Category Archives: Issue #3

The DTW Quarterly Issue #3: Spring 2011

The DTW Quarterly

 (An online quarterly dedicated to the life, works and vision of Douglas Turner Ward, African American theatre’s foremost artisan and advocate.)

Douglas Turner Ward is one of the most important figures in American Theatre today. He is the recipient of every major award in our theatre including “The Broadway Hall of Fame”. In practice he is a Playwright, Actor, Director, Producer, Administrator and Visionary who (with Robert Hooks and Gerry Krone) founded the NEC and is considered to be “The Founding Father of Modern Black Theatre”. And although he is semi-retired Ward continues to be a fierce advocate for the advancement of Black or African-American Theatre and its artists.

Each issue will contain news, photos, interviews, historical information and other pertinent data about this seminal figure.

Thus far I have been writing all the articles for this Journal and if I have to continue doing it, of course I will. But I would like to have some other voices besides mine to become a part of this forum. So I am inviting submissions of articles, anecdotes, quotes, photos, opinions and/or observations about Doug Ward, The NEC or African American Theatre in general for meditation and discourse.  Please submit by email only to:

studioprojectgusedwards@gmail.com

Gus Edwards, Chief Editor

Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

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Quote

 

“A theatre evolving not out of negative need, but positive potential…A theatre whose justification is not the gap it fills, but the achievement it aspires toward…The main goal of the Negro Ensemble Company is to develop a theatre of excellence.”

Douglas Turner Ward

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Editor’s Notes

Editor’s Notes

WELCOME to our 3rd issue of this Quarterly. Based on the response to our first and second issue we are going strong and getting stronger.

Note:

 Now although this is a magazine dedicated to the life and works of Douglas Turner Ward it is also intended to be a forum on Black or African American Theatre, then and now. So we welcome comments, opinion, and articles on the subject.

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In Conversations with Douglas Turner Ward

In Conversations with Douglas Turner Ward

NEC History – Part 2

GE: I want to ask you about the New York Times article (American Theatre: For Whites Only). If you had any idea about why they asked you to write the article besides the fact that you had the two one act plays running?

DTW: Well basically it was Howard Atley, our publicist for Day of Absence, who initiated the idea. Howard made the initial contact with the Times. But the one who made it happen was the editor of that paper’s Sunday Cultural section, a man named Sy Peck who died tragically a few years ago. He was killed in an auto accident on the West Side highway. Him and his wife were coming back from the theatre and got hit by another car. It was really a tragic thing. I was one of the people at the memorial who eulogized him, also Dave Rosenthal, the editor of the paper at that time and Joe Papp, they eulogized him too. I consider him completely responsible for getting the article in the paper. He was sympathetic towards the proposal and sympathetic towards the potential of a non-majority voice being heard.

GE: I want to also ask if with the production of Day of Absence and Happy Ending doing so well commercially, was there a feeling that perhaps beyond the run of the plays you and Bob might take the idea of producing more black plays just the way you had done with Day of Absence?

DTW: I guess or I assume that the idea was always there. Bobby, at the time, had developed his Group Workshop and had become a producer also and I know that Bobby had intended on developing the Workshop and continuing to produce. So that was there. And I by that time already knew that my fate in the theatre depended on a specialized type of theatre and the development of a public for it. Well, let’s put it this way. Since the growth and development of my personal convictions had always been involved with alternative channels and with dissidents, social and political outlaws you might say, it never occurred to me at all that I had much future in conventional or mainstream theatre. So I knew that what was not going to happen. Therefore, I wasn’t even much interested in it. Because by that time, I was making a living in the theatre as an actor. I had no problem acting in commercial theatre and making money. But I knew as a writer, that that was hardly going to be the case. So it was my aspiration. You see, I knew that my creative ideas didn’t fit the mainstream idea of theatre. And to a certain extent, they didn’t fit the Off-Broadway scene either. You see, that was being influenced by what I call an imitation of European Absurdist style and I knew that there was no room for me there. So the idea of black-based theatre or the NEC was just in the norm of my thinking. In fact, some years later, while I was doing The River Niger in California, after a matinee performance this middle-aged white lady who had seen the show waited until I came out and said “I thought you’d like to have this”. She gave me this brown envelope. I opened it and there was this magazine that Lorraine Hansberry and I were involved with called Challenge. This was the only issue that ever came out. Anyway, I open it up and there was an article by me talking about Negro culture and almost word-for-word it was the program that was later written for the NEC. I had forgotten totally about it. I had written it when I was twenty-three years old, but it said everything I had wanted to say about the state of blacks in theatre and what was needed.

     Now for some reason I haven’t been able to find it. I been looking for it in all my possessions. I know it’s somewhere because I read this and said “Goddamn this sounds like my final proposal for the NEC”. Because as I said, there I was at twenty three writing about what was needed for blacks and for the development of black culture in the theatre. Finally, those became the elements for the article in the New York Times.

     Now I want to explain. When I wrote the article, I was really hoping that it would effect and influence and maybe attract some attention toward creating an institution like I was talking about in the article. What I didn’t necessarily think is that we, Bobby and myself, would be the ones who’d be asked to make such a company happen. Each of us career wise had no real need for this. Bobby was getting ready to go away to co-star in the film Hurry Sundown (1967), Gerry Krone, who became part of the triumvirate, had his very successful Off-Broadway management company to run and I was making a living as an actor. Now it wasn’t a big living but I had reached a point where I could reasonable depend on making enough money to qualify for unemployment from time to time. That would have been alright with me. So what I’m saying is my ambition to act long enough to qualify for unemployment for say half a year would give me that time to write, if I managed it right. So, we didn’t need to create an organization and wasn’t even thinking about it as far as I can remember. The article was written because I wanted to get some thoughts said, things that needed to be said I thought, and that was it. Next question.

GE: I want to continue with you on this a little while longer.

 

DTW: You have the floor and this is your tape machine.

GE: Alright then. Let me get this straight. You wrote the article and the Ford Foundation called you in how soon after? A day? A week?

 

DTW: No. What happened was a set of very fortuitous circumstances. It came through a childhood friend of my wife Diana. For some reason, we had gone to New Haven and met this friend of hers. Ray was his name. Him and his wife were going to Yale Law School I think. So, we met, and it turned out that no too long after he was working for the Rockefeller organization in a key position in their foundation. Now by this time, we had become friends. In fact, he had either rented or leased a townhouse belonging to Harrison Salisbury, the great New York Times correspondent. And at some time after the article, Ray had a dinner party at his house.

     Now as I said, he was working for Rockefeller and the people in these various foundations knew what each was doing and what interests were being expressed in the corridors of their power structure. So when Diana and I went to the dinner party, Ray informed me that he had heard through the grapevine that a.) my article was causing a lot of discussion and b.)that McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation was very struck by it and was interested in talking to me. “Give him a call”, Ray said, “I mean I think if you call he will probably want to talk to you.” So it was through Ray I then called Mac Lowry and immediately he said “Yes, I would love to talk to you”.

     The first meeting was between Mac and me. Then there were later meeting when we went further into our discussion and Bobby and Gerry were both brought into the picture. Then he asked us to submit a proposal. “What kind of proposal?” we asked. “A proposal that would allow you to create an organization that would address the kinds of things that you talked about in the article.”

GE: Was he asking you to write a proposal to get grant money?

DTW: Gus, what the fuck else do foundations do? They give money in case you haven’t heard.

GE: Thank you for clarifying that.

DTW: Anyway, after the second meeting he says “Ok”, he said, “Would you entertain making a proposal?” And we said, “Yes we would”. Then he made a provocative statement, offering to perhaps give a grant jointly perhaps to us and some other group. Almost immediately all of us said no. I remember saying to Mac, “Look. If you decide to give the money to any other group with a purpose similar to this, I will support them in every way. And even volunteer and offer up my services to help them get started. But I will not be officially involved with another group because even if we are sympathetic to their aims, there’s no way that we can share common vision. In other words, give it to them or give it to us.”

GE: Why did you say that?

DTW: Because I knew how I felt and also because I had observed other people in these other kinds of projects and they never got much of anything done besides a lot of talking. As a matter of fact, Mac Lowry had even given seed money to some other group to study the same situation and so forth. And when I met Mac, he was frustrated because he said “They haven’t made any decisions about anything at all. They haven’t reached the point where they’re going to be active in any kind of way.” So what I’m saying is I think he liked us because we were activists. We were not interested in waiting to build a building. We didn’t want to create an edifice. We didn’t have the time. We all felt that if we were going to do something, the idea would be to do it right away, get it stabilized, then leave and go back to our own priorities and our own individual directions.

     Finally when he asked us to draw up the proposal, we said “This shit is for real. The likelihood is that if we come up with something specific, they’re really going to consider giving us this money.” So I began to talk with Bobby and Gerry and said “Ok now if we did it this way, what would it entail in the area of money? How many productions could we reasonably do for this amount? And so forth.” So that’s how it began. We wrote it down on our napkins and ultimately formalized it into a proposal.

GE: And you gave it to Mac Lowry and he gave you the money.

 

DTW: Yes. And there was another key moment after we got it. Because we realized that this would absorb at least two years of our lives. I mean, for our own reasons, in order for us to do this project right, we had to suspend at least two years of our individual careers and career goals. And Gus, I will tell you, it was that point where we sat down, and the world will never realize that at this supposedly moment of triumph, we were almost in a state of depression, saying “What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into? Do you realize that this shit is going to be a significant part of our lives in terms of not days and months but years?” And for me it was even worse because I had to commit more time than the other two. You see, when McNeil Lowry asked the question “Who is going to be in charge of the shop?” he also said “You’re a wonderful team but like Doug said committees don’t work. So who is going to be in charge of the shop on an everyday basis?” The answer was obvious.  Because at the time, I was the only one who within the context of my priorities could do it. I mean, in no way could Bobby suddenly abandon the priority of his acting career, which had always been the centerpiece of his existence. And Gerry as I said had this very successful theatre management company to run. In fact, I don’t think Gerry realized how gradually the NEC would usurp as much of his life as it did. At the time of the proposal, he was going to fit it in but continue what he was doing so successfully as well. So it was obvious that I was the one who was going to be responsible on a day-to-day basis.

     Gus you have to understand, the Ford Foundation wasn’t going to give us the money and say “Yes Bobby you can go away for six months and do a movie. And yes Gerry you can handle fifteen other Broadway shows and work with this other company part time. And Doug, you can go off and spend six months writing your own plays or acting in whatever you want to and then come back when you feel like it.” No, they weren’t going to say that. The question they asked was Who’s going to run the shop? So that was the point where I knew that I was the one. And it was also obvious that this was going to change and occupy our lives and thoughts for an extended period of time. Little did I know that in my case it would be nearly thirty years. In the beginning, I sorta gave myself a good five years and hoped for three. But it didn’t work out that way, as you well know.

     Once we came to that realization, the first thing we did was began to define how each of us would function.

GE: Had you decided on a name?

 

DTW: Yes. I had decided that we would call ourselves The Negro Ensemble Company. Negro, because I wanted to tell everyone through the name what the content of our material would be all about. And Ensemble, because I wanted us to be an ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and what have you, like the Berliner Ensemble.

GE: But why the word “Negro”?

 

DTW: Because at the time, that’s the word black folks or African-Americans if you like, were describing themselves. There was no shame attached to the word then nor do I feel there should be any attached to it now. If anything, the black folks I knew took pride in being described as Negroes. My father did and so did I.

GE: Let’s go back to the forming of the organization and how each of you would function.

DTW: Well, we thought and thought about it, that since Bobby through his Group Workshop was the catalyst of all this, he would be the Executive Director and assume production responsibility. In other words, the broader overall job of representing the institution to the public. He had already demonstrated his talent for doing this in a variety of ways.

     Then you had me, who for lack of a better phrase was the visionary. You know, the idea person. In actual terms, the one who had the artistic ideas and skills to carry out those functions. But what we lacked was the third piece of the puzzle and that was a Business Administrator and Manager. Someone who knew the nuts and bolts of how to handle the money and the other mountain of concerns that any organization of this kind must address. And that’s where Gerry came in. He had the skills, he also had the experience. We needed his expertise if we were going to make this thing work in a business-like way, you know, like paying the rent on time, budgeting the various aspects of our programs, and all the other shit that goes into running a theatre company.

GE: What about Lonnie Elder? I thought he was there at the beginning with you guys as well?

 

DTW: He was. Lonnie was a close friend. But he wasn’t an organizer in the sense we’re talking about. Lonnie was a playwright and that’s all he wanted to concern himself about. So we made him Director of the Playwright’s Workshop. His abilities and talents were not organizational, they were creative, and that’s why we put him there.   

See Gus, the minute it was announced that we had received the grant people who were creatively connected with us in one way or another felt that they equally deserved to be involved. But what they didn’t seem to understand is that we were building a professional organization that was going to have both creative and practical elements to it. This was not about giving jobs to our friends. In our minds this was about creating an ongoing professional black theatre…If we were just looking for friendship and equal contribution on some level as a reason for creating the NEC   there were many people who might’ve been included but were weren’t. As I said before were creating, or I should say trying to create a professional black theatre organization, and we were very serious about it.   

See, because of my previous experience with groups, cultural and otherwise I knew that this was not going to be an organization with a board making all kinds of decisions creative and otherwise. One of the things I had told Mac Lowry almost from the beginning is that I was not a committee person. Other people might be. Other people can work in that way but I couldn’t. I wasn’t interested in committee theatre and I’m still not. I’m not interested in five or ten people getting together and voting. Voting on anything and everything involved in running a theatre. You’re never going to get anything done that way. It’s going to lead to evasions of responsibility, to hemming and hawing over making important decisions, to arguments due to different points of view and all kinds of other delays etc. No. for better or worse we were going to be a three person organization autonomous unto ourselves. That angered a lot of people that we knew who as I said, felt that they should be involved. But we were not here to start a friendship club. We were trying to build a durable organization and these other people just didn’t fit into that view of things. I had no irritation or animosity about it. That’ was just the way it was, so I took on my shoulder the responsibility of answering all those questions to the people we knew. It was the burden I had assumed when I said that I would be to one in charge on a day to day basis. There were writers, actors and others who I knew were going to be angry with me, if not now later on, for not including them. Because they for their own reasons thought that when the NEC came into business it would automatically become a conduit for doing all the existing plays that these writers had been trying to get done for years. The plays that the white majority theatre companies and producers had either looked at and rejected or just ignored. That since we’re into doing black plays the NEC would become a dumping ground for these works no matter how good or bad they were. That “Oh a black producing institution. Now my play’s going to get done” kind of thinking. And the fact that I didn’t do them have made any number of people, many who were formerly friends, mad at me ever since. But I don’t have any negative feelings toward them. That was the burden of responsibility that I had assumed. And through that, as Artistic Director, I had to be honest about my own taste and my own direction about what I felt would help to give this new institution its best shot.

But back to your question, Lonne for his own career reasons, didn’t want to be anchored too closely to an organization such as ours. Where we put him was where he fit, and he was happy with that.

GE: Before we go on, let me ask you this. Right after you got the money you decided that you would do a show within four months which is awfully fast. How did that come about?

DTW: Well you have to realize that at this time Gus, we were not… see the thing is ,well I guess that it’s hard for people to understand, but we were young and each had other things we wanted to do. Other priorities. Other things we wanted to do with our careers, so we couldn’t wait. If we had to wait around to develop a whole idea of getting something done over a year it wouldn’t have happened. We didn’t have time for that. I would’ve, all of us would’ve said: “Wait this is going to take too much time.” All of us would’ve felt that we were wasting our valuable time creatively. We didn’t feel we had time to sit there and .plan something for a year or two years in advance. If we were going to do it we had to move along and get the thing done now.

GE: Alright, so you’ve got your organization together, offices, rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and two theatres (a black box space upstairs and a mainstage space down stairs). So now the next step is getting a group of actors together and forming a company, am I right?

DTW: Yes. That’s an over simplification but yes.

GE: So where did you get the idea for getting the company in that particular way?

DTW: I mentioned The Berliner Ensemble model before. But there were a lot of other influences. I knew for example about the existence of a lot of other companies and how they operated more or less. And ironically the American free market commercial theatre was at the time and still to a large extent now  an anachronism to most of the world’s approach to creating and maintaining a theatrical organization. The Berliner Ensemble was greatly influential because of its international reputation and the results of its work and so forth. But it wasn’t like they were exceptions. They were the norm. In Germany, Russia, Britain and other countries at the time had theatre companies created in this model. So the business of bringing together a company in this way was sort of a routine format actually and not something unique or particularly innovative. At least it wasn’t to me.

GE: But it was unique for here in the US wasn’t it?

DTW:  Yes. And in many instances some of the early descriptions in the press treated the structure of the company like it was unique because we were one of the first real companies to come together in this way. And because we came together and did it so quickly. I mean Lincoln Center had that company that Kazan and those others put together. But all these other groups and all those other efforts had floundered and here we were coming along with not only a company but even consciously using the word “Ensemble” in our name  as an indication that we would be a company, a collective where everyone would be equal. Where there would be no layers of status or hierarchy.  The fact is we were too small to have any rings of status or any layers of apprenticeship. We had fifteen actors and all were equal to each other. The only distinction of work was going to be determined according to the nature of the plays and what they required casting wise. But of course as Artistic Director I always had to program and keep in mind selecting plays that would maintain an equitable utilization of people because I knew that you couldn’t have and I didn’t want a company where a third of the actors would let’s say play leads while the other two thirds provided support. I don’t care how many people you have, fifteen, thirty or fifty. There is no way in the world that a company can develop as an ensemble unless all of its members are satisfied that within a range of choices they were being utilized in an equitable fashion.

GE: Sounds sensible. Next question: Did they, the actors, know the group of plays you were selecting from? And did they have any say in the selection of what was going to be done?

DTW: Gus, when I talked with the Ford Foundation people I told them “Look I have too much experience and have been connected with too many attempts to create theatres of one kind or another to fall into the trap of a democratic theatre. I knew that whether it was me or whoever the fuck it was that you don’t create a theatre by community. There is no democracy in the business of artistic choices. You have to be not so much a dictator but the one who takes responsibility for the final choices. And particularly for the errors that are made.  And one lesson that I already knew and have always maintained in terms of theatre is, everybody shares in the success of a theatre company or unit. But when it fails or what you do is perceived as a failure, then somebody has to carry the weight. At the NEC I chose to carry that weight. And since I was I had to be assured that whatever artistic decisions were made had to be mine. That had nothing to do with people suggesting things or plays to me. I was open to advice and suggestions and everything else but the final fucking decision was always mine.

GE: So even the idea at the beginning of bringing in teachers for the actors employed was all your idea? Or was that something you discussed with Bobby and Gerry?

DTW: Look, by the time we gave the Ford Foundation our proposal we knew who and what areas we each would specifically deal with. The artistic and training decisions were considered part of my job. So it was my decision and my responsibility.

GE: So, let me get this straight, the main thrust of your idea was that you wanted to create a professional company. You said that in the New York Times article. A professional company with the emphasis on the word “professional”?

DTW: Right. And that’s where the shit gets fucked up. I keep telling people that that’s where things got all messed up because we allowed the power structure to throw black theatre into one general mix called “Black Theatre” which made no distinction between Community, Regional and professional. It all got thrown into the same hamper. Then we allowed the power structure to make judgments as if there was an equality between them as far as money went. And some of those community theatre companies were stupid enough to think they should be competing with the NEC to get money when they weren’t dealing with budgets that had anything to do with professional standards. Now we could be here for years talking about the merits of good and bad. About the abilities of a high school kid who has more talent than some veteran actor with an Equity card for thirty years. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about who’s good and who’s bad. I mean somebody might come up to me and say for example: “My theatre in wherever did a production of The First Breeze of Summer” let’s say, “And it was better than the one you did on Broadway.” So the question becomes “What’s the fucking difference?”…Well Gus, the difference is the one on Broadway is professional. And why is it professional? Because the actors and other people involved with that production on Broadway were putting their lives, their livelihood, and their careers on the line every time they go up there on that stage. Good or bad their professional reputations are at risk. With community theatre no matter how good you are or how bad for that matter the scrutiny brought to the enterprise has nothing to do with putting your career on the line or being judged as to whether somebody is going to pay fifty or a hundred dollars to see you. So how the hell could those other companies consider themselves equal to the NEC when everything the NEC did required that people pay for the privilege of attending. With community theatre a lot of the times the actors will get their relatives and friends to come and tell us how good and wonderful we are. But with professional theatre even when we get our friends and relatives to come generally they have to pay and generally have the right to tell if they thought we were good or bad and if they felt that they wasted their time and money in coming.

Gus, all I mean is when I say “professional” from the start is that this was not a word addressing like or dislike. It was controlled by the practices of a profession where people were being hired professionally to undergo professional scrutiny and the risk on that level which meant their life or death about whether they made a living or not.

GE: To reiterate your comment in the Times’ article:”A theatre of excellence, black in content but completely professional”. I’m interpret ring to mean that you were interested in sending in demonstrating that black people were capable of doing work of that kind on the best possible level.

DTW:  Gus again, whatever the criteria is it has to be controlled and determined by some standard. Now we all know that when we say professional in anything ,professional teaching, professional doctor, professional dog walkers that there are mother fuckers out there who are so bad at what they do that it stumps the imagination how they ever they ever got that far. But still you got to have some standard. Some standard by which you can kick the sonofabitch out of the profession. Being an artist of course the standards are a little more inexact but there are levels of criteria. So therefore I always tell people that in my estimation, the failure of a professional production is superior to the greatest achievement of a non professional play. I don’t care whether that non professional production in many instances had better results in specific areas. Now I could go out and hire somebody, a non professional, and work with them until they are able to face up to the baptism of professionalism, like the baptism of war. But until they went through that process I couldn’t say that that person who might’ve been great in a community theatre production of let’s say the Grandmother in The River Niger is a true professional. And I wouldn’t hire her until she was baptized to the point where she could go out there eight times a week and not lose her voice when faced with the scrutiny of a paying public that might put her through something where her nervousness or what have you  might completely unravel her.. You see Gus, at that level there is no safety net or safety valve under those circumstances. In community theatre there is not as much at stake therefore the pressure isn’t as great. People don’t seem to understand that. Even the not so great actors who have been acting professionally for say 50 years are on a certain level that is way beyond the community theatre level… And that is the kind of level minimally we were working to achieve with the ensemble.

GE: So how did you go about selecting the actors that would be a part of this collective?

DTW: Well the early group was selected from people I already knew. People like Francis Foster who were essentially already veteran actors. Esther Rolle I knew from Day of Absence and Happy Ending. Others were actors I had worked with in various productions. Clarice Taylor for instance I remembered from a marvelous play called Nocturnal, I think. Lloyd Richards was in that same play I remember. I had also seen her in a play called Never for Willy in which she was absolutely stunning. So I sought her out and invited her to join us. Rosalind Cash I knew but I hadn’t seen too much of her work. The truth is I don’t even remember if I auditioned her or not. I may have just invited her. Hattie Winston, who was just 20 years old at the time, I knew because she had been in Bobby’s workshop. Denise Nicholas was someone I had hired as my secretary when the NEC first came into being. I knew that she was an aspiring actress and had even seen her in something at the Jefferson Memorial. She had also been with The Free Southern Theatre but I didn’t know too much about her as an actress. When I finally auditioned her I was pleasantly surprised. Still, like Hattie she needed a lot of work. But both were in their early 20s and we needed people in that age range.

The one that I took straight from an audition was Judy Ann Johnson who later became Judy Ann Elder after she married Lonne. She had just come out of Emerson College in Boston and gave one of the best auditions I have ever witnessed. She was so strong and so fluid, so alert and so in the moment that I said “Bring her into the company right away.” But that’s how it went in selecting that first group of actors.

GE: What about Moses Gunn. He was part of that first company wasn’t he? You haven’t mentioned him.

DTW: Yes, you’re right. I knew Moses from way back. He was in The Blacks and also in the play In White America. He was also in Day of Absence too. So I knew him and knew his abilities.

(The original company of actors were: Norman Bush, Rosalind Cash, David Dowling, Francis Foster, Arthur French, Moses Gunn, William Jay, Judy Ann (Johnson )Elder, Denise Nicholas, Esther Rolle, Clarice Taylor, Hattie Winston, and Alice Woods along with Robert Hooks and Douglas Turner Ward.)

 

GE: Question: Was the company put together before or after you had selected the first play?

DTW: It was a combination of both. I knew that a certain percentage were going to be in the company because I knew that whatever plays I selected would need people in various  age categories. As to what plays would be done part of that would be determined by who I had. Let’s say I hired more of the younger women than middle aged ones then the selection would go that way. Or let’s say it was the other way around then the selection would go towards plays with roles for more mature women. And it was a similar situation with the men. That’s why Song of the Lusitanian Bogey was such a fortunate choice. The casting was flexible and not dependent on age categories so far as the various roles were concerned. That play helped to shape the company because if this.

Now the curious thing about that is I probably knew that we were going to produce Kongi’s Harvest and The Summer of the 17th Doll first. But as I said I wanted a play that would utilize the entire company fully and I found that with Bogey, thank goodness.  

But you also knew that I had a school for these actors that was being created at the same time.

GE: That leads me to my next question. Why did you decide this, and how did you convince a group of experienced and in your words “veteran actors” to essentially go back to school for acting?

DTW: Gus the purpose was…well I always knew that most black actors at the time needed training or more training than they already had.

GE: You mean even the experienced ones?

DTW: You’re damn right, even the experienced ones. I mean shit; they weren’t working enough to train themselves. And the work that was being given wasn’t enough for us to train ourselves except perhaps in one or two areas Except for those of us who had taken it upon ourselves to get trained via individual study most black actors you came across during that time weren’t trained in most areas. Many were instinctively talented but yet biggest obstacle for them as far as training was concerned was money. I knew this and that’s why I created the free training program. This was the biggest handicap. So I said “Fuck it, I’m not going to ask for money to train them.” In the original proposal I asked for and received enough money to create tuition free training program and offered classes in well you know…acting, dance, design and so forth. But I knew that the training program would be even larger than the acting program… I might have had 15 or 16 spots to pay actors round the clock. Because let’s face it the actors who were hired to be in the company were being paid just like actors in a show… But in the tuition free classes you could have 40 students and sometimes even more. But let’s say two classes of forty and in the advanced class that Lloyd Richards taught they had about 30 students. So we were training over a hundred actors right away tuition free. But hell I knew from the many auditions that I had conducted that we needed formal training. Several were good enough to be in the company but I didn’t have room for them so I offered the training program. And as you know many who came out of that program went on to have just as successful if not more successful careers than those I hired for the original company. Mary Alice is a good example of what I’m talking about.

GE: You didn’t answer my original question. How did you convince a group of veteran actors that they had to go back tom school?

DTW: I don’t think any convincing was required. As I told you they were being paid for one thing. For another most thought it was a good idea as I remember.

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Gus Edwards and the NEC

                                                             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.

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Douglas Turner Ward Chronology

Douglas Turner Ward

A Chronology

 

The Early Years:

1930 – Born May 5th in Burnside, Louisiana. Father: Roosevelt Ward, a forklift operator.

            Mother: Dorothy (Short) Ward, a dressmaker. He was given the name Roosevelt

            Ward Jr.

1938 – The family moves to New Orleans, LA, where Ward Jr. attends a two-room

            School.

1940 – Attended Xavier University Prep, a black Catholic school.

1946 – Attended Wilberforce University for one year.

1947 – Transfers to University of Michigan. Majors in Journalism. Played football as a

            Halfback. After a serious knee injury, he focuses his interests in politics and

            Theatre.

1948 – Moves to NYC. Meets Lorraine Hansberry and Lonne Elder III. Joins the

            Progressive Party and becomes a Left-Wing political activist.

1949 – Wrote Star of Liberty, a short play about the rebellious slave Nat Turner. The play

             is performed before an audience of five thousand people.

             Ward is arrested in New York for draft evasion and returned to New Orleans,

             LA, where he is imprisoned for three months. His case is appealed.

1951 – Remains in New Orleans for two years while the case is pending. During this

            time, writes his first full-length play The Trial of Willie McGee.

1953 – The Supreme Court overturns his draft evasion conviction. Ward moves back to

            New York City and attempts to start a literary magazine called Challenge with

            Lorraine Hansberry and Lonne Elder III. One issue is published.

            Attends Paul Mann’s Acting Workshop and writes for The Daily Worker, a Left-

            Wing political journal.

            At the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, Ward along with Hansberry and Elder read his

            play The Trial of Willie McGee. This reading inspires Elder and Hansberry to try

            their hand at writing plays.

           Ward joins the Harlem Writers Workshop but leaves after a few weeks because

           he felt that their literary outlook was too limiting.

1957 – The Daily Worker closes. Ward’s career in journalism is over. He decides to

            pursue a full-time career in theatre.

1958 – Ward gets his first professional acting job at New York’s Circle in the Square

            Theatre in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

            For acting purposes, Roosevelt Ward Jr. changes his name to Douglas Turner

            Ward.

1959 – Performs a small role in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway

           and understudies Sidney Poitier as a lead character, Walter Lee Younger. Lonne

           Elder is also in the show. Robert Hooks joins the cast late in its Broadway run.

1960 – Ward assumes the lead (Walter Lee Younger) in the extended national tour of A

            Raisin in the Sun. Hooks and Elder are also in the touring company. The three

            become close friends.

1961 – Returns to New York City to play Archibald Wellington in Jean Genet’s The

           Blacks at the St. Mark’s Playhouse.

1965 – Robert Hooks produces two short plays at the St. Mark’s Playhouse written by

            Ward. The plays were Day of Absence and Happy Ending.

            Ward marries Diana Powell.

1966 – Ward wins two Obie (Off-Broadway) Awards. One for writing and one for acting

            in Happy Ending and Day of Absence.

 

            Wins Drama Desk Award for Playwriting.

            Ward writes an article for The New York Times entitled “American Theatre: For

            Whites Only” (8/14). The article stirs discussions about blacks in theatre and

            because of this McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation invites Ward, Hooks, and

            Gerald Krone to submit a proposal for funds to establish a repertory company and

            training program for black theatre artists.

The NEC Years:

1967 – The Ford Foundation gives Ward, Hooks, and Krone $434,000 to start the

            company. The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) is incorporated with Robert

            Hooks as Executive Director, Gerald Krone as Administrative Director, and Ward

            as Artistic Director.

           The company opens its first show, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey written by

           German author Peter Weiss and adapted by Ward. Controversy and acclaim greets

           the opening.

           Other plays of that season include Summer of the 17th Doll by Australian author

           Ray Lawler, story adapted to the American South by Douglas Turner Ward,

           and Daddy Goodness, a French play by Louis Sapan, adapted by the black

           novelist Richard Wright.

1968 – Ward directs his first show, which is Daddy Goodness.

            Ward and the NEC are publicly attacked in the black press for not producing one

            play by a black American playwright in its first season. And also for using the

            word ‘Negro’ in its name rather than ‘Black’.

1969 – In their second season, the NEC produces Lonne Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark

           Old Men. Ward plays the leading role and wins a Drama Desk Award for his

           performance.

           The NEC receives a Tony Award for Special Achievement in the Theatre.

           Despite its perceived success, the company is forced to cut down its training 

           programs due to shortage of grant monies. Later that year, a benefit organized by

           Robert Hooks at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway saves the company from

           financial collapse.

           Robert Hooks leaves his day-to-day operation at the NEC and moves back to

           Washington D.C. to create the D.C. Black Repertory Company.

1970 – Ceremonies in Dark Old Men starring Ward is broadcast in primetime on

            ABC TV.

            A performance of The Harangues, a short play by Joseph Walker, featuring Ward

            in a principal role, is interrupted by a black theatre group protesting its content.

            The NEC and Ward come under more fire in black periodicals for being located in

            Greenwich Village instead of Harlem and for retaining its white administrator,

            Gerald Krone. Ward refuses to respond to these criticisms because he did not

            consider them valid.

1973 – Ward directs and acts in The River Niger, another play by Joseph Walker. This

            becomes the first NEC production to move to Broadway.

            The show receives two Tony Award nominations, one for Best Play and one for

            Ward for Best Supporting Actor. Ward refuses the nomination because his was

            not a supporting part but the lead.

            The play receives the Tony Award as Best Play.

1975 – The First Breeze of Summer by Leslie Lee, directed by Ward, becomes the second

            NEC play to move to Broadway. It receives a Best Play Tony Award nomination.

            Ward receives the National Theatre Conference Person of the Year Award.

1977 – The Louisiana Performing Arts installs Douglas Turner Ward in its Hall of Fame.

1979 – Ward receives an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Fine Arts) from City College of

            New York.

            Financial constraints force the NEC to drastically cut back on its staff and

            production schedule.

1980 – Ward is given the Ebony Magazine Black American Achievement Award for

            Accomplishment in Fine Arts.

 

            Home by Samm-Art Williams and directed by Douglas Turner Ward becomes the

            NEC’s third play to move to Broadway. It receives two Tony Award nominations.

            The NEC moves from the St. Mark’s Theatre in Greenwich Village to Theatre 4

            on W. 54th St. in midtown Manhattan.

1981 – Ward receives the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for

            Outstanding Contributions to the Progress of Human Rights.

1982 – A Soldier’s Play, written by Charles Fuller, directed by Douglas Turner Ward,

           receives the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

           Gerald Krone formally resigns his administrative position at the NEC to work in

           television news.

1984 – The NEC gets a $100,000 donation from Citibank but is still facing serious

            financial troubles.

1987 – The NEC celebrates its 20th anniversary while facing a major financial shortfall.

            Ward calls for public support. But some of his announced productions have to be

            cancelled.

            Ward announces his resignation as Artistic Director and retires the title.

            Leon Denmark is named Managing Director of the NEC.

            Ward is invited by The New York Times to write a follow-up article to his

            “American Theatre: For Whites Only”, assessing the state of African American

            Theatre after twenty years. When the article “Counterpoint: A Twenty Year View

            of Black Theatre” is submitted, the Times refuses to print it. The article is

            ultimately published in Black Masks Magazine.

 

            PBS’s American Masters series broadcasts a documentary, narrated by Ossie

            Davis entitled “The NEC: A Company of Excellence”.

1990 – The NEC announces that it will produce Charles Fuller’s ambitious four-play

      series about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period collectively known as WE

      but financial difficulties make this a difficult task.

1991 – Ward receives an Honorary Doctorate from Columbia College in Chicago.

            Ward returns to the NEC as Artistic Director in an attempt to resolve its financial

            crisis. He announces in The New York Times that the NEC will have to shut down

            if unable to raise $250,000.

1993 – Ward produces and directs Last Night at Ace High, which became the NEC’s last

            show under his auspices as Artistic Director.

             That same year, the NEC is honored at the National Black Theatre Festival in

             Winston-Salem, NC, as an “indispensable cultural and national resource”.

After The NEC:

1996 – Douglas Turner Ward is inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame.

            (1/22)

1998 – Ward receives Honorary Doctor of Literature from Louisiana State University

2002 – Directs John Scott’s Farma at the Ensemble Theater in Miami, FL.

2003 – Receives Legend Honors Award at the Zora Neal Hurston Festival in Orlando,

            FL.

2005 – Ward receives the New Federal Theater’s Award of Excellence at the Town Hall

             in NYC.

             Ward receives the NAACP Award in Los Angeles, CA.

Note:

This chronology is still evolving because Mr. Ward is still very much alive and active.

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Doug Ward Today: An Update

Doug Ward Today: An Update

 

I spoke to Doug a few days ago and I’m happy to report that he continues to be on the mend from his serious operation in May 2010.

Here are the letters he has asked me to publish.

The Second Letter

October 9, 2010

Dear Doug,

     I am very happy to be writing to you today. This is from Dianne McIntyre. I heard that you had surgery this summer. I hope that all went very well and that you are getting stronger with each day.

     I am privileged to be one of the alumni of the NEC asked to participate in honoring you with a contribution. It is a wonderful opportunity to make available to us-those of us who have experienced from the inside the jewel that is the NEC.

     Over the years I have shared with many people how, as a choreographer I was initiated into the theatre by having the good fortune to work with you. Nothing in my work would be the same without my experiences at the NEC. I learned so much from you – watching you direct the actors, pulling from them the greatness some didn’t realize they had. Watching you work magic with psychology and subtle, and not- so- subtle techniques – achieving riveting performances. I learned so much. I learned to forward the action of a play with movement alone. I learned that from you. Your nuanced collaborations with designers, composers, your staff – all of that seeped into my consciousness and has supported me in all of my dance and theatre work. And just being immersed in the atmosphere of your organization -The Negro Ensemble Company- What a blessing!

     The dynamism of the artists; of staff; the bold professionalism; fountains of creativity; the whole Black consciousness foundation – amazing. NEC helped propel the arts, the society, the world into a new “ideal”. – a forward thinking direction – a profound way of absorbing issues and the poetics of race, culture, politics, art. It changed the world. I am sooo happy to be part of the NEC family.

     NEC –more than a National Treasure!

Much love,

Dianne McIntyre

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