Tag Archives: Anna Lucasta

Reflections of a Moviegoer

Reflections of a Moviegoer

by Douglas Turner Ward

My mother and father, born around the turn of the century, can still take movies or leave em. Mostly leave em. But those of us midwife to life during the early 1930s were as hooked on films as kiddies and teenagers of today are hung-up on TV. It mattered little what we saw, but attend we did.

My initial introduction to the silver screen occurred when I was a four or five year old tot living on a plantation in the canebrake, rice-growing area of Louisiana. On Saturdays during summer, I was plucked regularly from our wooden shack, trundled five miles down a dusty road upon the shoulders of one or another of my teenaged uncles, transported by ferryboat across the muddy Mississippi and, ten minutes later, deposited in the balcony seat of a musty movie house. Infancy is treacherous to recall, but I still retain vivid memories of the bang-bang/clippitty clop-clop of Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Johnny Mack Brown, Charles Starrett, Bob Steele, The Three Mesquiteers and their legions of mustachioed villains; green- green colored Buck Rogers and his dagger bearded nemesis, along with snippets from a multitude of other more vague ten or fifteen chapter cliff hangers.

In the early forties the scene shifts to New Orleans where my parents had thankfully emigrated. No longer were theatre chaperones necessary. Now attending flicks against the “Japs”; Taking little notice of Lena Horne or the Deep River Boys being wedged into films as cuttable entities; merely happy they were there…Also, like everybody else  who laid eyes upon that Confederate opus Gone With the Wind, for months we went bounding around the neighborhood greeting each other with “Scarlett my dear, I don’t give a damn.” However even then, eleven year old or no, Butterfly McQueen’s piercing “Miss Scarlett” was too much to take.

At neighborhood theatres the movie fare was cheaper and cheesier. A similar program of the B to D films seen earlier during childhood. Excepting the few houses with slightly with slightly lower hanging peanut galleries, neighborhood movie houses were all-colored. Besides feature attractions of burlesque stage shows with blackout skits, risqué sketches and wonderful 15 minute shorts of popular rhythm –and- blues or jazz combos added for our viewing pleasure were the Tantone hilarics…handsome Herb Jefferies cavorting his version of sagebrush heroics in an all black West, presented in erratic sepia color; Sepiatone cops-and – robbers shorts replete with pomade hated villains, countryboy innocents and ‘stacked’ high- yeller jezebels…unintentionally rivaling  Chaplin, Keaton and Mack Sennett for laughs.

The only problem with the neighborhood theatres were their location in the wrong neighborhood, that is outside of our own turf. In order to attend we had to risk physical assault from our moppet-mafia contemporizes strong arming us with “Gimme a nickel you little n…r” demands. Downtown may have been segregated but it also was much safer.

As for the majority downtown first-run theatres which excluded us completely, sky high balcony or not, whatever was offered just had to suffer without our appraisal (except later when I served a stint in one of these lily white palaces and revenged myself and the race by watching more movies than scrubbing the toilets I was supposed to swab…By mid teens, juvenile innocence and ignorance vanished. Life and the movies came into harsh focus; consciences expanded and contradictions exposed themselves. Southern life is too brutal for naiveté, reality intrudes. Now, we niggers in the stall were responding like niggers toward what we were seeing. Sympathy shifted from the paleface to the redskin; the Jap was still the enemy, but it wasn’t hard to conclude that the grits-mouth cracker “japing” at him was the same bastard “niggering” at us in the face every day of our lives. Also, by this time, the sight of a simpering black maid or molasses- minded handyman was enough to drive us to murderous fury. In any event, our Sunday saris began to bypass regular jimcrow theatres in favor of the Star Theatre girlie show where big breasted chorus lines and scanty –clad burlesque queens pranced and strutted their wares. (Burley house impresarios were more interested in our coins than protecting Gypsy Rose Lee from our gaze.) If we had to sit in the peanut gallery we might as well serve our time indulging sex fantasies.

Soon after celebrating my sixteenth birthday, with alacrity I removed myself from the deep South, intent upon seeking success and equality up North. Crazy as it may seem, freedom to attend the movie of my choice was one of the privileges which beckoned…Sure nuff, three or four days after plunking down my string tied- valise, I headed to the flicks. Lo and behold, I discovered that students of the college where I had taken refuge were reassembling their picket line to desegregate the mother! I had travelled more than a thousand miles to stroll into a ground floor cinema, only to discover the same old ka ka. Was it ever worse, this little jive Ohio town only had two movie houses for the whole city! Eventually, the deseg campaign was won, but movies saw little of my presence during the ensuing two years of higher education in both Ohio and Michigan. Ardor for the habit had dissipated.

After chucking the college scene in ’48 I entrained once again for the golden grail of Northern freedom, this time New York City. Whatever else it lacked the Big Apple city did revive my movie interest. And what a revival! I had already learned that novels could reflect reality; radical philosophy had also informed my vision of the world. But I hadn’t bargained up on the startling impact of foreign movies. I never knew they existed, but soon was awed by their achievement…The searing power of Italian neorealism: Open City-1945, Paisan-1946, Shoeshine1946, Bitter Rice-1949, The Bicycle Thief-1948 etc along with the prewar French drolleries, poetics and surrealisms of Jouvet, Bauer, Renoir, and Cocteau, combined with the gigantic, panoramic revolutionary epics of Russia: Ivan the Terrible-1944, Alexander Nevesk-1938y, Potemkin-1925, Ten Days that Shook the World- 1928, the Gorky Trilogy (The Childhood of Maxim Gorky-1938, On His Own-1939 and Moi university – 1941), the Depuy-1926, Chapayev-1935 and numerous others whose titles I have long since forgotten…Three of four years on a continuous movie binge, making up for lost and wasted time, four or five films crammed into one week. The Apollo on 42nd Street, the Stanley, Thalia, Irvin Place, like second homes…In the main I went alone. Inviting a date to a foreign movie during those years usually provoked a pouting: “I don’t wanta go to those old movies where you hafta read.”

During this period, time and protest also were forcing American cinema to develop a “new look” in its treatment of Negroes. Gross stereotypes more or less were being abandoned; the Stephen Fetchits were increasingly relegated to movie oblivion (and future TV libraries). Hollywood began to wrestle with Negro subject matter and characters… First came the wave of color syndrome films…a la Pinky- 1949, Lost Boundaries-1949 etc. with light skinned heroes and heroines (Usually portrayed by reigning white stars) wring hands and gnashing teeth over their cursed bad luck in being born pretty near pure white (Out, damn invisible hue!), or else breaking into impotent sweat every time that famous epithet was spat their way (See: Home of the Brave-1949). Protracted viewing of these films usually led one to shout: “Aww, why don’t you go on and pass.” or “Stop sweating, punch em eff in the mouth and get it over with.” They also made you suspect that every Negro wakes up in the morning rubbing his skin in pain rather than sleep from his eyes.

After this masochistic era had run its course Hollywood and allied satellites began to pursue the Negro image in earnest. The successes and failures of their efforts over the last twenty years can almost be traced through the advent and career of Sidney Poitier. No doubt Sidney’s stardom and the roles he has performed constitute a significant breakthrough contrasted with the past, but ignoring historical and sociological progress, what about the movies he and others (rarely) been featured in?

Looking backward and progressing forward in loose chronological order I’m left with the following capsule, nonprofessional critics’ impressions of some of the better known films. No Way Out-1950 and Blackboard Jungle-1955…melodramatic and self-conscious in their treatment of Negro subject matter, though possessing individual scenes of power and insight.

 

A Man is Ten Feet Tall (Edge of the City)-1957…well made, acted and packed with dramatic force, but weak Freudianized central plot overcomes stronger Negro subject matter.

The Defiant Ones -1958…Remembered more for providing the fuel for Godfrey Cambridge’s acid parody “Bye-bye baby” than for its own well-meaning brotherhood message.

Porgy and Bess-1959…a heavy-handed disaster made in surprising ugliness.

Paris Blues-1961…turgid and meandering, a good example of what happens when a banal white plot is puffed up to central importance while slighting the original novel’s main theme, Negro exile.

Anna Lucasta-1958…a maudlin soap-opera disaster.

Something of Value-1957…a vicious travesty of the Mau Mau rebellion, so historically untruthful and artistically false until it amounts to an insult, its non-violent, brotherhood message coming too late and directed at the wrong people.

A Raisin in the Sun-1961…a prime example of how not to film a stage play; ugly lit, claustrophobically cramped and over histrionic.

Lilies of the Field-1963…charming, well done, unpretentious; also slight, barely escapes saccharinely.

To Kill a Mockingbird-1962…heart in the right place, but devastated by that stunning good-white-father scene and monument to paternalism: Stand up Scout, your father’s passing.” …Indeed!

Nothing But a Man-1964…excellent cameo simplicity, but I still have a nagging feeling that I like it more for the maudlin pitfalls it manages to sidestep.

The Cool World-1964…Negro environment and subject matter serves as an excuse for irritatingly excessive ‘new cinema’ camera orgies.

Sweet Love, Bitter- 1967…erratic, stilted and unrealized, yet wields a certain fascination; another example of a weak white storyline getting in the way of the more natural Negro subject matter.

Most of the films cited above…along with others left unmentioned are well intentioned in the main; also sporadically interspersed with frames, vignettes, scenes and  Characters which hold our interest and quicken our responses. But, as this cryptic survey concludes, few of these movies have been fully satisfying. Perfection is not my goal, but a totally satisfying whole is…and few of these American made films approach the standard. Certainly, none can compare with two movies of foreign origin which, in my opinion, are model examples of successful Negro feature-film treatment….The first: Black Orpheus-1959, French-made Brazilian location, manages without self-consciousness to present the best in-depth, fully- realized portrait of Negroes seen on film to date. Technically flawless, surpassing in visual beauty, varied and truthful in a multitude of character studies, full of humor, lyrical tenderness, earthy substance and tragic irony, this superb movie captures the full grandeur, humanity and pathos of Negro slum-dweller existence going far beyond its Brazilian environment. Without any overt reference to racial conflict, it achieves a universality rarely encountered in films, and almost stands alone as an example of how Negro subject matter can be transformed into glorious artistic fulfillment…The second Sapphire – 1959, British- made, more modest in treatment and dimension, more limiting in its popular detective thriller format, triumphs in lesser fashion, in depicting wide representative gallery of Negro characters. Its broad canvas of types, classes, professions and circumstances provide a panoramic vision of Negro life never witnessed in US films. An added bonus is its trenchant exploration of the climate of prejudice as it exists in a more benign racist society like Great Britain.

At this writing, the failure of any American film to match Black Orpheus and Sapphire is not surprising.. Even during its ‘new look’ treatment, Hollywood and allied Independents have only proven that they never have been geared pragmatically, ideologically or artistically for the task. Gross movie stereotypes no longer may prevail (they bedevil us on the late-late shows on TV), but what has replaced them seldom encompass the reality of the present. The ‘new look’ has been merely over-praised. Obsessed with and dominated by insulting, derogatory images of the past, we have been over-anxious to greet any small step forward as the ultimate; reacting like blind men gaining half-sight in one eye, mistaking it for total vision.

It is time to realize that movies in America are only accidentally art; primarily Big Business. Overwhelming control resides in the hands of the most conservative element of our society. The monopolistic oligarchy which, instead of plumbing the unexplored riches of Negro themes and characters, continues to be much more interested in entertaining us with “Southern” Confederate epics with noble, honorable, gentlemanly Rebs dedicated to their ‘cause’, not withstanding the cause was slavery or Colonials…small regiments of British troops stiff-upper-lipping their way to victory over a million spear-carrying, lame brained natives.

Bringing these reflections to a close; Once upon a time during my movie going career, I would rush to view any and all movies claiming to deal with or feature the brother. Seeing enough bad ones have been educative. A responsibility has been lifted. For instance, taking my cue from another medium, TV; Bill Cosby’s elevation to series stardom didn’t prevent me from turning the knob on discovering that the first I Spy -1965,program was about some cold-war crap. Knowing that movies with “us” in ‘em can be as awful as the rest, relieves me of all optimistic expectations. I can take ‘em or leave ‘em. Even better…I don’t hafta even atten ‘em.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Talking With Doug Ward

Over the years since we met in 1977 I have been interviewing Doug Ward via audio tapes almost continuously. Here is a sampling of one such interview.

GE: If you had to advise someone with the highest intentions about trying to create a black theatre today, what would you tell them?

DTW: First of all I would tell them not to do it…I’m joking but I’m serious too because it’ll take up the better part of your life. But if you don’t mind the commitment and felt passionately inclined then I would say they would have to study in minute detail the history of the NEC because all the lessons are there. They will be able to have something to give them a concrete measure or yardstick or maybe a point of departure. But it’s there at least as a guideline. It may take them somewhere else but still it provides them with a model of what has been done before. It gives them something to look at and say: “Oh I see how it was done before.” As a result, they don’t have to start from scratch because other people have done it…

When I created the NEC I was absolutely instructed by what other people, other institutions had done. Some things were positive other lessons were negative like the situation when the American Negro Theatre (ANT) did that successful production of Anna Lucasta uptown in Harlem that somebody picked it up and moved it to Broadway taking the cast people along with them, including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who I think met in that production. Anyway, it caused jealousy and many other problems among the members not selected to go with that production. And may have ultimately led to its demise.

So when I had the opportunity to create the NEC I made up my mind not to let that happen. And when we were faced with the same situation when Ceremonies in Dark Old Men came along I said “No. I know we should not go to Broadway. It is too early.” We were at exactly the same junction as the ANT all those years ago. The move would interfere with too many things. It would’ve destroyed our credibility for what we claim we were supposed to do and probably lead to the same result. So without getting theatrical about it, you have to draw on concrete examples and draw your own conclusions that will help instruct you in terms of what you have to do.

Now, the biggest and most important question in terms of what I would tell somebody is that you have to have a vision. It is not enough to want to do something just because you want to become rich or be a star and so forth. You have to have a large vision in terms of what you want to accomplish artistically. You have to have a vision that is bigger than just the minutiae of small scale goals. You have to have an overview because that will sustain you in the times when you will be facing all kinds of disappointments and criticisms and things of that nature. You need to have a larger vision and beside that you must develop a standard of artistic value and quality. And I will take credit in an arrogant way to say that the thing that helped the NEC through the years was my high artistic standards. They were higher than the average therefore they helped me to sustain the company and make sure that the work we did was always of superior quality. Even in failure, when we did not realize our ambitions for a particular work, many of our failures were better than some other folk’s successes.  That only came from the fact that I had high, very high artistic standards. High standards of what I wanted to do in terms of creating black theatre. I mean black theatre doesn’t interest me when somebody has mediocre intentions. It is only worth the effort when it is dedicated to excellence.

GE: I know there were many things the NEC couldn’t do. Many unrealized artistic ideas and programs that were thought out in some detail but for one reason or another, mostly having to do with lack of money, the company wasn’t able to do. Could you talk about them?

DTW: There were so many, where do you want to start?

GE: The Director’s Project.

DTW: Let’s see. In my mind and on paper it was called ‘The Director’s Choice Program’ and it came about this way. A few years after I became a director I began to realize that the only thing that could stimulate a director’s ability to even have a chance at doing their best work or the best work he or she is capable of was when they are totally committed to the project through their artistic desire, choice or stimulus…Look, basically and pragmatically, a lot of people, a lot of directors figure that once they’ve reached a point where they’ve acquired a certain level of craft skills, they think they can simply apply that skill to whatever project you assign them and get excellent results. It’s almost like you’re just a craftsman. Like what people believe about working in movies, that once they acquire a certain degree of technical skills, all they need to do is become a hired hand and they can turn anything they’re assigned to into something worthwhile and even terrific…Now I know that in the theatre the odds are so much against a director doing what he or she is capable of doing until that person is totally engaged, that there is no reason for them to do anything else. In other words, they have to be engaged and committed almost one hundred percent artistically, without any distraction or stress.

Now once I came to that conclusion, then I realized that you just can’t shop projects out to directors. In the early days when I didn’t know better I thought that all I had to do get a good play, match it with a good director so long as he or she was favorably inclined toward the material and the end result would be a full and vital realization of the work. But then what I found out was being ‘favorably inclined’ on their part really represented their subjective point of view that was embracing many different ambitions. I mean being ‘favorably inclined’ for many directors just meant that they were getting a chance to direct. And that would ad another credit to their resume’ and further establish their credentials. But in any meaningful way, like I’m talking about, they didn’t give a damn about the play or the project. Their egos were telling them that they could turn shit to shinola. And for those people that was all it was. But that never works. We’re not geniuses enough as writers, directors, or actors that we can turn out great work willy, nilly, no matter what our feelings are about working on it. That we are so expert in what we do that we can take anything we put our hand to and turn the project into gold.

So Gus, once I reached that conclusion, I said that in order for directors to reveal their capabilities, their potential and their talent, the first step was that they had to be 100% desirous in doing the play. So the basic premise of the ‘The Director’s Choice Program” was that first and foremost the director had to select the play or project he or she wanted to do. That was the bottom line. They had to select the work and convince me that they had a viable and passionate reason for wanting to do it….Now by this time we had in our files over a hundred plays that they could select from. They could read them all and select one. They could also select plays from writers they knew, or they could bring me a project from outside. Once again, as artistic director I didn’t want to select what I thought was a good play and then just put them on it. Because by this time anything I gave the directors they’d say yes to and try to talk enthusiastically about how much they loved it only because they knew it would give them a directing credit. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be totally their choice, first and foremost. Then once they made their selection we, the company, would give them the resources to do it. Not in a full scale production at first for the simple reason that I didn’t want the directors to have the burden of the institution’s reputation riding on their choices. I wanted them to be free of all external pressures and burdens. I just wanted their total concentration to be on the work. So what I devised is that it would be done workshop style, therefore it wouldn’t be reviewed. It wouldn’t have judgmental pressure on it. I worked out a form where the work could be discussed and even praised in a reasonable and professional manner. Not some bullshit session where the audience says ‘I like this’ or ‘I didn’t like that’. This session would be with me, the director and whoever else’s judgment we trusted. We would discuss what the results were and how we would proceed beyond that. I called it The Director’s Choice because I wanted to see what directors would do given these options.

Now of course if somebody brought me a project that was so horrendous that I would have to say no, or say; “Look, I think that this material is so bad till you almost prove to me by the selection you made that you’re not a good director. Because you don’t even know what the hell to select.” But even with saying that it should be understood that what they selected didn’t have to be on the level of what I would have chosen to produce. All I had to be was positively inclined toward the material selected and the rest would be left up to the director. All they had to have was a valid concept that I thought was worth being attempted and I would say yes. I would then provide them with class A actors because far as I was concerned The Director’s Choice Program couldn’t work with mediocre actors. So I would provide them with the same level of actors that we were hiring for our mainstage productions. So if the project failed or just didn’t work I didn’t want it to be because of poor acting or any such thing. And also it wouldn’t be due to the fact that the actors or the director were rushed into production circumstances. I wanted them working under the best possible conditions. So since it wasn’t a full scale production they could work at it as long as they felt was necessary.  And they could work at it in stages, starting with a staged reading perhaps, then a fully staged reading  with blocking and movement but no costumes or set. Or some could even be fully scaled productions in a skeleton fashion. So, as I said, the field was wide open and the choice was theirs. And the end result would be theirs as well.

Gus, my ambition was to make this a regular part of the NEC, like The Playwright’s Workshop, an independent entity that would function in a way that I just described. But once again, none of it came to fruition due to the lack of funds. We applied for grants all over the place but didn’t get any of them. I even looked at our own budget to see if there was some way I could make The Director’s Choice Program a possibility. But it wasn’t possible. We couldn’t even meet our own basic budget, so there was no room at any point for it…Hey, I’m still sorry we didn’t get a chance to do it, because I think the results it would’ve yielded would have been a significant contribution not just to the artistic viability of our theatre but for other theatres as well. Because as I have always said, the NEC couldn’t produce all the worthwhile black plays we received or hire all the excellent black actors that were out there. But if we showed who they were and showcased their abilities in some way other theatres, white or black, might create opportunities. But it wasn’t to be. That’s all I can say, it wasn’t to be.

GE:  I’d like to talk about reviews and critics. I know that right from the beginning you always had questions about the necessity of reviews and quality of those reviews in terms of assessing black plays.

DTW:  My feelings about reviews and critics, whether they are necessary or not, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally, you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean, you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. Unfortunately, in my experience I find that in the main, criticisms and reviews do not usually do that. And that they were at an even greater disadvantage when looking at and attempting to assess Black Theatre. Because when it came to what Black Theatre and the NEC were doing, they were one, two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. It wasn’t just because ninety-nine percent were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on onstage could be brought by anyone of any color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and practices of the lives being presented. It’s just that it was very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from even their own background and culture. So after a while, I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.

Now as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from, several of these critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole, this was not generally true. Now I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to, I’m talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were enthusiastic about to me, frequently, the angle of dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed to be only able to deal with things they could label with terms like ‘the family play’ or ‘the black protest play’. And the problem there is that they of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore, would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and then appraise some of the work that we were doing.

I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as Artistic Director or actor or writer, I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer, and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say ‘Oh that’s right. I know they’re right about this. And I can make it better or improve on it just because they pointed it out to me.’ There were very few times where critics and reviews were helpful on that level.

GE: On what level?

DTW: On the level of being a middle-person to their own public. ….Now from a pragmatic perspective, they could be helpful yes, after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint, they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. But with a black audience, only residually so. Because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC, it wasn’t that significant. The NEC had already succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never that much affected by whether the New York Times, The NY Post, or The Daily News liked our shows or not. But that is not to say that the black public didn’t depend on these organs for information. Things like discovering that the play was there, that it had opened, and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented, they liked what they were seeing, and that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. This is why they came. Not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion maker’s advice. So with a rave review in the Times, the percentage of our white audiences would go up for those plays. But this wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.

But to go back to the subject of critics. The ideal function of criticism in our case would have been to give us outside views that were somewhat insightful and knowledgeable. Toward this end I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I am sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.

GE: But you did try as I remember.

DTW: Yes, but first let me say I felt and still feel that a majority black audience attending our plays was an absolute necessity. The reason being that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping any aspect of black life, they’re going to point it out to us. More than point it out, they’re going to curse us out for it. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you that you’re full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. These folks speak up and that’s what I always found wonderful about them.

GE: Didn’t I hear that in  search for a representative black audience at each of its performances, the company might go so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order to assure that they would go specifically to African-Americans who might come later?

DTWYes. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them, we would have a house that would be maybe ninety percent white folks and ten percent blacks. Because most black folks didn’t read reviews they generally came out of spontaneous response or word of mouth and they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to ensure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty-fifty, I asked the people at the box office to hold back fifty or sixty seats for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up the sign that all tickets for the day were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling the black folks that we had seats available for them. I did it because I felt it was important to have them in the audience.

GE: Can we now talk about the efforts you made to get black theatre critics more involved in the process?

DTW: Well Gus what I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that Black Theatre now exists. And because it does, we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper, we should come up with special ways of making sure that black critics’ opinions were occurring. So, with the opening of The River Niger, I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways Magazine, Joseph Okpaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press, Lindsey Patterson, editor of Black Theatre: A Twentieth Century Collection of Its Best Plays, and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence Magazine. They were invited under the proviso that whatever they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play, their opinions were their own. We would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given was about the word count. Only because we had a certain amount of space in the New York Times that we were paying for, and as I remember, it wasn’t cheap. But even with that, a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. And if you go back to look at the way they were printed, you’ll see we had to use two or three different types of print- face in order to make them fit. But still, black critics were represented. The irony of course is, that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say the Mel Gussow review in the Times. So it was obvious that these reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying to have them published.

Note:

The top of the ad in the New York Times (3-28-72)which printed the reviews  read The Negro Ensemble Company, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black Theatre Criticism Presents the Opinions of Four Black Reviewers Invited to Appraise its Tuesday, December 5th Opening Night Performance of Joseph Walker’s play, The River Niger. The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited, whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space. Then the reviews followed.

DTW: We did it again with the opening of Charles Fuller’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep in 1974. Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American Magazine, and Lindsey Patterson were the critics invited. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was really hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinions would be given a hearing in a regular way. And not just in a weekly or monthly magazine, but in a daily newspaper. I selected the New York Times because it was a major paper with a large circulation and readership. I wanted black critics to reach the same audience as the white critics for the paper. But like I said, ad space is expensive. We ran out of money and couldn’t get any grant monies to continue it. And the other black theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested, or wasn’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important.

You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say twenty five or thirty years later in search of history or research, they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said, we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen.

GE: When I first met you and we started talking one of the things you mentioned was the possibility of having two theatres. A large mainstage theatre and a smaller experimental space. Could you elaborate on that?

DTW: Sure. The idea, and I guess this was more like a dream or a fantasy, but the idea was to get to the point where we operating two theatres. One would’ve been a 750 seat size house and the other would’ve sat maybe 100 at the most. In the big theatre I would’ve put the big sort of, for want of a better word, conventional type work. And maybe some Shakespeare adaptations maybe an all black Shakespeare season or something like that. We had the actors who could do it. All they needed was the opportunity.   And in the other space, the more experimental type work. The kind of stuff you and I like to do. But there were others as well. People like John Scott and that cat (Silas Jones) who wrote Waiting for Mongo which we did in our sixth or seventh season (actually it was their eighth). They weren’t the only ones I was constantly getting scripts that would’ve fitted such a theatre. So that’s what our season would’ve been like. The big stuff in our mainstage. And I would have liked to do six plays instead of four. And in the smaller space even more plays but with shorter runs.

GE: So why didn’t that come about?

DTW: Gus we had enough problems maintaining what we had. We couldn’t expand. In fact we were cutting back all the time. So it was what I was telling you, a dream, that’s all. Just a dream.

GE: But at the time when we spoke about it you didn’t suggest that it was just a dream. You made it sound like it was a firm plan for the future of the NEC.

DTW: That was probably during or just after the run of The River Niger on Broadway. We had a little extra money and for a year or two it looked like we might be able to do some of the ambitious things I was thinking about. But that didn’t last for long, believe me.

GE: Did you tell anyone else about these ideas?

DTW: Probably Gerry (Krone) and Bobby (Hooks), maybe my wife and you. But that was about it. In fact Joe Papp at the Public (Theatre) did something like that one season. But to me that was more like a stunt. My interest was to do it more consistently. Maybe one show a year at least. I was also interested in doing Brecht, Sean O’Casey and Chekhov as well. That was another major interest I had.  In fact in our first season I did the transfer of an Australian play (The Summer of the 17th Doll) into a black play for the company. I adapted it. But when I say adapt I mean I didn’t change any lines of the dialogue. I changed the location from Australia to Louisiana and also some bits of slang that was unique only to Australia. But other than that I left the play intact and it played truthfully. And nobody who saw the play would ever think that it was set in Australia originally.

GE: So it would’ve been the business of adapting plays from other cultures to ours?

DTW: No, not exactly, the idea was a little more thought out than that.. Take the great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey for instance. That’s someone whose work I really would’ve liked to have done. Of course you would need excellent actors. But let’s assume we had that, I think that excellent black actors can and would do a play like Juno and the Paycock better than most white American actors.  Ethnic wise O’Casey in that play and several others was investigating  a period of Irish revolution  and the ghettos of Dublin which were almost like the ghettos of Harlem. He was writing of working class Irish life which is very close to ours here in America.  For this reason and others I claim we have a more natural ability to do those works because we would be bringing to them a felt organic experience. For most white actors or white company, given their middle class upbringing, this would have to be realized through an act of will. But we naturally come from the same type of background and deal with the same types of frustrations and limitations…Now, I told this to several audiences and theatre people in Dublin when I was there doing Home with Sam Jackson. Soon as I got there I was interviewed by all the major papers, The Irish Times and all the others and I said that stuff to them as well. And the first questions they asked wasn’t about why or any of that. The first question they asked was: “When are you going to do it?” They were more than interested, they were eager to see black actors tackle those roles. It threw me off a little how interested they were. But then I had to explain that my budget was too constricting for me to do what I was talking about. I meant it but I didn’t have the means to make it a reality.

GE: Did you ever attempt to get a grant that might’ve supported that?

DTW: Gus, we had trouble getting grants to support our existence. So this was a luxury that couldn’t be considered in practical terms.

GE: This brings us to another unrealized dream. Doing African plays. I know you did one or two and a few readings but the plan was for a more ambitious pattern, wasn’t it?

DTW:  Well on one of my trips to Europe I wound up in Paris for about two weeks. While there I went to book shops where I found several volumes of African plays written primarily by Africans in French. I bought several volumes and brought them home. This was true when I went to Africa too. In fact I have about 40 volumes of African plays in my office right now. I tried to get a grant to have them translated and then ultimately produced because I thought that they would provide an expansion of our mission about putting black life on stage. I didn’t get the grants but it just so happened that I had a Latino woman in our development office who spoke French fluently. I asked and she gave me a rough translation for a couple of them so that I could see what was there. In fact, I did get to do some of them in our reading series.

GE: I know. I saw some.

DTW: But once again we couldn’t because we didn’t get the money. We tried lots of avenues and wrote lots of proposals but it was no go. It was the same with The Women’s Project I wanted to do. Similar to The Director’s Choice Program I wanted to do one where black women playwrights, directors and actors would get together and develop their own projects. The closest I got to that was the season (1978-79) where I did Daughters of the Mock and A Season to Unravel under those circumstances.

GE: What about the series of NEC classics that was announced?

DTW: I don’t particularly like the word “classic” because it has a sort of Euro-centric sense of providence and superiority about it.  Still it’s a buzz word that people understand, so that’s what we called it. The idea was to give extended life to many of our plays that were well received but somehow became forgotten once they weren’t on stage anymore. It was a programmatic thing. The idea being that we would do one a year as an addition to our four play season. The first play selected was Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and we did it. It was a valid time period because it had been 17 years since our original production. So it was time. And we actually did get a grant to do it. There were plans to do several others. I think we may have even announced some other titles like Sty of the Blind Pig and Song of the Lusitanian Bogey but after Ceremonies the grant monies dried up once again.

GE: The last question I want to ask is about legacy.

DTW: Legacy?

GE: Yes. What do you think is the legacy of the NEC under your stewardship?

DTW: I’m probably the not the one to answer that. That’s a question that you should ask an historian or somebody like that.

GE: Would you take a try at it anyway?

DTW: Well let’s see now. The company accomplished so many things that there’s certain things we don’t need to do anymore. We created a body of work that now exists as living proof of the vitality and greatness of our black playwriting talent. We have a whole cadre of successful theatre artists from all areas of the profession, actors, designers, directors, producers and others. At the start of the NEC those people weren’t out there. Today they are everywhere thanks in a large part of what we were doing at the NEC. Some of it was by direct training, some by hiring and a lot by inspiration. But it’s all legitimate and all proof of the impact we had just by doing the things we were doing .So I would say that the legacy is across the board. But probably the most visible is in the number of successful actors we produced. People like Sam Jackson, Denzel, Larry Fishburne, Roz Cash, Esther Rolle and others .Directly I take pride in the number of playwrights we developed and introduced and the variety of work they produced. Charles Fuller, Steve Carter, Paul Carter Harrison, Judy Ann Mason, Leslie Lee, you, Samm-Art Williams, Joe Walker and a whole host of others. Any one of these areas would be a worthwhile legacy to boast about. But together I think it says something about the true value of the company. Anything else?

GE: No. Not now anyway. Thanks.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements