Category Archives: Issue #9

Editor’s Note

Hello everyone!

We are back with a new issue of the Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly. For a change of pace, this issue will mostly visual, featuring pictures of plays, playwrights, and actors as well as photos from the recent conference in Texas where Doug was honored. Also, this issue features the release of the new documentary Lion at Rest: Conversations with Douglas Turner Ward. This is Part 1, to be continued in the near future.

We hope you enjoy.

Gus Edwards, Editor

Travis Mills, Co-Editor

Honoring Doug Ward at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference

Honoring Doug Ward at the Black and Latino Playwrights Conference

(Some diary notes)

*The Interview Video with Doug Ward presented at the conference is featured at the bottom of this article.

For ten years now the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas has been presenting The Black and Latino Playwrights Conference under the Artistic Direction and leadership of its founder Eugene Lee. This conference which takes place in September selects one African and one Latino play from a host of works submitted to develop for a week and then present before an audience which will then provide feedback to the author about the possibilities for further development. Respected actors and experienced actors are brought in to work side by side with students in the department to rehearse and expedite this process. The mission of this conference is (in their own words) to: “Study the craft, nurture the artist and celebrate the work.”  The conference has been highly successful and has grown over the years. Last year and this they had added an extra play to the program making it three plays they have presented instead of two. And now they have expanded it even further by adding a new component into the mix. A Distinguished Achievement Award for some important artist or pioneer in Black or Latino theatre. Douglas Turner Ward was selected to be the first recipient and I think it was an appropriate choice since for more than 30 years he was the Artistic Director and driving force for the Negro Ensemble Company (or: NEC) which was at one time the best known minority run theatre company in the US. The plays and playwrights it nurtured, developed and produced are well known, the artists it presented are, in some cases legendary, the crafts people it trained and put into the workplace are multiple. The last number verified is 4000. So yes, Doug Ward was an appropriate and deserving choice, and I was invited to participate.

Thursday 9-13-12

I arrived and was picked by Eugene. It was pouring rain. Doug was supposed to arrive from New York around the same time but his plane was delayed at the Dallas- Fort Worth Airport due to the rain. He arrived a few hours later and we were taken to The Crystal House Bread & Breakfast an Inn located within walking distance of the university.  There we met some of the guest artists participating in the conference. These included director Clinton Turner Davis, stage and film actress Elizabeth Pena, director Kinan Valdez, director Melissa Maxwell, actors Ruben C. Gonzalez, Manuel Zarate and the three playwrights. All had been here since Sunday working on the plays, preparing them for presentation.

Friday 9-14-12

At 11AM we attended the Department’s Chair John Fleming’s Theatre Orientation class of about 75 or so students. We were in their small theatre where we sat on the stage and introduced ourselves and briefly told what we had done in the theatre. It started out somewhat slowly and politely, as can sometimes be the case when strangers meet strangers. And things proceeded in this dull fashion until somewhere in the middle of things a student asked Doug a question and he became the Doug Ward I know. Articulate, energetic and passionately engaged. And being Doug his speech was amusingly peppered with profanities that he used to emphasize certain points he was trying to make. The students suddenly came alive and started asking all sorts of questions not only to Doug but to the rest of us as well. But it was Doug, articulate, knowledgeable and passionate, who was charging the air with electricity and sparks. So what began as a quietly dull affair became an extraordinarily lively event that ended with a standing ovation from the students and then continued outside afterwards with students who didn’t have to rush off to another class. And as I stood there and listened them breathlessly asking Doug one question after another I said to myself: “Now they know  who he is and why Eugene chose him for this honor.”

In the main theatre that night at 7:30PM Eugene Lee introduced Doug to an audience that included the University’s President Dr. Denise Trauth and her husband. He said a few words this was followed by a scene from his breakthrough play Day of Absence after which he sat on the stage and talked about how he came about writing it and how its success eventually led to the creation of The NEC.

A scene from Samm-Art Williams’ Home followed and after Doug talked about directing the play and taking it to Broadway.

Then a scene from Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winning A Soldier’s Play, which featured the Conference’s Founder and Artistic Director Eugene Lee as a member of the original cast was presented. Again Doug took the stage and spoke about the play and the cast that included Denzel Washington, Samuel Jackson, David Allan Grier, Adolph Cesar and several others. “We toured that play and played in so many cities that just about every black male actor who fitted the age of the characters got a chance to play it. We were like a little cottage industry keeping a certain percent of the acting population employed.” This was followed by a Q&A from the audience at which Doug was once again Powerful and passionate and thoroughly engaging. Eugene presented him with The Distinguished Achievement Award. This was greeted with another standing ovation. Two in one day I thought was quite impressive.

Saturday turned out to be our busiest day. It started at 10:30 AM with a very informative presentation on The History of Black Theatre in Texas given by Dr. Sandra Mayo and Dr. Elvin Holt who have written and edited two books on the subject.  We then took a lunch break after which was my turn. I had been invited to present a history of the Negro Ensemble Company. My time slot was 1:15 to 2:30PM. What I elected to do rather than fill the time up with talk was to present two video interviews of Doug giving his first hand account on the forming of the NEC and its struggles as well as its triumphs. The first video tentatively titled The History of the NEC had been filmed 15 years ago. It shows a robust Doug talking about and reminiscing about various aspects of the NEC and his tenure as its Artistic Director. The second entitled The Lion at Rest (Part one) was filmed specifically for this conference last June when I was in New York. Here you see Doug after the operation, his speech somewhat compromised but nevertheless clear and his answers somewhat more philosophical. I call them “Doug then” and Doug now”. Together I felt that they would give a fairly clear representation of the man and his theatre company and they did, if I’m to judge from the feedback I got afterwards.

At 3PM we attended the first reading. A play by Radha Blank entitled Casket Sharp, directed by Clinton Turner Davis. I found the play lively and interesting especially in its linguistic aspect represented by the dialogue given by the members of a street gang. It reminded me of the newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984 and the invented slang nadsat in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange… A Q&A with the audience followed hen it was dinner break time.

At 7:30 we attended the next reading Seven Sisters by Bridgette A. Wimberly, directed by Melissa Maxwell. I was engaged by the authorial voice and structure of this play. And as usual the acting in both plays, although they were just readings, I found to be excellent by both guest artists and the students.  The presentations ended around 10:30PM after which we were all invited by Eugene and his wife Pinky to a party at their house where a delicious barbeque and fried catfish was served. I sat in the music room with Joe Luis Cedillo, Eugene’s  Associate Artistic Director and a very good playwright as well. Doug held court as we all listened attentively. I was particularly taken by a story he told about hiring Miles Davis for a dance in Harlem during the late 1940s or early 50s. Every time I think I’ve heard everything he has to say I find out there’s always something more. It’s like going into a house and opening one door only to find out that it leads to another and another and another ad infinitum… Somewhere after midnight I started to fade out Doug was feeling the same way. So we left. Joe Luis drove us back to the end and that was the end of a long but fulfilling day.

Fter brunch on Sunday at noon we watched the third reading. This was the Latino play Tango Through the Revolution by Adam Esquenazi Douglas directed by Kinan Valdezwhich tells the story of the Cuban Revolution and its impact on one family. The play was based on he experience of the author’s uncle who happened to be in the audience for the reading. This was revealed to us during the Q&A that followed. It provided us with an emotionally moving moment that was greeted by a standing ovation.

All the time it was raining outside. In fact it rained off and on for the entire weekend. But that was fine with me. We get so little rain where I live in Arizona that any sight of it is welcomed. Several vehicles took us to Eugene’s house once again just to chill out and hang. Several of the Latino guest members along with myself were leaving that night around seven. So we brought our suitcases and left them in the car. At the appropriate time Joe Luis took us to the airport where we said goodbye and left on our various flights.

All in all I found it to be a lively and informative weekend filled with a myriad of unexpected delights starting with the courtesies Chairman John Fleming and his Department’s faculty and students lavished on us. And extending to meeting up with old friends and making new ones. The students were particularly stimulating just by their energy and all the questions they asked.

I think that this conference serves an important function in the area and I hope that it continues to be supported and grow even faster than it has. This year was its 10th Anniversary. A toast to its existence.

Significant Plays of the NEC

Significant Plays of the NEC

 

For more than two decades the NEC provided an institutional base for black participation. It gave programmatic thrust to multiple artistic objectives. It offered the mechanism for actualizing ambitions. It nurtured talent and ability, encouraged risk-taking and gave expression to the controversial. The range and scope, variety and complexities of its productions were prodigious, shattering all notions of black drama being singular in style, form and content; proving that black writers hardly share a common point of view, sensibility, means of expression, thematic interest or world vision.

Douglas Turner Ward – 2001

Soldier’s Play

Home

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men

The River Niger

The Offering

First Breeze of Summer

Daughters of the Mock

Dream on Monkey Mountain

The Great MacDaddy

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Playwrights of the NEC

Playwrights of The NEC

There were literally hundreds of playwrights whose works were presented by the NEC either through staged readings or in full production. We can’t present them all here because we don’t have the space or the photos. But here are a few whose works were of significant impact.

We created a body of work that now exists as living proof of the vitality and greatness of our black playwriting talent. Among them: Charles Fuller, Judy Ann Mason, Samm- Art Williams, Joseph Walker, Lonne Elder, Paul Carter Harrison, Gus Edwards, Leslie Lee and others.

Douglas Turner Ward – 1995

Paul Carter Harrison

Steve Carter

Gus Edwards

Charles Fuller

Judi Ann Mason

Samm-Art Williams

Joseph Walker

Lonne Elder III

Derek Walcott

Wole Soyinka

Leslie Lee

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Actors of the NEC

Actors of the NEC

We trained and presented a whole care of successful black theatre artists in all area s of the profession, designers, actors, directors, producers etc…Probably the most visible are the number of successful actors we produced. People like Denzel Washington, Ester Rolle, Rosalind Cash, Sherman Helmsley, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel Jackson and Phylicia Rashad to name just a few.

– Douglas Turner Ward – 2009

Denzel Washington

Phylicia Rashad

Barbara Montgomery

Glynn Turman

Samuel L. Jackson

Charles Brown

Rosalind Cash

Godfrey Cambridge

Moses Gunn

Clarice Taylor

Ethel Ayler

Cleavon Little

Laurence Fishburne

Sherman Hemsley

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

Encountering Al Freeman Jr.

I’m not doing a Doug Ward update this issue because I feel the report on the Texas conference is an update since it took place so recently. Instead I’ll use the space to talk about actor Al Freeman Jr.

Encountering Al Freeman Jr.

Although I didn’t know Al Freeman Jr. I encountered him a couple of times. The first was sometime in the 1980s after a fund raising benefit for the NEC that was held in a Broadway theatre. Afterwards a lot of us wound up in a bar close by for drinks. The place was crowded and somehow I wound up at the bar shoulder to shoulder next to Al. We said a polite hello to each other and he then asked my name and if I was officially connected to the NEC. I said no but that they had done some of my plays. He thought about it for a minute and then said: “Oh my God, you’re the one who wrote that play that I liked so much.” He was talking about my first play The Offering. He went on to talk about the silences and the subtext that he felt were such an important part of the play. “It’s interesting because it’s not explicit and you know how we actors like to have things be explicit. I think that’s why I like it so much.”  Then we went on from there to talk about other things. Films he had appeared in, plays at the NEC he had done and some directing he had done too. In a matter of minutes some people came and took him away and that was the extent of our first meeting.

The next time we came across each other was some years later. He was appearing in a play off-off Broadway somewhere in the Village. I went to see it because I knew someone in the cast. After the show I went backstage to meet my friend and I ran into Al again. We talked for a few minutes and I remember asking him something like “Why was an actor of his caliber acting in an off-off Broadway show? And I remember his answer so clearly. He said: “Gus, they let me sing in the show. That’s something I rarely get to do. Sing in public and I love to do it. I‘m known as a dramatic actor but I love to sing. I’ll go to the hell hole of Calcutta if they’ll let me sing.” I remember laughing at the answer and telling him I know what he meant because I love to sing too.

We never saw each other after that although I followed his career on TV and in the movies. I remember him with a certain fondness based on those two brief encounters and was saddened to read of his passing in the newspaper…Rest in peace Al. And I know wherever you are that you’re singing to your hearts content.

Tagged