Tag Archives: Adolph Caesar

Doug Ward on Paul Carter Harrison and The Great MacDaddy

Doug Ward on Paul Carter Harrison and The Great Mac Daddy.

 

I met Paul soon after he had ended a long stay in Europe. On first encounter he was articulate, suave, almost debonair. His work then surprised me by being as nitty-gritty in his writing as his demeanor was sophisticated.  The Great Mac daddy was supremely representative. Inspired by Amos Tutuloa’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, it is a superlative syntheses of African and African American motifs, drawing upon myth, folklore, fantastic forces, spirits-beliefs, superstitions and hyperbolic tales (sacred and profane) from both cultures- merging them into a seamless form and stylistic unity of drama, music and dance. It was and (still remains) innovative in form, content and production method. Its message was simple but the telling complex…A prominent reviewer hailed it as “the birth of the new black musical”. Its powerful scintillating realization buttressed the reputations of its talented creative team: Diane McIntrye and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson et al…Two separate NEC productions were sites of a who’s who of stellar performers: Adolph Caesar, Hattie Winston, Phylicia Allen Rashad, Cleavon Little, Lynn Whitfield, Charles Brown, Barbara Montgomery, Charles Weldon, Al Freeman Jr., Carl Brown, Frankie Faison, BeBe Drake Hooks, Majorie Barnes, Victor Willis, Graham Brown, Martha Short – Golson, Dyane Harvey, Freda Vanterpool, Carol Malard, Joella Breedlove and David Downing, among others. 

GREAT MAC DADDY GRAPHIC

GREAT MAC DADDY GRAPHIC2

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Robert Hooks

robert hooks

Robert Hooks: On the NEC, its beginnings, its legacy. 

I’m from Washington, DC and at the behest of my older sister I did some plays when I was nine years old and wound up liking it. Then my family moved to Philadelphia where I was enrolled in the Bessie V. Hicks School of Theatre. After that I came to New York and did a lot of stuff around. But my first professional job was the same play that prompted me to come to New York in the first place. That was A Raisin in the Sun. I took over the role of George Murchison at the end of the Broadway run and toured with it for a year. On that tour Douglas Turner Ward, Lonne Elder and I became The Three Musketeers.

We were just meant for each other in life because we have been friends since.

Both Doug and Lonne were a little older than me and we spent a lot of time talking about all kinds of things. Life, history, women, politics, all sorts of things. They were like mentors to me. I don’t think a person could have two better mentors than Doug Ward and Lonne Elder. From those guys I learned a lot about what was happening socially as it related to blacks in the industry. And one of the reasons I formed The Group Theatre Workshop later on was because I saw the opportunity to start creating what Doug, Lonne and I had talked about. It was a kind of workshop for blacks to work permanently in…I was doing Dutchman by Amiri  Baraka ( Leroi Jones) at the time and living in Chelsea at the time. On my night off from the play I was asked to speak at the Hudson Guild, which was in Chelsea, about blacks in theatre and the problems they were facing. The talk was well received and there were a lot of kids who came up and asked questions after. I knew most of those young people because I lived right across the street. So I said to them: “If you’re really and truly interested in theatre come over to my house, I’m off on Monday nights so we can talk about it and see if we can work some things out. Maybe I’ll spend some time working and teaching. “And that’s what happened. There were six then twelve, twelve grew to twenty, twenty became sixty because the kids started coming from all over the New York area.  So in my living room we started The Group Theatre Workshop. And along with Barbara Ann Teer, Adolph Caesar and a lot of dedicated friends we turned my living room into a theatre. Adolph and I knocked out a wall. I was eventually evicted from that place. But it was time to be moving anyway because we were growing in numbers.

 

Now a lot of the people in the neighborhood thought we were just partying because they saw a lot of kids coming and going.  So I decided that we would put together a production and invite everyone around so that they could see what we were doing.  The evening would consist of improvisations and poems and a one act play that Doug had been working on. He was working on two plays Day of Absence and Happy Ending that I was planning on producing with a man named Sam Engle. I took one of the plays (Happy Ending) and I added it to the evening. And Jerry Talmer, a reporter came and gave it a wonderful review in the New York Post. After the review I went to Sam and suggested that since he couldn’t raise the 35,000.00 we had budgeted if I could take the plays and try to raise the money. And, to make a long story short, I did and that’s how Happy Ending and Day of Absence were born.

 

In America we were in a revolutionary time (the 1960s). Black Theatre was producing revolutionary writers like Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and people like that. Brilliant writers who were writing serious plays.

But Day of Absence and Happy Ending were really the first comedies to come along that were successful. But you see, in my mind, certainly in Doug’s mind and the people in the production they were just as revolutionary as the serious plays. So the approach that Doug took in those plays was in my mind just as effective. And it turns out that over the years Day of Absence has become a sort of classic and is still being done when all the serious plays from that time are not.

At the time you didn’t see many black producers. White producers were producing black plays. The Baraka play I was acting in (Dutchman) was being presented by white producers. The problem still exists in Hollywood today although that is changing. But even before I came to New York I was producing theatre. So I had started young. Anyway, the plays were successful and that’s when the Ford Foundation people inspired by Doug’s New York Times article, came to talk to us about starting an all black company. Now a lot of the kids that were in the workshop we had them in the professional production in smaller roles. And when I toured boroughs with the Public Theatre’s production of Henry V I made an arrangement with Joe Papp, our producer, who thought these kids were wonderful, for them to perform in the early part of the evening a theatre piece that Barbara Ann Teer and I put together called We Real Cool. So they were touring with us and gaining valuable experience.

 ceremonies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now Gerry Krone was the general manager for the plays we were producing. So after the Ford Foundation contacted us we brought Gerry into the combine and formed a triumvirate. Then the three of us created a proposal for the NEC on a tablecloth in a restaurant right near the St. Marks Playhouse where the two plays were running. And as you know, the wonderful people at the Ford Foundation gave us a million and a half dollars over three years and the NEC was born.

We did many wonderful plays including Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men which he had been working on since we were doing A Raisin in the Sun. After the tour we lived together as roommates for a few years. And I remember we would take turns on the one bed we had. He would sleep in it one night, I the other. And all the time he would be at the typewriter working on Ceremonies. Together we would read scenes from the play to see if they worked or not. So I saw early on what was there.  I was privy to the beginning of what has become a classic in the American theatre. And all the while we would also be meeting with Doug at a bar on 14th street where he would talk about his next play and Lonne would talk about his. So I was privileged to be a part of this rich history that was taking place.

After it started the NEC had a tremendous effect in New York, on the theatre in New York and the people of New York. Then when we went out on tour we started getting letters from theatre companies because they were so moved and impressed by what they saw. I dare say there must have been about twenty five theatre companies started across the country because they saw and believed in what the NEC was doing and what we were all about. They saw hope for black theatre in their city. So the company had a tremendous effect on other black artists across the country and inspired them to go out and do like we were doing.

Now at the NEC we always wanted to play to mixed audiences. But we also knew that a black theatre audience had to be developed because we feel and have always felt the importance of black theatre, how it brings people together and what it has to say. So we wanted to build a black audience and we did. They were proud of us. They came and enjoyed what they saw. And they came back again and again and brought other people, other black people from all over the city.

 

Before going on I want to say something about Douglas Turner Ward. He has given the NEC his life for the past 30 years or so. Sacrificed his own professional writing career to build and sustain as well as maintain the high quality of the institution. Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC…Now I’m not taking any credit away from myself. I was one of the founders and that was important and I’m glad. It’s history.  But after three years I had to leave New York to build the Washington DC Black Rep and I did so with Doug’s blessing because he was taking care of the shop here and I didn’t have to be there. So I thought that since it worked in New York I thought “Let me go to Chicago, Philly or some other place and see if I can help them do the same thing. So I did the DC Black Rep and it’s still going today. I was also able to help other people to build similar organizations in the cities I just mentioned….But Doug Ward, no matter what anybody says about the man, and you’ll get a lot of varied opinions about him, believe  me,

because I get them. But Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC and the grandfather of black theatre in America.

But summing it all up I think that the NEC was our second Renaissance. The first was in the 20s, 30s and 40s. They left us art, books, paintings, sculptures, whatever but mostly books. The NEC left theatre. Writers, actors, directors, designers and others. Many of them are in the mainstream of the entertainment world and will admit how important the NEC was to their success. And there are those who won’t. To me that’s wrong but I understand because I understand those people.  So when we talk about legacy I say the NEC was our second Renaissance because it was responsible for a true cultural revolution as it relates to theatre in this country.

Interview by Richard Kilberg – in 1987. Edited by GE for this issue.

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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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Doug Ward: The Early Years

Early Years

Douglas Turner Ward, author, actor, director, artistic director and guiding light of the Negro Ensemble Company for nearly 30 years, was born on May fifth, 1930 in Burnside, Louisiana, under the name of Roosevelt Ward, Jr.  He spent his early years on a Sugar Cane Rice plantation where both his father, Roosevelt Ward, Sr., and his mother, Dorothy (Short) Ward, worked as field hands.  During his eighth year, in order for young Roosevelt to get something resembling an education, the family moved to New Orleans where his father became a forklift operator and then a foreman on the docks.  Ward, Jr. was sent to a two-room school where a black non-accredited teacher had developed her own system of teaching.  “You started at first grade and you were passed when she thought you were ready to be passed,” Ward explained in a taped interview.  “That meant you could stay in one grade for a week or a year.  It all had to do with how slowly or quickly you learned.”  And because he was a fast learner, with a passion for reading, Ward, Jr. moved from grade two through grade seven in two years.  He was then enrolled as a student at Xavier University Prep, an all-Black Catholic High School in New Orleans where, along with his studies, he ran track and played football.

“As soon as I learned my ABC’s, it seems that I fell in love with words.  Words as expression and ultimately, words as art, I guess.  And this led me to being an avid reader.  I began to devour books wherever I found them.  And that set my course in terms of my interest in literature . . . .  Then in my second or third year of high school, I was in the chorus of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, ‘The Pirates of Penzance.’  This happened because my aunt was the star of the production as a singer.  But I never paid much attention to theatre as being of any particular interest.”

After high school, Ward, Jr. enrolled at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio in 1946, where he was hoping to obtain a football scholarship to a prestigious college.  But that didn’t happen because Wilberforce didn’t have any kind of football program.  And, although he was a journalism major, Ward, Jr. found time for theatre.  He became a member of the Wilberforce Players, “mostly because I found out that the girls in the Drama group were allowed to stay out beyond the curfew,” Ward explains.

One year later he transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.  This time he did get to play football but a serious knee injury halted his athletic ambitions.  It was about this same time that he became deeply involved in political activity both on campus and off.  But this was not a new development.  Ward, Jr. had always been interested in politics, even during his high school years.

“It began with the realization of my relationship, as a black person, to the dominant white society.  How it was designed to suppress all black attempts at self worth, self sufficiency and self pride . . . .  I had already read some black history and realized that there was nothing natural about the role black people were assigned to play in the American Society of that time.  It angered me, it stirred me up, it made me want to do something about it.  So, I became active in all sorts of political groups.”

But in 1947, it was at the University of Michigan that Ward, Jr. discovered his true political direction.  One that he carries right up to this day.  It came via a white graduate student who, in his late twenties, was somewhat older than the average college student due to the fact that he had served in World War II.  Ward met this man at a local NAACP meeting and they became friends.  As they talked and exchanged ideas, the man would ask Ward, Jr. if he’d read certain writers naming authors and books young Roosevelt had never heard of.  One day, he gave Ward, Jr. a pamphlet called “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx.  Ward read it and discovered a voice that spoke to all he had experienced and thought about.

“It wasn’t intellectual to me.  It was real.  After that, I became intensely interested in where all these ideas came from and who wrote them, etc.  And the more I read of the Marxist ideology, the more I identified with its ideals.”

“Everything I read began to translate itself organically to my own experience.  So, it wasn’t just an intellectual affinity I had with Marxism.  It was more than that.  It was organic and natural . . . which is why, even today, I never have any need to separate and overtly talk about my leftist philosophy or ideology.  It is so organic to my thinking, that it manifests itself in everything I do or say.”

He remained at the University of Michigan for only one year, then in 1948 he moved to New York City because he felt it was the capitol of Left Wing Political Movement.  Once in the city, he became very involved with the Progressive Party’s attempt to get Henry Wallace positioned as a prominent presidential candidate.  The irony of all this, Ward explains is, “I had just reached eighteen and couldn’t even vote.  Yet, I became a youth leader of sorts, which was my situation for about three years.   I was out on the street corners of Harlem; leading and fighting for political candidates before I could even vote for them myself.”

During that time, he met and became friendly with Lorraine Hansberry, future author of “A Raisin in the Sun,” and Lonne Elder, future author of the NEC’s first major commercial success, “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.”  Lorraine, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin, had moved to New York and was involved with the Henry Wallace campaign.  There she met Ward and later became engaged to his roommate, a handsome character named Roosevelt Jackson.  Lonne Elder, who came out of Jersey City, was also a friend of Jackson’s and a member of the Progressive Party movement as well.  The three became close friends, spending much time together drinking, talking and arguing about all sorts of things including art, politics, race and literature.

Street Corner Radical

Throughout all this, young Roosevelt Ward, Jr. was making quite a name for himself as a street corner radical.  This was during the late 1940s, when the seeds of McCarthyism was just becoming the scourge of the land.  Ward was out on the street making speeches, handing out pamphlets and urging people, black people especially, to attend political rallies and meetings that championed Socialism and Marxism as alternatives to American Capitalism and Democracy.  He even began writing during this time.  First speeches, then dramatic skits.

“Just to lighten up the heavy political raps, I started writing primarily satirical things.  And, ultimately wrote my first performance piece.  It was called Star of Liberty, concerning the rebel slave Nat Turner.   This little play, which was only a half hour long, was performed before an audience of nearly 5000 people at a rally.  Well, the response to this play at the rally was very thrilling.  I was nineteen years old when I wrote this piece and that led me in the direction of trying to write more directly for the theatre.  Because up until then, I’d been messing around with short stories and other genres.  Sports writing had been my primary interest, but now drama was beginning to take the focus.”

But before Ward could probe deeper into his newly discovered interest, he was arrested for draft evasion and transported from New York to Louisiana in handcuffs.

The year was 1949.  Roosevelt Ward, Jr. by this time had become so well known as a radical youth leader, that he was given a full time job as organization secretary with the New York chapter of the LYL (Labor Youth League).  And he was also in charge of the Harlem Branch of the LYL.  When the Korean conflict occurred, he became quite outspoken against American participation in the war.  His stand was not only public, but it was also well publicized in the local newspapers.  Being of draft age himself, Ward, Jr., two years before had made an error concerning his draft registration that would later return to haunt him.

In 1948, just after he dropped out of the University of Michigan, Ward, Jr. had returned to Louisiana for three months before going to New York.  While in Louisiana, he celebrated his eighteenth birthday and dutifully went to the draft board to register his name.  Three months later, he moved to New York and notified the Selective Service officer that he was doing so, assuming that his records would then be transferred to New York.  But they weren’t.  Then, for the next three years, while he was busily making a name for himself as a street corner politician, the draft board kept sending forms and letters to his parents’ house in Louisiana.  The parents would then forward them to young “Rosie Ward” as he was then called, when they knew where he lived. Often he lived in so many different places that he was difficult to locate.  Ultimately, he was sent an induction notice that he didn’t know about.  His father, Roosevelt Ward, Sr., had to travel to New York City in order to locate his son so he could fill out the form and send it back.

“I filled it out and sent it back, then promptly forgot all about it,” Ward says.  “Then, one day right after I turned twenty-one, they came and arrested me for ‘draft evasion.’  Now this wasn’t so.  I had filled out the form.  I had tried to stay in touch, which is why they knew where to find me.  But this was the excuse they used to get me off the streets and out of circulation due to my outspoken views of the war.”

Ward, Jr. was returned to Louisiana where he was brought to trial and sentenced to three years in prison.  He was imprisoned for three months and there was an appeal.  During the two-year period while waiting for the appeal to be heard, Ward was released but was restricted to wait out the time in Louisiana.  He was told that he could not specifically return to New York.  “Clearly they didn’t want me to leave Louisiana.  So, I decided to spend the time in New Orleans.”

One year after the appeal was filed, the First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the original decision.  “After that I made up my mind that I would probably be spending three years in prison.”  But, a second appeal was filed.  That second appeal also took a year to finally be heard.  But this time, the Supreme Court overturned the original decision and Ward was free to travel as he pleased.  “I call it my two years of exile.  But fortunately, the Supreme Court ruled in my favor.  Actually, there was no ruling; they just said that the State had no case and threw the whole thing out.”

Three Friends

Lorraine Hansberry

 Almost immediately, Ward returned to New York  and began once again to live in Harlem.  He also worked in journalism, first as a sportswriter, then later as general editor of The Daily Worker, a left wing newspaper.  But his involvement and interest in being a political youth leader began to fade.  While in New Orleans, Ward had begun to write a full-length play called “The Trial of Willie McGee” based on an infamous case of a black man named Willie McGee executed for supposedly raping a white woman.  “When I got back to New York, I finished this magnum opus of a play.  Then I got together with Lonne and Lorraine and the three of us read this play at a room in the Hotel Theresa uptown.  And that became one of the things that helped to convince them that they should pursue careers as playwrights themselves.  I mean this play ran four to five hours.  And just the sheer fact that I was able to write something that long and that big made them say, ‘Well, maybe we should try it, too.’”

Lonne Elder’s version of the story goes this way:

“When I was very young, I dropped out from college.  And I met another dropout from college, and we were living together in a flat in Harlem.  And he wrote this play.  I liked the play very much but was amazed that he wrote it.  And, interestingly enough, he gathered up his friends to read it and ironically, two of his friends that read the play – one was myself and the other was Lorraine Hansberry.  We read the play.  And from that point on, I became totally immersed in theatre.  That roommate was Douglas Turner Ward, and that’s how it all began.  That’s how I started writing plays.”

Lonne Elder

Paul Mann

The desire to write plays became Ward’s vocation.  And in 1953, in order to learn more about the dramatic process, he decided that it was necessary to learn what acting was all about.  Ward had done some acting in high school, college and even served as the narrator of The Star of Liberty play.  It was always said that he had a good speaking voice and a compelling presence, much of it nurtured and developed during his time of street corner political activity, but he felt he needed to learn more about the seemingly simple yet extremely complex art and so, he enrolled in Paul Mann’s acting workshop and studied with both Paul Mann and his assistant, Lloyd Richards.

“Paul Mann was one of the best acting teachers in America.  But, more important than that, is that he had philosophically committed himself to teaching and dealing with non-majority, non-white students without paternalism during a time when other acting teachers were just not interested in the minority students because they didn’t think they would ever succeed in making a meaningful place for themselves in theatre or film.”

Paul Mann with fellow teachers Lloyd Richards and Patricia Benoit

“Paul, for his own reasons, consciously often went out of his way to welcome and accommodate black and minority students.  He gave many of us full scholarships in order to teach the craft of acting.  The list of his former students includes Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Barbara Ann Teer and Cicely Tyson among many others.”

“Lloyd Richards was his assistant.  So, this was not a situation of a white teacher teaching blacks.  He had a black partner in a virtually equal position.  And, Paul was tough.  He took no nonsense and did not indulge in any of that romantic foolery that, because we were black, our talent was natural.  No, he insisted that we learn acting as a craft.  And, whenever we went in with crap, we were told it was crap in no uncertain terms.”

Ward remained studying with Paul Mann for three years while working for The Daily Informer.  When the paper finally closed, due to a lack of funds, Ward shifted to acting.  His first professional job came by accident when a friend and former student of Paul Mann’s acting workshop, Phillip Meister, met Ward on the street and offered him a job in the 1958 production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh starring Jason Robbards, Jr. and Robert Redford.  Meister was stage manager for the production and needed somebody to understudy Robert Earl Jones (father of actor James Earl Jones) in the production.  The pay was five dollars per show.  Ward took the job and, when asked how would he like to be listed in the program, he said, “As Douglas Turner, not Roosevelt Ward, Jr.”

Name Change

“The name Roosevelt Ward, Jr. had been established in press as a journalist and political dissident.  Now that I was starting on a new career, I wanted to begin with a clean slate.  I wanted to be perceived totally as an actor, without any other opinion, positive or negative, intruding from my past activity.  Not that I was ashamed about any of it.  No, that wasn’t the reason.  I just simply wanted to start with a clean slate.”

“The name Douglas Turner was a combination of Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, two of the most admired figures of our black past.  Douglass, the black intellectual freedom fighter, and Turner, the Messianic revolt leader who just got up one day and fought the system spontaneously.  Later on, it became too complicated to remain just Douglas Turner, so I added my own last name to it and became Douglas Turner Ward.”

One year later, Douglas Turner auditioned for his former teacher, Lloyd Richards, now a director, and landed a small role in the Broadway show, A Raisin in the Sun, written by his friend, Lorraine Hansberry.  He played one of the moving men and understudied the lead role of Walter Lee Younger, played by Sidney Poitier.  Also, in the cast was Lonne Elder.  Raisin ran for 530 performances on Broadway.  During the last four months of the run, a young actor out of Philadelphia named Robert Hooks was hired as an understudy replacement.  Quickly, he became friendly with both Ward and Lonne Elder.

Robert Hooks explained:

“I had done a lot of stuff around New York, but finally in my first professional show on Broadway was the same play that prompted me to come to New York in the first place, A Raisin in the Sun.  Later, I toured with the show for more than a year.  By this time, Doug had taken over as the lead, Walter Lee Younger.  And I was playing one of the two young men.  Doug Ward, Lonne Elder and I became the Three Musketeers on that tour.  We were meant for each other in life, I guess, because we’ve been friends ever since.”

When he returned to New York, Ward landed a role as Archibald in the now legendary production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks.  After The Blacks, he went from show to show, making a name for himself as a reliable and talented actor.  He also appeared in several nationally aired TV shows, East Side, West Side, Dupont Show of the Month, and Studio One.  Yet, despite his success as an actor, Ward still maintained that he was a writer and that playwriting was his first priority.  And right from the beginning that had always been clear.

Lloyd Richards, who directed A Raisin in the Sun, remembers:

“. . . Lonne was a playwright and Doug was a playwright.  That was clear.  I was conscious of that.  And, as a matter of fact, in hiring them that was even discussed.  And their need for having time and opportunity (to write).”

So, Ward continued writing.

Robert Hooks

Robert Hooks, in the meanwhile, was also making a name for himself as an actor.  And in 1964 got a breakthrough role in Leroi Jones’ (Amiri Baraka) controversial drama Dutchman.

Robert Hooks:

“While we were touring in Raisin, Doug, Lonne and I would talk all the time about the unfairness of theatre in America, how it was designed for white playwrights, white directors, white actors, white dancers and whatever.  And it was unfortunate that there was just an occasional black play.  So we talked abut the need for a permanent institution.  And because of these talks, I started a small theatre in New York called The Group Theatre Workshop.”

“I was doing Dutchman at the Cherry Lane Theatre downtown and I was living in Chelsea at the time.  And one Monday night, which is the actor’s night off, I was asked to come and speak at the Hudson Guild in Chelsea about Blacks in the Theatre and the various problems they were having to face.  The talk was well received and afterwards the kids came up to ask all sorts of questions.  Now I lived right across the street and knew most of these young people.  So I said, “If you’re really and truly interested in theatre, come over to my house.  I’m off on Monday nights.  Let’s talk about it and see if we can work some things out.  And maybe I’ll spend some time working and teaching workshops.  And that’s what happened.  They came and six grew to sixty, because kids started coming from all over the New York area.  So in my living room we started The Group Theatre Workshop, I along with Barbara Ann Teer and a lot of other dedicated friends including Adolph Caesar.  And in my apartment, in my living room, we knocked out a wall and built a theatre.  Eventually I was evicted from this place after the landlord found out what we had done.  But it was time to be moving on anyway.  So I got this loft on Nineteenth Street and Sixth Avenue.  And that’s when we really grew into becoming The Group Theatre Workshop.”


The Group Theatre Workshop

The Group Theatre Workshop attracted interest and concern in the neighborhood, for no one was really quite sure what was going on.  What were all these black kids doing in that apartment every Monday night?  Were they partying?  Was this some sort of unofficial community center or drug shop?

Word got back to Hooks about the neighborhood’s concern.  He thought about ways of communicating what was being done and decided that the quickest, most effective and simplest method would be to put on a show and invite everyone in the neighborhood to come and see it, free of charge.  The show would consist of improvisation, poems and a one-act play called Happy Ending by Douglas Turner Ward.  Happy Ending was one of two short plays by Ward for which Hooks had been trying to raise $35,000 to produce professionally Off-Broadway.  Putting it up in an evening like this would give Hooks and others a chance to see the show on its feet and also test its effect on an audience.  Jerry Tallmer, a writer for the New York Post, was invited to see the work and wrote a rave review the following day about what he saw.  That review strengthened Hooks’ resolve to produce Ward’s plays off-Broadway.

“At that time there weren’t many Black producers.  The LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) play (Dutchman) I was in, was produced by white producers and that was fine.  I’m glad they produced it because it was a very important time and a very important theatre piece.  But it was also time for Blacks to move into producing.  A lot of whites didn’t like that.  And a lot of people didn’t think it would happen or should happen.  Some people, many people began saying things like, ‘Robert Hooks, he’s an actor.  What’s he doing producing?  We’re the producers, we’re the ones that are supposed to be doing that.’  But the truth is I’ve always been a producer.  Even back when I was younger.  Even before I came to New York, I was producing theatre.  So this was natural to me.  And also, just because a person acts does not mean that he can’t produce.  Also we had two hilarious plays.  You see, during that time in Black Theatre we were dealing with the revolutionary movement by wonderful writers like Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Ed Bullins and people like that.  But they were writing serious plays.  Doug Ward was writing comedy.  Satire really, which was every bit as revolutionary as the serious plays.  The only difference is they were funny.  Really funny and this appealed to me.  And I knew if we put a quality production together it would work”.

In the process of putting a “quality” production together, Robert Hooks hired Gerald Krone.

Gerald Krone

Hooks, Ward, and Gerald Krone (far right)

“It was during the 1960s, I had a management company that managed off-Broadway productions primarily.  And Doug and Bobby were involved in Day of Absence and Happy Ending. At that time, Bobby was very interested in the possibility of having an all black company.  Black theatre managers, black designers, black everything.  But there are not really too many of those people around.  And so, because I had at that time one of the most successful or certainly one of the most prominent management companies, Bobby came to the company and asked us to manage the production of Day of Absence and Happy Ending.  And it was during that period of time that our relationship with each other evolved.  And it was out of the production of those two plays that the whole concept of the NEC evolved.”

Barbara Ann Teer, who now runs The National Black Theatre, was Robert Hooks’ partner in the Group Theatre Workshop.  Teer had been a dance major at the University of Illinois, had gone to Europe, and then returned to the U.S. via New York City.  Here she became a friend of Doug Ward and Robert Hooks during the run of A Raisin in the Sun.  It was also during this time that due to a knee injury Barbara decided to switch to acting as her profession, rather than dance.  She also discovered that she shared the same dream as Robert Hooks:  “To create an ‘art standard’ for black people.”

Barbara Ann Teer:

“I was fascinated by the emotional outpouring of teenagers in those days.  So I created an art standard.  And there were no plays, there were no written works for them to do, so I had to write them and I had to train them.”

During all this activity, Doug Ward was not directly involved with the Group Theatre but then due to Hooks’ interest in producing his plays, Ward was invited to participate.  “Doug of course was the master in the theatre domain,” says Teer, “and we were like Uncle Doug’s kids.”

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