Category Archives: Issue #4

Editor’s Note

Quote:

What we needed was a theatre where black artists could decide, promote and oversee their own destiny.
Doug Ward – 1967

Editor’s Note

We’re back with our 4th issue and we must be doing something right because our readership is increasing monthly. This is gratifying because it tells us that we’re not just whistling in the dark.

We also like comments, opinions and suggestions. It energizes us, makes us want to do better and more.

There is a book by Otto Lindenmeyer called Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed. It is a wonderful book and every time I read it I think, “That was true then, but there is no reason for this to be the case now.” We are now in charge of our own destiny, including history. Theatre history specifically. Let us not let it slip away by benign neglect.

Gus Edwards, Chief Editor

Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

All Material Contained Within is Copywrighted and Permission must be secured for use of any material.

Advertisements
Tagged ,

Doug Ward on Artistic Directing

As I think I have indicated before over the years I have been taping my conversations with Doug concerning various aspects of his function or functions at the NEC. This session was taped in the Spring of 1995 while I was on sabbatical from Arizona State University and living in New York.

Doug Ward:  – On Artistic Directing

GE: You have been the Artistic Director of the NEC for nearly 20 years now. I remember that we talked about this before but I forget because I wasn’t taping anything then, but what did you tell me about how you go about selecting plays for the season?

DTW: Well, first I look at what our budget can support, then I look at the works that I have available to me. And there’s always a lot to choose from because almost from the day we opened our doors plays have been coming in from all over the place hoping to get produced, hoping to get a reading by at least. And I’m not talking about your garden variety say conventional plays but some exciting, adventurous stuff in style and form and content. I read them and try to figure out how programmatically they fit into our season in terms of like I said budget and resource. But let me say this, black theatre has the most vital and varied body of theatre works by that I mean plays of any place. The problem is we can’t do them all. So people get upset and say; “Oh the NEC turned down my play for thus and such reason which always is something they made up or think they perceive. But the truth is just the opposite. I mean sure we get plays that are incomplete or unfocused or not good in any acceptable sense. But I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the good stuff, the provocative stuff. We just don’t have the means to do them all. We more often than not hardly have the means to do the ones we select.  What people forget is that we generally can only do 4 plays per season, sometimes even less. This is one of the reasons we do things like sit down readings, staged readings and workshop presentations where we the work is staged in a skeletal way. It was in the hope that other theatres would pick up the ball and produce some of these plays.

GE: And have they?

DTW: In most cases no. Occasionally I’ll hear of one getting done in some community theatre out of town or out of the state but hardly ever here in New York.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: I don’t know and couldn’t say exactly. But it just goes to show how underrepresented the black voice is in our so called mainstream theatre, which is the reason why we started the NEC in the first place. Our intention wasn’t to be the only game in town but to start the ball rolling where you would have other black theatres and white theatres too doing collectively an intelligent percentage of the worthwhile black plays that are out there.

GE: I want to go back to the original intent of my question. I think it had to do with the aesthetic of what informs your choices. I was riding in a car with a black theatre academic in California about six months ago and she was trying to articulate what was the black aesthetic in theatre. I wasn’t quite sure what to tell her but I thought you might have some ideas.

DTW: If you’re asking about what informs my choice let me just say that I have no rigidly, academic or intellectual notion as to what I look for in a play when I read it. The first thing I ask myself is; “Does it hold my interest.” Because if it doesn’t then the fucking thing is boring and not worthy of consideration. I don’t care lofty or worthy the ideas it contains are or how it politically it subscribes to whatever it is we are championing right now. Boring is boring and that’s all there is to it. Now a lot of what I look for in a play comes out of my instinct as a writer. But, and I emphasize this, it doesn’t have to be like something I might have written. In fact it almost never is. But my instinct has to tell me that there is something there. Something worth developing, something worth producing for the audience to witness and enjoy… And of course there are the criteria standards of craft and uniqueness that have to be met. What I’m saying Gus is that this is an artistic medium that has its own rules. And one of those is that it has to be able to keep the audience engaged for the duration. So when I look at a play I look for something that says to me “This is a playwright with a unique vision or perspective as well as voice. Hell, everything we see has been stated and stated over and over again down through the centuries. So there is nothing really new or original in terms of subject matter. But in the manner so expressing it, yes.  And sometimes a writer will bring a new insight or a fresh view of it that hasn’t been seen or heard before. And that’s what I look for in a play and a playwright as well. A voice that’s original and unique that coupled with craft can create, at least on paper, something that’s compelling. Then the rest is up to us production wise to see that it carries over on stage.

But your question is narrow in scope because that isn’t all that goes into being an Artistic Director. It isn’t just the selection of plays and seeing them through to production. There are a whole lot of other things involved as well.

GE: Such as?

DTW: Well what I mentioned before, budget. You can’t, me or any other Artistic Director, we can’t select four let’s say 25 character plays just because we have that many on our desks and they’re all excellent. There has to be a balance from an aesthetic perspective and from a budgetary one too. Also the size of the theatre comes into play as well. For instance when I selected The Brownsville Raid for production I knew that we couldn’t do it at the St Marks. We didn’t have the stage space for a military type play of this size with all those men marching around and shit. So I had to see about renting another space and how that rental cost would impact on our budget for the season. So that’s one example.   

Now, as Artistic Director I set out to do text theatre for one reason, because it is transferable. It can be duplicated, it can be transferred, entered into and revived and re-experienced. But saying that doesn’t mean that I’m talking about freezing a play into a rigid, unbreakable mold. Yes, on one level a text play is frozen but it can be re-thawed constantly and repeated with new actors, new interpretations and what have you. And this wasn’t important in terms of just my own choice. This was important for where Black Theatre was at the time. We needed a body of work that could disseminate itself into the environment. And I think you have to agree that has been done to some degree.

GE: Yes, I would.

DTW: But you asked something about selecting the plays I think.

GE: Yes, I did. What is your process? What is it that attracts you to a play and makes you want to do it? Do you know what it is?

DTW: No, I couldn’t put it in concrete terms because it shifts, it changes. Generally speaking something sparks and engages my interest. But it’s hard for me to define because you have to remember that I wound up directing almost a third of the plays we did. And I directed them out of necessity for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with our finances. But it was more than that. You see Gus, when you’re the Artistic Director there are considerations that take you further beyond just the subjective excitement. I mean you read a play and you say to yourself that this is the play that playwright had to write. I can feel that he or she had to write it. There’s an urgency there, and that coupled with talent and craft tell me that this is a play that needs to be done. That needs to be exposed to the public.  You do this for a while and you’re creating a body of work that can be disseminated, produced and taught.    

And it contributes to the health of the art as well. Because once the work is out there published and produced people can’t come along and pretend that these works don’t exist. Much as they sometimes don’t want to, they have to acknowledge that progress have been made, works have been created. So since they (the writers) can’t repeat what’s been said they’re going to have to come up with something different or new. And that’s healthy for the art, that’s healthy for any art.

GE: Last year we talked about the possibility of putting together a collection of “Cutting edge” plays that the NEC had done. Can we talk about that a little bit?

DTW: In what way?

GE: What would you consider to be some of the “cutting edge” plays done during your time as Artistic Director?

DTW: Let me say this Gus, the entire NEC body of work could all be considered to be cutting edge in so many ways. We were innovating in so many different ways just by being autonomous by selection the plays that were concentrating 100% on black life in some form creatively in the theatre. So in that sense the whole body of work could be considered “cutting edge”….But from the beginning I always knew that I wanted a variety of expression of black creativity in theatre through the presentation and interpretation of scripts. And I always knew, as you know, that the black experience in America to me is a national experience. I mean just numerically, black people comprise some 30 million or more of the population of this country.  Thirty million strong, that’s more than damn near two thirds of the nations on the globe. And our particular experience historically and everything else by being both inside the mainstream culture, being deeply embedded in it and at the same time being outside of it. By being marginalized within that culture. All of these peculiarities developed a national culture that is in a sense unique because of, as I said, being inside and outside more or less at the same time.

Gus, what you have here is something similar to the Irish experience. The only difference is that the English colonized them within their own territory. Where with us they brought us out of our original homeland and colonized us, more or less, on new soil. Other than that we were basically two people who in many ways, were usurped by history and the original invaders. Just as Ireland was invaded and occupied to a certain extent and then controlled by the British. So all of that meant to me is that it created a wide range of expression among us in relation to our experience in the world…. So from that standpoint my desire to be various in selection material and training myself to recognize both what was good in theatre of what was submitted to me in scripts, while at the same time recognizing what was good in different things. By that I mean writing, theatre writing from different cultures with the same kind of outsider/insider status and wanting to show the breadth of expression that led to my particular choices. The bottom line of course being that they had to be good theatre. Because as you’ve heard me say so often, a bad play is by its very nature is counter revolutionary.

Tagged , , , ,

Doug Ward: Director

Doug Ward – Director

In his capacity as Artistic Director of the NEC Doug Ward functioned in many other capacities as well; producer, playwright, actor, dramaturg and frequently as a director. Here he explains how this came about. 

            I came to directing in a round-about way.  When we started the NEC, I was constantly being put into a position where I had to make decisions not only about what we did but also how we would do it.  So already in many ways, I was assuming the role of director before I had the title.  I mean I would read and select the plays, sometimes as in the case of Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, organize readings and even make certain artistic choices about the way it would be presented.

            “With the play Daddy Goodness, no one else could see the play as I had seen it.  Richard Wright( well known author of Native Sun and Black Boy) had died before he could put the finishing touches on the play that had been sent to Bobby (Hooks) during the time he was producing my two one acts.  In other words what I had was a rough draft.  When I showed it to other directors, they couldn’t see much theatrical value in it.  I did.  I saw it as a satire about the manipulation of simple folks. 

            “So, once I couldn’t find anyone interested in directing it, I had to take on the responsibility or cancel a show that we had already announced.  So I bit the bullet and formally took on the task of directing it.  This was a career that I was more than eager to leave to someone else.  But I had set up the NEC so that the artistic choices would be solely mine.  And with authority comes responsibility.  So I started directing as well as acting, producing and writing for the company.”

 

After Daddy Goodness between 1968 and 1993 directed over 30 plays for the company including many of their best known plays such as; The River Niger, The First Breeze of Summer, The Great Mac Daddy, Home and A Soldier’s Play.

 

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

NEC History

The “Bogey” Incident in London

Controversy it seems has constantly been a part of the NEC experience. Right from the beginning when many publicly questioned and challenged its reason for coming into existence, its mission, the choice of plays it produced and of course the use of the word “Negro” in its name. There was controversy about where it was located (in Greenwich Village instead of Harlem) and often about the content of the plays it produced. The Song of the Luistanian Bogey by German playwright Peter Weiss was the first play the new company produced. But it with the author’s permission it had been adapted and completely rewritten by Doug. It opened to tremendous critical acclaim in New York.

            In the middle of the second season the Company was invited to participate in the World Theatre Festival in London.  The plays chosen for their London debut were The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey and God is a (Guess What?). 

            Bogey, the first of the two plays, opened at the Aldwych Theatre on May 5, 1969 and almost instantly, due its political content, there were protests and demonstrations demanding that it should be shut down.In the Sunday edition of The London Times (5/11/69), theatre commentator and critic Harold Hobson wrote, “If I were to write of Black people in similar terms:  If I were to speak of their evilness and their devilry:  If I were to say that their badness is an axiom so obvious that there is no need to state it:  I do not doubt for a moment that I should be accused of racial hatred.  But I wonder whether the literature of this Company could not be seen by some as a direct stimulus to racial prejudice.”

            Irving Wardle of the Daily London Times (6/6/69) wrote:  “It would be hard for me to devise any show more certain of winning white liberal applause than this anti-colonial diatribe performed by a black company:  The more so since the target is the Portuguese regime in Angola, and the Company are not Black Arts Revolutionaries, but the more moderate Negro Ensemble Company from New York who are working out their race’s theatrical destiny within the embrace of a Ford Foundation Grant.”

            Beyond commentary in the press, there were actual demonstrations in the theatre during performances.  There was one particular night that was remembered by its cast members and other personnel many years later.

Ed Burbridge  the show’s designer remembered it this way;

“We had a riot in the theatre.  Some people who were against what the play was saying attacked the actors from the audience.  There was a fight, ushers were throwing people to the floor, actors were crying.  After, we went upstairs in the theatre, Douglasgathered us all together and said to us:  ‘You’ve done this before in New Yorkand you were very successful with it, but this is probably the most important performance you’ve ever given of this play . . . .  It was simply a shock, but it was an awakening, too, for the Company.  . . . And after we left the theatre and went back to the hotel . . . someone had scrawled ‘Nigger Go Home’ on the wall. Then it was quite       real.”

 Several actors in the cast recalled it like this:

Rosalind Cash:                                                                                     

            “I don’t know whether it was opening night or during the run of it, there was a riot or something.  People were throwing things on the stage, and that had never happened before.  I mean, there had been shouts and all that (before).  But there were things coming from the area of the balcony, falling on the stage, and I said, ‘Oh, oh I’m going to die with my boots on.’  It felt threatening.  And I was in the middle of a protest song and I stopped singing and I heard, I think it was Esther Rolle saying, ‘Sing, damnit!  Sing!’  And I stood there defiantly and to where the debris was coming from, and at that moment I really didn’t care.  I really didn’t care, cause you see, the subject matter was about the oppression of black people . . . And I was willing to stand there and sing my song . . . .  It was a first.  It was unique in my career, that things were thrown at us on stage.”

Frances Foster:                                                                                              

 “We felt very vulnerable because we had our backs to the audience and we could only hear what was going on.  We couldn’t see, and of course we assumed it was the entire audience.  But of course, it wasn’t.  It was just a small faction that had gotten in to disturb the performance.  Deliberately disturb the performance.  And (at Intermission) we went backstage.  By that time they had called the Bobbies (police), and the Bobbies came backstage and said they would post men in the aisles to keep these people from bothering us.  Gerry Krone, Doug and Bobby wanted to know if we wanted to go on with the show.  The choice was ours.  We said, ‘We’re going to go on.’  And we did . . .  So that’s how we dealt with that.”

            Esther Rolle:                                                               

            “The London Bobbies came and threw the whole group out.  Well, the adrenaline was so high after that, we continued the show . . .  I lost count of the ovations.  But that was a performance to remember.  . . .  It was quite exciting.  Very exciting.”

:

Hattie Winston:           

            “It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country.  The first time I’d ever performed out of the country.  I experienced joy, I experienced anger.  I experienced a sense of solidarity with NEC and with my people.  We were picketed.  Things were thrown at us.  We had a lot of nerve talking about imperialism to the British, inLondon.  So they picketed and threw things at us.  But a bond was formed.  Between the blacks in London and the NEC.  People began to take stands.  I mean we actually had people who heard about what happened come out and support us.  People who normally would not have come to the theatre.  They actually came to the theatre to support these nervy black people fromNew York.”

Stage manager Edmund Cambridge:

All of a sudden we heard a kind of rumbling coming from out in the audience and a chanting that kinda grew saying; “Damn lie! Communist!”…The Portuguese contingent that were sitting there began to shout and throw programs and paper and stuff down onto the stage. And Rosalind Cash was standing dead center singing a protest song while this was going on. And you could see a moment of fear in her eyes and she faltered for a moment. And the actors who were in front of her, Norman Bush and the others shouted: “Sing! Sing! Sing!” And I was screaming out: Sing, Roz, Sing!” …And everybody joined together in spirit, I mean you could almost see sparks from the actors out to the audience. And the audience, those that were not protesting, began to feed us with their help in going on with the show. That was a tremendous moment in theatre.”

Michael Schultz was the director and this is what he had to say.

“The actors on stage got totally petrified but they continued to perform because it was the kind of play where you talked back to the audience. There was no fourth wall. So they kept performing until things got out of hand. Everybody was really shaken up because there had never been a violent confrontation in the theatre, in this country. It was quite an experience.”

(All comments were extracted from tape interviews by R. Kilberg.)

            God is a (Guess What?), the second play was performed without incident after which the Company took both plays to Rome, Italy, and performed them to lively critical acclaim.  But the controversy over Bogey in England continued.  On July 2, 1969, the London Times ran a story by a staff reporter that said Sir Elwyn Jones, the Attorney General, asked Sir Norman Skelhorn, Director of Public Productions, to look into the presentation of The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey because Mr. Patrick Wall, Conservative M.P. for Halterprice, asked in the House of Commons whether those responsible for the show would be referred for prosecution for incitement to racial hatred under the Race Relations Act . . . .  And a breach of the peace under the Public Order Act.

            One official of the Aldwych Theatre said, “In no way could the show be described as racist.”  Nevertheless, Sir Elwyn Jones referred the show to the public prosecutor.

                On July 5, 1969, it was reported that Sir Elwyn Jones had decided that no useful purpose would be served by taking action against the show.  In a public statement, he said that neither he or the Metropolitan Police had received any other complaints about the play which was no longer being performed in the country.  And that the Company had returned toAmerica. 

-GE.

Note: Some of this material, specifically the quotes, were drawn from interviews conducted by Richard Kilberg.

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

Doug Ward in Las Vegas

Doug Ward in Las Vegas

 
Gus and Travis (editors of the quarterly) with Doug Ward in Las Vegas

In the summer of 1999 I took Doug to Las Vegas, Nevada for the first time. It came about this way… After years of recording our conversations on audio tape I decided that it would be great to get him on video tape telling me all the things we had spoken about before. Because by that time I had a few friends, former students mostly, who had the technical ability to help me get it done. And who knows, perhaps in the future I might be able to make a documentary or education  tape out of the whole thing. But that remained to be seen. Right now the task was to get Doug out here to Tempe, Arizona and get the ball rolling. So I called and told him what I had in mind. He liked the idea and said sure. I would pay is way, put him up in a hotel and we would hang out together. As an added incentive I said that after the week of taping we would go to Las Vegas for a few days. He said; “Sure, I don’t mind.”

Now Doug had visited me here in Arizona a few times. All of it related in one way or another to my tenure as a faculty member in the Theatre Department at Arizona State University (ASU) since I started here in 1986. Twice he directed plays on our main stage and twice he was here to sit on panels of some conference or another. So coming to Arizona was no novelty for him.

My reasons for picking Las Vegas were multiple. First off it was close, exactly one hour by plane from Phoenix. Another reason is because I love the place. It is possibly my favorite city in the US. Now when I say that to most people immediately I get that knowing smile as if to say; “I understand . You don’t have to say anymore. The gambling, the shows, the liquor and all that sex, right?” And just about every time I let them go on thinking it because I learned a long time ago that it does no good to protest or explain anything. People are going to believe what they want to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. But the truth is I hardly drink and I’m not much of a gambler either. For one I don’t know how to play any of the board games. And second, I hate to lose. I get irritated and mad when I do. So generally when I go there I will budget fifty to a hundred dollars as playing money and spread it out over the time that I’m there. Usually I play the quarter slots and if I win twenty dollars or more I run like a thief. And if I lose ten dollars in any sitting I quit for the day. The other thing about Las Vegas and me is I can’t stand to be in the place after three or four days at the most. After that I get bored and want to go back to my own life….So why do I love the place?  First off, I love the look of it. The topography. All the fake architectural replicas, the Statue of Liberty, the Eifel Tower, the Medieval Castle, the black pyramid, the stratosphere needle and all those indoor malls. The Parisian street, the Monte Carlo market place, Caesar’s Palace where Atlantis sinks into the ocean every day on the appointed hour, San Marco’s Square and the gondolas at the Venetian. The simulated wonders go on and on… Another thing I love is all the buffet deals and the great variety of food they offer. I also like walking the street looking at all that neon and all those people going to and fro. So all together I see the place as a Disneyland for adults where I can mentally lose myself in its absurdity for a few days. And I was hoping that perhaps Doug might find it as amusing and restful as I did.

My final reason for wanting to take him there was somewhat sentimental. Doug had produced my first play The Offering (1977). Not only did he produce the play he directed and acted in it as well. That production started my career in the theatre and changed the course of my life. If he hadn’t done that who knows, I might still be waiting tables or tending bar in some restaurant or bar. Instead I (with only my High School diploma) was a tenured professor at a major university. So I had a lot to be grateful to Doug forThere is a moment in my play The Offering where the old man (Doug’s character) says: “Vegas. That place always seemed like a magic land to me. Never really believed it was there…Always wanted to go to Las Vegas. Always… When I wrote those lines I hadn’t been to Vegas either . But now more than fifteen years later I had been there several times and wanted to share it with him.

Now I wasn’t sure if Doug would like Vegas. If it was his cup of tea even. I knew that politically he was of a Marxist/ socialist persuasion so the ostentatious display of material excess and splendor that Vegas flaunts so shamelessly might be anathema to his philosophical sensibility. Nevertheless, I took the chance anyway.

We got there on a Sunday morning and right away he was taken by the sheer size and scale of everything. We were staying at the Golden Nugget which is in downtown Vegas. He liked the area because it is what they call “Old Vegas” and looks very much like Vegas from the old movies. We went to the various buffets and spent sometimes 4 to 5 hours eating slowly and talking about everything under the sun. Because that’s what we do whenever we get together, talk and talk and then we talk some more. Other times we would walk the streets or visit the various malls until he got tired. Then we would retire to our rooms, take a nap and meet up later for dinner and drinks. Sometimes we would gamble a little but not much.

Doug’s idea of Vegas prior to going there was the one most people who haven’t been there have. That is the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack ring-a-ding Vegas of “Broads, booze and dice”. But the city has changed, changed a lot… One afternoon we were sitting outside the Monte Carlo Hotel just watching the crowds go by. I said to him; “Look at those people, what do you see?” He got it right away. Most of the people we saw passing by were around our age and grey haired. I reminded him of the scene near the end of Scorsese’s film Casino (1995) where Ace Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro) narrates how Las Vegas had changed. Then the Panavision screen fills up with senior citizens moving forward toward the camera. That’s what we were seeing right there in front of us and it was great because we were seniors too. I was 60, Doug was 69.  They were having a good time and so were we.

Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all this eating and sightseeing we did take time out to shoot a video interview with Doug. A section of it can be seen on YouTube.

One last note. Doug absolutely loved Las Vegas. He was amused by, as he puts it; “The sheer scale of everything.” And also by the unabashed, unashamed vulgarity of its material display. He calls Vegas “The Cathedral of Capitalism.” because the place is strictly about money and isn’t afraid to shout it to the world. There’s honesty in its vulgarity and he admires that honesty. And since that time we have been to Las Vegas on three other occasions and each visit was more fun than the time before.

-GE.    

Tagged , , , , ,

Doug Ward: An Update

Doug Ward – An Update


Doug Ward (June 2011)

 

I saw Doug in May when I was in New York. His recuperation is coming along slowly but surely. It is an inch by inch process but things are moving in a positive direction so that is GOOD NEWS.
We talked for hours on end like we always do. His mind is as lively and nimble as ever. His robust sense of humor is still there. And he still has an eye (or more accurately two eyes) for the endless array of feminine pulchritude moving across our field of vision as we walked the streets or sat in Union Square Park.
He tells me that he is now getting back to organizing and working on the various projects he had to temporarily put aside due to his illness. He also informed me that he is making himself more computer savvy with each passing day.
Once again he asked me to convey his appreciation and gratitude for the great outpouring of support he received. In his own word he said he was “overwhelmed” by it.
In August I will be in New York once again and we will meet, have dinner and talk. I will report on that in the Fall issue which should be online around September 15th.

Tagged