Tag Archives: Douglas Turner Ward

The MacDaddy Experience or Ode to the Palm-Wine Drinkard

The MacDaddy Experience or Ode to the Palm-Wine Drinkard

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but these were the times of Wine. It flowed like Black Magic and it spilled into the streets. Wine represented high times for Black culture, consciousness and politics. It was the mid 70’s, a time when Black music, dance and theatre was flowing from every corner of New York City. There was a rich new cultural renaissance on the horizon, which started in the late 1960s and swept the country, from New York to Los Angeles, all points north, south and a few in between. The abundance of this inspiring new theatre fed the masses and gave Black folks choices as they packed the halls of entertainment with great enthusiasm. The generous grape vines of federal and corporate funding were loaded with sources and a hungry public demanded more as new theatre groups sprang forth, and thrived.

GREAT MAC DADDY PHOTO 1

In NYC from Harlem to the Lower East Side, to Brooklyn, there were at least thirty different theatre companies. On any given night there were fifteen to twenty black theatre productions to choose, from Robert MacBeth’s New Lafayette Theatre, Roger Furman’s New Heritage Theatre, Al Fann’s Theatrical Ensemble, in Harlem, Garland Thompson’s The Frank Silvera Writers Workshop in mid-town, Douglas Turner Ward, Gerald Krone and Bobby Hooks’ Negro Ensemble Company, Buddy Butler’s Theatre Black, of which I was Vice-President, and Woodie King, Jr’s New Federal Theatre in the East Village and Lower East Side. Hell, on any night, there were at least two or three Black productions running at the New York Shakespeare Festival, just around the corner from NEC, which was constantly pumping out epic folk plays, like Errol Hill’s Man Batter Man, Wole Soyinka’s  Kongi’s Harvest, and Derek Walcott s’ Dream on Monkey Mountain.

Joseph Papp had such a passion for Black theatre that he produced very new, exciting, and sometimes, controversial black plays in his theatres, from Lincoln Center to Broadway and at the Shakespeare Festival. He was bold enough to produce a very explosive revolutionary play by Richard Wesley, entitled “Black Terror”. “Black Terror’ was originally produced by WASTSA! Theatre Group, an ensemble company which I co-founded with a group of students while attending Howard U. The Point is; all of this wine flowed at the same time. I mean, folks were in the streets and work was plentiful for Black performers. Jazz and dance was at its apex. New Jersey had Imamu Baraka and his Spirit House Movers in Newark, Brooklyn had Delano Stewart’s Bed-Stuy Theatre, the Billie Holiday Theatre and the dynamic soldier, and friend, brother Yusef Iman, with his incredible family of Boot Dancers, musicians and storytellers.

MacDaddy rehearsal Oct 2012

Broadway turned out exciting Black musical productions, such as “Bubbling Brown Sugar”, “Purlie”, “Don’t Bother Me I Can’t Cope,” “Raisin” and “Ain’t Suppose to Die A Natural Death”, of which I am proud to admit that I was a young, excited and a willing participant. It gave me the opportunity to work all of the folks I was close to and learned from, like Dick (Big Time Buck White) Anthony Williams and his wife, Gloria, Bill Duke, Garrett Morris, Joe Fields, Arthur French, Mama Minnie Gentry, Carl Gordon, Cleabert Ford, Barbara (Lillie Did the Zampogiooooogi) Alston, Joe Fields, Gloria Schultz, Madge Wells, Albert Hall, Jimmy Hayerson, Ralph Wilcox, Tony Brealand and the fabulous Ms. Bea Winde. Working with this group of poets, prophets and storytellers, I learned something new everyday about life, living and the tricks of the trade. It was a Total Ensemble Theatre experience. Buy the way, I must admit… and quiet as it was kept… the “Ain’t…” concept was originally created, and directed by one of my former instructors at Howard University, Professor Paul Carter Harrison (remember that name). He conceived and directed the show while teaching at Sacramento State University, in California. Now, “Ain’t…” was a high point for me and for theatre in New York at that time because “the joint was really Jumpin’”. I was a young “whipper snapper”, a couple of years out of Howard University, a farther, attending graduate school at NYU, performing with Theatre Black, designing lighting and doing technical theatre between NEC, New Federal Theatre at Henry Street and the New York Shakespeare Festival… and at most times… at the same time. Buddy (Putney Swope) Butler, my former roommate, from HU and NY, and I were the technical wizards, but Ed Burbridge was “The Man”.  All of this activity was within walking distance from NYU.

CUT TO: A few years later and a brief lull in the action, around the early Spring of 74’.  I was coming out of a record shop on St. Marks Ave. down in the East Village-Low.  I ran into a friend who told me he had just come from an audition at the NEC, just around the corner.  I asked… “What was the title of the play?” He said, “Man it was a wild piece called “The Great MacDaddy”, by some dude name Paul Harrison, he was upstairs right now with Doug” on the third flo”. I asked him if he knew who Paul Carter Harrison was. He said, “No, but cat wrote some crazy $#!% with some way out wit, about Shine and Stackolee and them”. I asked him, “Did he make it?” He said, “Man, I couldn’t shake, cause’ it was a bit to out there for me”. I told him I knew Paul, he was one my teachers at The Hall, and he said “Then you better run up and talk to him. Now I knew that Paul had also developed the MacDaddy tale while he was at Sac State, and it was destined to be a big hit. In fact, his history and his works were part of my Masters thesis while attending the University of the Streets… I mean NYU, just down the street. It was a matter of timing and the stars aligning, cause’ the public had to be hip and ready for this. Paul and I go back to HU, where he introduced to us to his Drama of Nommo, and Do.

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You see, the Black oral tradition is about myth and superstition, the marchings, the struggles and the Souls of Black Folk, from heaven to perdition. Mischief makers, heart breakers, cradle shakers and soul takers, like Robert Johnson at the Crossroads of life. These were tall tales left us by slaves, prisoners and old men in baggy dungarees, smoking Bull Durham tobacco in their home made corn cob pipes while swigging on bottles of Jack Danials or White Lightnin’. It was called lyin’ and signifyin’ on street corners, back porches, and barber shops, like Iceberg Slim, Willie Best, Oscar Brown, Jr. and nem. At least that’s the way it was where I came from. You see, our history was not written, by us, but passed on orally from generation to generation.  In passing these tales on, the stories got longer, the myth got stronger and the hero got bigger and bad-er.  I cut my teeth listening to these tales while growing up in Anderson, South Carolina. It was the rap of our generation, our way of preserving a nation, while wondering far, far away from home. It is a journey for young men to remember and pass on to their gender… sons… to be keepers of the eternal flame and masters of the MacDaddy game. One lesson you learn real early; if you messin’ with another man’s Shirley. The tongue is only six inches long, yet it can destroy a man six feet tall. If you couldn’t fight and were a bit too light, you had to be fleet of foot and quick out of sight.  These tales also helped to prevent young men from becoming all limp in the wrist…and Do.  It is a lost art, a protective coating, the ability to blab, the gift of gab, the battle between good, bad, the almost had, the battle between mischief and the Devil. The “Bad” in this case meant “Cool”… Like, “I know where light goes when you turn the switch off “Cool”. Fact and mythology were woven together into a tapestry of our history and our hero and sheroes were to be treasured.  In every tall tale there was a truth to be told about love, struggle, defiance, negritude, manhood, joy and Nommo. Na-mean?

ANYWAY…Signifyin Monkey, Shine, Wine and bad ass Stackolee, grew up in a place where I come from. In fact, they didn’t live too far from me. It was like a dream come true, and up the stairs I flew to meet Mr. MacDaddy… and do.  I really wanted to work with Doug and Paul.  Doug was directing the show and all, and they asked me what I wanted to do.  I said “Ohhhh, I don’t know, gentlemen. I called em’ gentlemen…ya’ know?  I said, “I can do a number of things but I just dropped in to see you.  What would you like for me to do?“  They looked at each other, did a wise man chuckle and Doug asked me if I was familiar with “Shine”. I asked, “Are elephants heavy… Is water wet? I can do Shine, you bet”.  I glanced at the script and went for what I knew, for it was all in the back of my head. There are about a hundred and thirty stanzas, depending on who’s tellin’ the tale…Or is it an hundred and thirty two? I did a few lines about the Captain and his jive daughter, I out swam the Shark, I even walked on water. I finished my bit and about ready to split, when they both walked over and shook my hand. Paul had a big smile as he slapped me on the back and said, “Nice, let me walk you out”. I turned and looked at Doug, he had a big grin on his mug. He said, “Now, that’s what I’m talkin’ about”.  Now, Doug was also known for flippin’ a tale, or two, he’s an also an escape from down younder to.  So, Paul is the Griot who spun the yarn, and wove the tale of the tapestry of Big MacDaddy …and Do.

I’m sure Amos Tutuola would throw up his hands and holler if he could see and hear his tales from the bush adapted to contemporary theatre.

The Great MacDaddy is one of the most significant plays in the black canon today, but the world has yet to really experience its magic. It was one of the most significant and fulfilling events of my career and in my life. It was another opportunity to work with folks whom I admired, respected and learned a performance trick or two. The list includes Sir Graham Brown, Al Freeman, Jr., Adolph Caesar, Hattie, Winston, Cleavon Little, Charles Weldon, Roscoe Orman, Felicia Rashad, Marjorie Barnes, David Downing, Dyane Harvey, Bebe Drake Hooks, Alton Lathrop, Howard Porter, Alvin Ron Pratt, Freda Vanterpool, Victor Willis,  Coleridge Tyler Perkinson, Dianne McIntyre, Douglass Turner Ward and Paul.

MacDaddy_Poster-final_0

There was In the Wine Time and What The Wine-Sellers Buy, but the Great MacDaddy was the best Wine of all. It is a poetic compilation of our myth and history in this country and is a reflection of the social condition. It spans the test of time and can be adapted to every generation while remaining a literary mystery. With the evolution of our language, music, dance, lifestyles and constantly shifting social restrictions, the more things change, the more they stay the same. It is being revived to bring back a golden time forgotten tradition, and to inspire a new generation of storytellers…but most important of all… to bring back the times of Wine.

“So, I saved the lady from the complete gentleman in the market who afterwards reduced to a “Skull” and the lady became my wife since that day. This is how I got a wife.” (Chapter 11,…

“This old man was not really a man, he was a god and he was eating with his wife when I reached there . . . I myself was a god and juju-man.” (Chapter 1, p. 194)

Amos Tutuola  – from  The Palm Wine Drinkard

“… he is the greatest MacDaddy of all the MacDaddys, who can do anything in this world. PCH

Sati Jamal

10/2012

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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

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Doug Ward – Update

Doug Ward – Update

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I called Doug yesterday to wish him a HAPPY NEW YEAR and in general to see how things are going with him. He told me that the radiation treatments he received for his cancer operation two years ago have been causing him a considerable amount of problems with his teeth. So much so that it’s going to require weeks and months of dental work involving root canals, caps and molar replacements before things are restored to the point where he can eat a meal comfortably. The work has already begun but it is a slow process, made even slower by appointment cancellations and worry about his ability to pay for the work that’s being done. We’ve all been to the dentist and know how expensive even some of the simplest treatments such as “cleaning” and “bridge work” can be even when some of it is being covered by dental insurance. Doug has no insurance and intends to solicit via the ANEC (Alumni of the NEC) a campaign to raise necessary funds to pay for this work. I asked and he estimates that the final bill will be in the vicinity of ten thousand dollars. I told him that I would be announcing this fact here in the Quarterly in hopes that it will rally some financial support for him as well. I know that any amount given will be much appreciated by this man who has given so much to so many and hardly ever asked for anything in return.

Anyone wishing to send donations may send it to Diana Ward (Doug’s wife) at 222 East 11th Street, Apt#5, New York, New York 10003.

As a society we tend to appreciate those who have done great things for us collectively and individually after they’re gone, wishing we had expressed our sentiments earlier. Here now is our opportunity to do so before it becomes too late.

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Editor’s Note

Editor’s note

It’s summer! Hello and welcome again to our 8th edition of this quarterly.

In this issue we are presenting four essays by Doug Ward as a reminder that prior to becoming a theatrical Jack-of-all-trades (producer, director, actor, playwright and administrator) Doug was a journalist. He wrote primarily for “The Daily Worker” a socialist/Left wing paper. But as you will see his articles weren’t directly political. In fact they cover a wide variety of topics from movies and movie-going to interesting remembrances of playwright Lorraine Hansberry and athlete, singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson…Also included is the last article Doug wrote for “The Daily Worker”. This was for his column “The Pitch”.

So without further ado let’s go to the articles.

Gus Edwards, Editor

Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

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Lorraine Hansberry

This is a scan of the first page of the published original. A copy of the entire article follows below it.

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Doug Ward and the Daily Worker

Here are a couple scans from the last issue of the Daily Worker that Doug wrote for, including his final article. October 31st, 1957. The article is reposted below these images. Doug was writing these articles under his real name Roosevelt Ward Jr.

The Pitch

By Roosevelt Ward Jr.

Over the past year during the approximate existence of “The Pitch” in this space you have heard many moans, bleats and plain old unadulterated complaints about how difficult some of these columns have been to write…Well, today I can state unequivocally that the present offering is by far the hardest, most difficult and most painful of all to get down on paper…Because it happens to be my last one.

 

There is no need to outline the difficulties of this paper in its fight for survival…You are well aware of its financial straits, the four page reduction, staff cuts and other retrenchment measures…These are the obvious, stone cold facts of life which can’t be avoided. In view of this situation and faced with conflicting aims and interests of my own, I am leaving voluntary.

 

A few words in summing up.

Before taking leave I wish to declare proudly and sincerely that my more than two years’ association with The Daily Worker has been greatly rewarding…In a way I feel guilty because it is my honest opinion that I have benefited more than I have contributed…Coming to this paper as a green-as- grass beginner, I whether the rich technical and professional experience could have been duplicated elsewhere…My relationship with the humane, highly skilled members of this staff have been warm, happy, enriching and enlightening experiences.

 

As for my tour of the journalistic beat, especially sports row – I never had it so good…A ringside seat at the championship fights…a press box view of the baseball and basketball scene, including World Series and tournament title playoffs…dressing room chats with champions, winners and losers alike…the good spirits and helpfulness encountered among fellow scribes…Well…What could be better?…Honestly, many times I felt like paying for the opportunity.

 

To all you bedraggled readers I feel I owe something in the nature of an apology…To all of you who suffered through a lot of banal, superficially conceived , sometimes facetiously written offerings in this space and also type marred, syntax fractured, misspelled, headachy copy which saw the light of print – I humbly apologize and refuse to dredge up any excuses.

 

The Reporters beat and sports chair have not been the place to offer opinions on the many controversial issues argued in this paper in the tumultuous months of the past…However, in departing, I take this opportunity to say a few brief words…respecting any differences or disagreements of yourselves.

 

Without reservations I am proud to have been associated with this paper in its fight around the important issues affecting our country and its citizens. The fight for the rights of the Negro citizens of this land, my people; the struggle for Labor and working people’s rights; the untiring efforts for world peace and coexistence of our nation with the rest of mankind; the fight to restore civil liberties from the ravages of McCarthyism and Eastlandism; and a thousand other national and local issues facing the people.

 

I’m proud to have been associated with this paper during the days when it first sought new definitions, redefined positions and a more humane and independent path toward the goal of democratic socialism…I am proud to have been aligned with those of its editors who repudiated much of the tarnish placed on socialist ideals by the heritage of Salinism and dogmatism… I am proud it took positions on international developments as it saw them, no matter how right many think those positions might have been…I am proud of its role in championing the fight against dogmatism in the area of political action and theoretical ideas.

 

The question of democratic socialism first and foremost in this country and in the world at large, is much more complex than I thought in my younger years…In this country, as I see it, it goes far beyond any specific party or any group or theorist…No one holds a monopoly on being creative or correct…But I am proud of this paper’s role in unlocking some of the doors.

 

I offer this summation with the knowledge that I’m the last to make any claims of political acumen – politics just happens not to be my beat – but the issues at stake are crucial to the future of our nation and the world.

 

I would like to repeat that my leaving the staff comes solely and completely at my own volition.

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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.

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Doug Ward – Update

Doug Ward – Update

I just got back from New York where as usual I spent a considerable amount of time with Doug. Some of that time involved shooting a video interview with Doug. Excerpts from this will be used at the “Texas State Black and Latino Playwrights Conference” under the Artistic Direction of Eugene Lee an NEC alumni. This conference will take place at Texas State University on the weekend of September 14 to the 16th. Doug will be the honored guest and I will be doing a presentation on the “History of the NEC”. And since I believe in showing rather than telling I will have Doug on screen telling us first hand about the way things were…It promises to be a lively and informative event. Hope you can come and celebrate with us. Here is a small clip from the recent interviews with Doug.

On Thursday (May 24) I was invited to join Doug and his friend painter and illustrator George Ford Jr. on their weekly jaunt through various parts of the city and boroughs in George’s car. Before I got there the skies darkened, thunder cracked and the rain came pouring down. But that didn’t deter anything. George arrived and we drove to a section in Queens called “Five points” and looked at buildings just across from the Museum of Modern Art that were covered with wonderfully realized illustrations and other examples of graph art. To me (and us) some of the best examples of street art anywhere. Our conversation was lively and full of laughs as the rain continued. Then as if by magic it suddenly stopped and the sun came out. So we got out of the car and treated ourselves to lunch. I can’t remember when I had a more enjoyable day. Thank you Doug, thank you George, Thank you stormy weather and thank you to all of the artists putting their talents so abundantly on display.

In August Doug will be coming to Arizona to act in an experimental film that I have written and will be co-directing called “Black Eros”…More on that and on the conference at Texas State U. in our Fall issue.

Till then, have a good summer.

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Joys of the NEC

Joys of the NEC

GE: Alright, we’ve talked a lot about the problems and the low points of the NEC and your participation in it. But there had to be some high points, some moments of joy that you remember. That stood out over some others.

DTW: Well you know, pleasure is something we take for granted and it doesn’t stand out for just that reason and becomes ordinary in a sense. While pain and shit like sticks with you more permanently in the memory. But I would say hey, the emphasis on some of the negative and low points are only because  they’re the things you only have to deal with in order to survive. . If you don’t deal with those things you’re not going to survive. While the pleasure thing only confirms the success the success of surviving in a way. But I would say that I couldn’t have done this shit for the majority of 25 years unless the pleasure was superior to whatever problems and pains I had to deal with. So that despite the way the shit has hit the fan financially in the past five years, and not being able to sustain things like we did before..twenty years, I would say that for 20 years before no matter what the low points were we overwhelmingly the high points were the ability of our artists separately and collectively to achieve success in their field of endeavor.  For me it is anytime that we realize a play that was a triumph. And as you know, I don’t care what the reviews say about it or the question of success and a commercial hit and all that. I mean that can be enormously pleasing but it sort of speaks for itself so you don’t have to. It takes care of itself. I’m talking about all the rewards and attention and attitude taken towards you when society gives you its rewards and heaps its acclaim on you. Everybody basks in that glory, it’s obvious. And when I say those moments explain themselves I’m talking about a consistent pledge to get a play to opening season after season. And when we succeeded and realized the play I would say; “Hey, that’s a triumph.” And if I had to go season by season, line by line I could show you what I mean. Gus, the first three years of the NEC were not only a pleasure but I mean shit, we were having such a goodtime that we used to joke and say that the NEC had fifty excuses to have a party. You know, going to rehearsals was a party, getting past the first week we’d find more reasons to party, and the end result when things turned out right. Not because you got a good review but because you can see that you saw something realized. You saw people grow, you saw the impact it had on the public, you saw people enjoying the shit, not talking about the review but just enjoying it for itself. I mean the times when somebody would come back to see the shit for the hundredth time. It’s like I was talking to you before about Samm –Art (Williams) talking to me on the phone about all the writers respecting each other and shit. And I said; “Yeah I knew what he meant.”

But it’s as I always told you Gus, if I wasn’t having any fun with it I would’ve given the whole fucking thing up a long time ago.

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