of NEC classics that was announced?

DTW: I don’t particularly like the word “classic” because it has a sort of Euro-centric sense of providence and superiority about it.  Still it’s a buzz word that people understand, so that’s what we called it. The idea was to give extended life to many of our plays that were well received but somehow became forgotten once they weren’t on stage anymore. It was a programmatic thing. The idea being that we would do one a year as an addition to our four play season. The first play selected was Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and we did it. It was a valid time period because it had been 17 years since our original production. So it was time. And we actually did get a grant to do it. There were plans to do several others. I think we may have even announced some other titles like Sty of the Blind Pig and Song of the Lusitanian Bogey but after Ceremonies the grant monies dried up once again.

GE: The last question I want to ask is about legacy.

DTW: Legacy?

GE: Yes. What do you think is the legacy of the NEC under your stewardship?

DTW: I’m probably the not the one to answer that. That’s a question that you should ask an historian or somebody like that.

GE: Would you take a try at it anyway?

DTW: Well let’s see now. The company accomplished so many things that there’s certain things we don’t need to do anymore. We created a body of work that now exists as living proof of the vitality and greatness of our black playwriting talent. We have a whole cadre of successful theatre artists from all areas of the profession, actors, designers, directors, producers and others. At the start of the NEC those people weren’t out there. Today they are everywhere thanks in a large part of what we were doing at the NEC. Some of it was by direct training, some by hiring and a lot by inspiration. But it’s all legitimate and all proof of the impact we had just by doing the things we were doing .So I would say that the legacy is across the board. But probably the most visible is in the number of successful actors we produced. People like Sam Jackson, Denzel, Larry Fishburne, Roz Cash, Esther Rolle and others .Directly I take pride in the number of playwrights we developed and introduced and the variety of work they produced. Charles Fuller, Steve Carter, Paul Carter Harrison, Judy Ann Mason, Leslie Lee, you, Samm-Art Williams, Joe Walker and a whole host of others. Any one of these areas would be a worthwhile legacy to boast about. But together I think it says something about the true value of the company. Anything else?

GE: No. Not now anyway. Thanks.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Doug Ward: Today

DTW:  Today

In May this year Doug Ward celebrated his 80th birthday. There were no announcements in the press, no public appreciations of his life and contributions, no retrospectives of his work as there were and still are for Stephen Sondheim who is also 80 this year.  Instead there was an intimate family celebration that included his wife Diana, his son Douglas Jr. and his daughter Elizabeth along with his grandchildren and a few close friends.

In other matters Ward along with his wife were actively involved with putting together a video production shoot of his single character play Dessalines. This is the third part of his epic 3 play cycle called The Haitian Chronicles with Doug performing the title role. This activity has been temporarily sidelined when it was announced that Ward, who has enjoyed a remarkable run of good health thus far, would have to undergo a very long and serious operation for a cancer related illness that had swollen the side of his neck and left his speech somewhat impaired.

I saw Doug in May some days before surgery was to take place. He was full of fun and in his usual high spirits. We talked about the operation being a temporary interruption to his plans and how he intends to proceed with the Dessalines project once he is fully recovered.

The operation, from all reports, was a success and he is recuperating nicely. I’ve spoken to Doug himself so I’m giving this report from first hand information. The Alumni‘s of the NEC Organization have rallied around Doug to offer support and urges anyone who wants more information to contact either Joyce Sylvester or Deborah McGee at 212-629-2018.

Advertisements