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.
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.
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.