Tag Archives: Gus Edwards

Playwrights of the NEC

Playwrights of The NEC

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

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

Douglas Turner Ward – 1995

Paul Carter Harrison

Steve Carter

Gus Edwards

Charles Fuller

Judi Ann Mason

Samm-Art Williams

Joseph Walker

Lonne Elder III

Derek Walcott

Wole Soyinka

Leslie Lee

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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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On Black Audiences

 Doug Ward: On Black audiences/White audiences

 

GE: Let’s talk today about audiences. Black audiences, white audiences and how you perceive them.

DTW: If you’re talking about the NEC and how that breaks down it’s something like this. 20 to 30% of our regular audience over a given time will be white. Over a season let’s say. That numerical quotient or percentage will increase based on the assist of the opinion makers’ enthusiasm for a particular show. Therefore with A Soldier’s Play we’ll see an increase, with Home the same thing. Whenever the opinion makers’ establishment is strong enough in its enthusiasm you will see an increase of the white public to this core perhaps somewhere between 25 to 35%more. But over a given period of time when the NEC did not get the so-called rave critical reviews we still have a black public which will be stable enough to say; “Hey, let’s go to the NEC and see what they’re up to.” The white component might contract according to what the critics say but our core audience come because what we’re doing on stage is in one way or another relevant to them. With The River Niger on Broadway it was the black audiences that kept us running for as long as we did. Now when we went on the road with the show it can go either way. We go to Seattle and the house will be 90% white, in St. Louis it’s 50/50, we go to Minneapolis it’s 90% whites again but in South Carolina it’s going to be 90% black. So on the road the makeup of the audience shifts.

GE: I think that I read somewhere that you said that the NEC’s impact is felt more on the road than here in the city.

DTW: Yes, that’s true. The impact is most strongly felt in many places where we were giving them a view of something they were seeing and experiencing for the first time. Yes, for the first time they were seeing a bunch of black actors on a stage giving professional performances in a professionally produced play. That had an impact and in many cases according to where we went, it sparked many ambitions to emulate what they had seen or inspired ambitions that were lying dormant in various individuals. I have letters and stuff that people have sent me to that effect. The difference with us here at our home base is that we’re in competition with the whole cultural scene. We’re not just competing with theatre, we’re competing with everything. Everybody in New York is in competition with everybody else, be it for a job or a lover or sometimes even a patch of sunlight in the park on a Sunday. And let’s be realistic Gus, sitting in the park on a weekend is often more attractive to most people than sitting in a dark theatre with actors going through their stuff. So we’re competing with that. Still, we’re holding our own because of the black audiences we nurtured and developed over the years.

GE: How did you go about that?

DTW: Shit Gus, in all kinds a ways. In the beginning we sought to create them almost from scratch because we trusted them to ignore the show by show recommendations of the opinion makers and support us as an institution dedicated to providing theatrical entertainment culturally embedded in their area of personal interests. And education levels not withstanding they were and are artistically cultivated in the best sense of the word. What I’m saying Gus is that the black audience is the most sophisticated audience in the theatre? By that I mean they don’t bring all of that baggage of educated perception, preconception, predilections and shit when they come to see a play. Most of them anyway. You got to hold their attention. It’s as simple as that. Whatever you doing up there go to hold their motherfucking  attention. Oh they’re kind and generous and want to be with you and so forth. But you got to hold their attention. You see, they don’t come in to the theatre and think shit like; “Oh I’m educated, so this is “style B and I’m supposed to like it. Or this avant garde so I’m supposed to respond to it this way.” All that labeling and stuff. The only people who bring that sort of baggage in with them is a minority within that group. The ones I call “the pseudo-black intellectuals”. You know the kind I’m sure. Ironically a lot of them are within the profession themselves. And some who are out of it too. They’re the ones you hear debating about things being  “positive” and “negative “and all that stuff. But the regular black public, the cross section of all the classes that attend our shows don’t come in with any of that preconceived stuff. I mean a Gus Edwards play that didn’t have what those people would call a “positive” character in it was Weep Not for Me. I mean you had brother/sister incest going on and the audience loved it. Several came back more than once to see the show. I mean, if I remember well, we had to extend the run.

GE: You did.

DTW:  Now they didn’t think;”How dare you show a Black brother getting sexual with his sister and so on. Why? Because it was provocative and it was given dimensional  expression. They might not be able to express it in exactly those terms but they know that it wasn’t just up there for itself or any exploitative reason. They accepted it because they don’t expect every play to say everything about black life there is to say. Therefore if this writer’s play is negative, somebody else will be positive. And that’s what has been proven. That you don’t have to look at black art every single instance as having to become a microcosm of every statement or everything.  Samm-Art Williams will take care of girl meets boy in a positive and romantic way, Charles Fuller with A Soldier’s Play and Zooman will raise provocative questions that the audience will have to deal with. You will deal with people on the margins of society or even people outside of the conventional moralities. Others will come up with sunshine and roses, others will give us bleakness and maybe doom. When you see them all together you get a cross section and a valid picture. So what our public has come to expect from us is an experience. Over the years they’ve gotten used to the fact that they don’t know what to expect except that it will be a dramatically valid experience. Samm –Art will get them one way, Joe Walker another, Paul Carter Harrison with his educated use of African literary forms mixed with funky black American idiom will engage them differently, you with your amoral outsiders and so on. They’ll accept it all if like I said it’s done with skill and dimension. They won’t always agree with it but they’ll accept it. That’s what I mean by their being so sophisticated. But on the other hand, if you did a provocative play and did it badly then they won’t tolerate it and might even walk out cursing your ass.  Take a character like Zooman and all the shit he does in that play. They accept it, why? Because he looks like your son or your nephew or maybe your brother. As played by Giancarlo (Esposito) he looks like the angel next door. But then he comes out with all that fierceness and nihilistic shit but you recognize him still because of the dimensional way the character is written and expressed.

As I’ve said many times before we don’t need the New York Times to tell us if we have a hit or not. Gus, you know, for the most part the people who come to our shows don’t even read reviews. So they’re not swayed by what some motherfucker said one way or another about liking or disliking what we put up. And that puts us at an advantage because they’re not coming here preconditioned to look at the shit in any special way. They just want you to engage them and fuck the rest.

Our audiences Gus, is made up primarily of about 80% black folks and 20% white. Generally the white audiences come when the New York Times gives us a rave review for something. I mean we have some faithful white people who come to everything we do and that’s wonderful. But I’m talking in general.

GE: You also talked about the black audience keeping you culturally honest.

DTW: What is said that with the NEC we needed primarily black audiences because it will keep us culturally honest. You see if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to call us out on it. Sometimes right there in the theatre. They’re going to tell us we’re full of shit and maybe even curse us out. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you what they like and don’t like, what’s true and what’s bullshit. They’ll call it out to you right then and there. They’re not like white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. They speak up and that’s what I like about them.

GE: I’ve seen it. Now tell how you went about finding and developing your audiences.

DTW: We did it in a number of ways. We would go to churches, Community groups and show scenes, offer discounts and so forth. If the play had a Caribbean setting or characters like Derek’s (Walcott)   work or Steve Carter’s Nevis Mountain Dew we would go into the Caribbean communities in Brooklyn and places like that. Other times we would find special interest groups or theatre parties. All that worked fine. We even had people who dedicated themselves to getting church groups and social clubs and others to come in theatre parties and so forth. And we would do talk backs with them after the show. If you’ll remember I refused to do it for your show The Offering and some people got mad at me for it. But in the case of that show I felt that a comfortable talk back after that play wasn’t doing them or the play a service. They needed to go and think about it for awhile. If they wanted to come back a week later that would’ve been fine. But not right after the show.

GE: Saying that reminds me of an incident that took place maybe 10 or so years after the play. I was living in Arizona by that time and was visiting New York one summer when this guy stopped me on the street and asked if I was Gus Edwards. When I told him yes, he said that he had been one of a group of black psychiatrists who bought out the show one night and were introduced to me afterwards. He said: “Would you believe, but when we get together as a group we still talk about that show?”

DTW: Sure. That’s why I didn’t want any talkbacks with that one. But going back to how we went after and developed audiences, we went and got them from various places. Youth groups, a lot of poverty programs generally from the most depressed sections. The youth group people used to come, trying to find something to bring these young black teenagers to the theatre as a form of exposing them and finding something else for them to do other than the narrowness of their sitting on a stoop just in their community context. So we had access to a broad diversity context just through the places we went to in search of audiences for our shows. And that to me is important. And I’m sure you’ve heard me say it many times. I always want a cross section in the house. Not just of color but along the social spectrum as well.

GE: Could you elaborate on that for me?

DTW: Okay. okay; let’s taker Broadway for example. How could anybody in the world except the same upper five percent who have the money can even afford to go there? I’m not talking about the content of what’s being presented; I’m just talking about the price of the tickets. You follow what I’m saying?

GE: Uh huh.

DTW: Because of those prices inevitably you have the same group or class of people whether they be tourists or local theatre lovers going on a regular basis. So inevitably what’s done there is going to have to address itself to that group. It’s not necessarily conscious but an understanding of the nature of the public that’s going to pay for it has to in a major way dictate what the producers will choose to put their money into. So what I’m saying is that it can’t separate itself from the public it appeals to. Even its avant garde is forced to function almost in this same elitist vacuum. Whether it’s’ BAM or the New Wave or whoever, who are they playing to? Shit, as an artist, a black artist on Broadway, who the fuck am I playing to? What audience am I playing to? Nothing much, I’ll tell you. Not a goddamn thing. So except for making me personally rich with to have a Broadway quote hit there’s just no reason for me to have a play done there with the ticket prices being what they are. That’s why when we did The River Niger there we insisted that we keep a certain amount of ticket prices down so that they were affordable to our core constituency. We made them the price of what people were paying for movie tickets because we wanted to go directly to the black public and get them to witness what was being presented. In that way our artists write and play to a real public. Because you have to ask yourself; who are those others playing to? They don’t think that because they want to idealize their audience. They want to think that everybody wants to come out and see a play by Shaw. That everybody wants to be cultured in some way. That’s bullshit of course. Fuck being cultured.  Who are they playing to? Who is the work impacting on? The critic for the New York Times? Who is this art for, the elitist five percent? Look, when we went to Broadway, we the Negro Ensemble Company my only question was, my biggest question was always;’ Look okay, I don’t mind going to Broadway as long as being on Broadway gives me access for a longer run that will allow me to reach and expand upon the public that I already set out to reach.

GE: And who are they?

DTW: As I said before primarily black people and a significant amount of white people who are interested and so forth.  But when I talk about a cross section, I’m talking about construction workers, cab drivers, char women, nurses, grocery clerks, custodial people, postal workers and so on. You know what I’m saying. In that way at least we’ll be interacting with something that’s real. A real public and not one that homogenous. And when I say homogenous I’m talking in terms of the white theatre because they’re playing to the upper class elite. Even in their intellectual posture, who are these intellectual consumers? The ones who are more daring to sit and experience the avant garde shit? It’s a section of the same elitist five percent…At the NEC our audience cut across all economic class lines. Our biggest advantage is that we’ve been able to deal with a real public.  A real public are people who whatever way we’ve impacted on them has been real. They have not been restricted to one class; say the professional class for instance. Our audiences have cut across all economic lines. So that anybody can independently pay the relatively cheap prices that we have. Those people who have jobs, let’s say. But in the early days, I mean even that wasn’t so. There were poverty programs and we had and still give theatre parties. As a result, our artists write and our actors play to a real public. Another question; who the fuck are the American theatre public? Gus, if I was sentenced to playing to the Broadway audience that I’m talking about I’d be bored to death. I would be depressed after two weeks. The only think I might be looking at is my paycheck and in that way I might survive. But psychologically, artistically I would be hungry and  starving. When we were on the road with A Soldier’s Play we couldn’t change their theatre system therefore we were playing in theatres with 90% white audiences who were subscribers. But by the middle of the run we were always able to get in some black people from the community. In a lot of those places they were 100% sold out and therefore we didn’t have much leeway to get others. But at The Goodman in Chicago we had like 60% subscribers therefore the other 40% we had access to. As a result by two and a half weeks into the run the majority of the audiences were black. Once they finished with their subscriptions that gave us access. I don’t mind dealing with that. I don’t even mind playing to 100% because once in a while you’re going to be stuck with that. But then if you’re going to say that’s going to be your way of life then I would have to say; “Man can’t we get some of our own folks in here?”…You know, I probably talk this shit more than anybody else because I haven’t seen anybody else talking about it, asking the question; “Who the fuck are you playing to?”

Now most companies seem to be happy to get an audience period. And whether that audience provides any vitality or feedback, any dialogue, any interaction with the source material doesn’t seem to matter much or any at all with them.  But if you go back to our original mandate we said that we have to play to an audience who will tell us something, whether we’re good or whether we’re speaking to them.

Commentary : this is an excerpt from Doug’s original article in The New York Times.

 

But for the Negro playwright committed to examining  the contours, contexts, and depths of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other negroes , better informed through a commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm, or reject the truth or falsity of his creative explorations. Not necessarily an all black audience to the exclusion of whites, but for the playwright, certainly his primary audience, the first person of his address, potentially the most advanced, the most responsive or the most critical. Only through their initial and continuous participation can his intent and purpose be best perceived by others. 8-14-66

 

DTW: And Gus, I’m not talking about this fucked up idea that Utopia shit that they’re necessarily going to tell us the right thing. I mean, sometimes they will tell us some shit that I will argue about. I’ll say: “You’re full of shit. You’re reacting that way because you’ve been conditioned in a fucking way that you know is wrong.” Yes I will argue with them but then there’s a real dialogue going on between the artist and the public. Not that we’re going to accept all their responses but we’re in communication with each other.  It’s like I’ve always said, you have an obligation to the artist and you have an obligation to the public. A lot of times what I’ve found over the years is thankfully with the black public that obligation to the two sides have been harmonious. That to serve one had been to serve the other. But in a specific amount of instances you have to make the decision that my responsibility is to the artist. And I will not flinch to say: “Look, wait a minute, you’re not used to this but this artist is coming from a valid point of view. And since you’re not conditioned or your conditioning have been made crude by looking at soap operas or whatever you’re bringing some lazy habits that are preventing you from giving this audience

a hearing. What you desire and what you may claim is in opposition to what the audience is telling you therefore I, as Artistic Director will have to weigh that.” But as I said thankfully here you find those instances with the not over sentimentalized plays where the audience and work have been on the same wavelength. Plays like Niger or Louie and Ophelia. But with your other play The Offering, there we had the Ladies of Westchester almost quit the NEC because we weren’t going to talk about it because I knew that to talk about it in the way they wanted to talk about it was going to deny the value of the experience. That by talking about it they wanted to talk some bullshit and I knew they didn’t need to talk they just had to digest the work and throw it up maybe. But at least that would have been a real response. So it’s not a question of dealing with the public from their rightness or wrong. But that there’s an interaction with some real people who have a spontaneous response to it that’s more varied than just what we know the theatre gets from its five percent. And the truth is that it’s not even five percent, it’s the top, top five of that.

GE: I want to go back to that statement you made about the black audience being the most sophisticated audience in the world.

DTW: Because Gus, they don’t come to the theatre with that so called educated bullshit of putting plays into categories before they can respond to it. This is a farce; therefore I must react this way. This is a melodrama so I must have this response or whatever.  In my 20 years of running the NEC in spite of what the critics say or choose to ignore we have put up every kind of play you can think of and the audience were never confused or alienated by the so called style in which it was written and presented. Their only response had to do with how well done it was and how engaged they were with it. I mean, look at our list and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  I listed them here in the article here that the Times refused to print… Okay, Bogey, political in content, epic Brechtian in form, Kongi’s Harvest, Indigenous African in content, verse pageant in style, Man Better Man, Caribbean in locale, folk verse musical, The Reckoning, hyperbolic surrealism, The Great Mac Daddy, An Afro musical allegorical odyssey, Dream on Monkey Mountain, epic classicist poetic drama, Livin’ Fat, The Redeemer and Waiting for Mongo, farce and black satire, Daughters of the Mock, A Season to Unravel and Puppetplay, womanist in content, surreal, poetic, gothic and neoclassicist, your stuff The Offering, Manhattan Made Me and Weep Not for Me, bleak, sardonic meta realism, The Brownsville Raid, A Soldier’s Play, historio-real, Home, lyric folk impressionist, In an Upstate Motel, surreal, existential, Zooman, a social realist parable and all the rest. They’ve dealt with them, responded to them and never once questioned the style or form.

GE: We’ve talked about the black audience to a large extent but what about the white audience?

DTW: Let’s see, when we talk about the white audience we have to know and accept the fact that when we talk about them we’re talking about a very fragment of them from a demographical class. The white theatre audience is essentially upper middle class, generally educated in various ways and very restricted and limited in ways, behavioral ways I’m talking about. Their spontaneity has been interfered with or in a sense stifled to a certain extent. Their reception is generally internalized and cerebralized more than it is spontaneous. We’ve talked about the spontaneous response of the black audience but beyond that generally the black audience is broadened even among itself. It’s a wider class. I mean you will find a cleaning woman in a black audience.

GE: But not in a white audience?

DTW: If you do, it’s rare.

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Editor’s Note

Editor’s Note

The DTW Quarterly

Winter 2011

Issue # 6

WELCOME to our 6th edition of this quarterly. Our theme for this issue is “Playwrights and playwriting and the NEC”…Almost from the moment the NEC announced its existence it was inundated with plays from all over seeking exposure of some kind. Plays by African American playwrights addressing themes and stories from black life. There were so many stories to tell and in 1967 there were virtually no stages on which these stories could be enacted. The NEC changed all that.

 

In this issue we are featuring an interview with Charles Fuller, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “A Soldier’s Play”. To date the NEC has produced more of Fuller’s plays than any other author. Eight of his works, including the massive WE- 4 play series (Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic) were presented during Doug’s tenure as artistic director.

 

We have also included a series of comments by Doug on the NEC being a “Writer’s Theatre”…There is an article/interview on the NEC’s media efforts…A narrative on how the anthology “Classic Plays of the NEC” came about.

 

And finally there is an update on Doug in San Francisco last October and in New York two weeks ago.

 

So read and enjoy…And oh yes, HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

 

The editors.

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Classic Plays of the NEC: The Anthology and how it came to be

Classic Plays from the NEC- The Anthology and how it came to be.

In 1995 The University of Pittsburg Press published a collection of plays produced by The Negro Ensemble Company edited by Paul Carter Harrison and I. For me it was the realization of a dream that I had harbored for quite some time.

Even before my own affiliation with the NEC began I always thought that there ought to be a collection of their works available in print for aspiring playwrights like myself to peruse and read. I even thought there ought to be more than one because there were so many plays I had seen there that I wanted to read and re-experience after I had seen them on stage. Over the years I had seen and bought many anthologies of plays done by other theatre companies so naturally I figured that The NEC with its high record of critically acclaimed works should be represented in this way as well. So the only thing I could figure is that it was an oversight on somebody’s part that needed to be corrected.

Now many of the company’s biggest hits like Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, The River Niger etc. had been published individually and could be found in the Drama section of larger bookstores. Some were available in the Samuel French and Dramatists Play Service acting editions. But a significant number of the ones I thought worthwhile weren’t available anywhere. Somehow, for whatever reason, they seemed to have fallen through the cracks. So around 1980, three years after I had been produced by the company I suggested it to Doug and he thought it was a good idea and encouraged me to move forward with it. And beyond that he made all the play scripts I requested available to me.

Now I had never edited an anthology before or ever thought I would ever be doing one so this was all a new and interesting challenge for me. So the first thing I did was look at other anthologies, analyzed how they were put together and used that as a guideline. After I was finished I set about finding a publisher and thought that it would be easy since, as I said before, an anthology like this was long overdue. But I was wrong. Every publisher I sent my proposal to sent back a nicely worded letter telling me what an excellent idea the anthology was but why it was not for them. The first were the publishers who had put out collections of plays done by other companies. After rejections from them I sent my proposal to any company who had published an anthology of plays of any kind. My proposal included a cover letter and a detailed listing of the plays I had in mind with a sampling of the critical acclaim each had attracted. Also I articulated why I thought such an anthology was necessary and who the potential audience for such a volume would be. Still it was no go. I think in a year and a half I wrote to over a hundred publishers and received a hundred or more rejections.

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am not a stubborn person and have never been. So after all those refusals I decided that the anthology was not such a good idea after all and gave up on it. I had other things that needed addressing, so I moved on.

About four years passed and I had more or less forgotten all about it. By this time my living situation had changed. I was no longer living in New York City or even functioning as a playwright in any primary kind of way. I was now living in Tempe, Arizona, teaching at the State University (ASU) and enjoying it immensely. Playwrighting had become a secondary or part-time endeavor at the most… Anyway, I was at a theatre conference at USC-San Diego where I ran into an NEC Playwright/Director Paul Carter Harrison. We hadn’t seen each in a long time and spent several hours talking about our various activities and endeavors. Somewhere in the course of things I mentioned the NEC anthology I had tried to get off the ground with dismal results. He thought it was a terrific idea and asked if I could send him the proposal that had been so roundly rejected. I said sure. It was a dead issue to me anyway.

To cut to the chase, Paul came on board and said that we should try again. This time he took the lead. The first thing he did was ask if he could change some of the titles I had selected. I said sure. Most of the ones I had chosen hadn’t been published and I explained my rationale to him. He understood but suggested that maybe we would be better off going with some of the well known plays first. And that’s what we did. Almost immediately he got a positive responsive from The University of Pittsburg Press who wanted more information. We put together a more detailed proposal along with copies of all the plays. The idea now had been expanded from one volume of plays to three volumes which we both felt would more properly represent the great variety of worthwhile plays the NEC had presented. In addition to that I thought it would be great if Doug Ward could write the Forward to each volume. In Volume #1 he would talk about the playwrights the company discovered and nurtured. In Volume #2 he would talk about the actors, directors, designers and other NEC personnel. In Volume #3 he would comment on the audiences that came to the NEC, the critics who assessed the work and about the company’s travels abroad. In this way along with the plays there would be a sort of overview history of the company as seen from three perspectives by its Artistic Director. That was the plan but it never quite came to fruition.

The problems began with the first volume when a reader that the University of Pittsburg Press assigned to it objected to several of the titles based on content he or she thought socially or politically incorrect. Paul wrote a letter to the Publisher addressing each objection head on and pointing out the fallacy and sometimes absurdity of the reader’s objections. We were then given the go ahead by the University of Pittsburg Press.

It took close to a year to secure the rights to all the plays we wanted to include. One of the reasons for this is that there wasn’t any appreciable amount of money being offered. I’ve forgotten the amount but it was genuinely miniscule. In fact, if I remember rightly, we all agreed that the money should just be donated to the NEC. And that’s where it went.

The book came out and physically it was handsomer than I had imagined it could be. The University of Pittsburg Press had done a wonderful job. Now it was time to put together the second volume. Paul, who had done all the lead work on Volume #1 said that he was stepping back and I would have to take the lead on this one. That was sensible and fair. I emulated what had been done the first time and ran into the same obstacles. Here I thought that with Volume #1 we had proved ourselves but now we were being asked to do it all over again. Questions about the content of the plays, about the validity of a second volume, about the need for a greater variety in terms of themes and even plots. And every time I answered one question a dozen more would come up. I talked to Doug about it and he pointed out the fact that they were dealing with the plays as though they hadn’t been produced and proved their value in the only crucible that really matters. “Every one of these plays have been professionally produced for a paying audience and have been critically scrutinized by some of the most demanding critics in the country. What more do they want?” I wrote and said that to them but the questions kept coming. Finally I decided that I had had enough. I ended communication with the publisher and never pursued the idea further. From my point of view it appeared that they were making me jump hurdles that I didn’t need to jump. So I just gave it up.

The first volume exists and I think that it’s great. It would be wonderful if some time in the future there could be other volumes of NEC plays. But for now this one exists so why not celebrate what is and not what-might-have-been?

Gus Edwards

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The NEC: A Writer’s Theatre

The NEC: A Writer’s Theatre

Doug always maintained that the NEC was a “writer’s theatre”. And that was only natural since he had come to the theatre as a writer and despite accolades for his acting and direction his major artistic ambitions still revolved around his literary endeavors. So when the company was started Ward as Artistic Director set out to discover and nurture African American playwrights of talent whichever way they could.  It was for this reason that the Playwright’s Workshop continued to be a part of the NEC’s operational program long after the Acting classes, Design classes, Public Relations classes etc had to be discontinued due to a lack of funds.

 

“When I set out, I set out to do text plays because it was transferable. It can be duplicated; it can be entered into, revived and re-experienced. We were lacking a body of work that could disseminate itself into the environment. A start had to be made somewhere and this was the place as far as I was concerned…One of the things that was important for me to explore and confirm in an experimental way was something that I felt theoretically. This had to do with the variety of black material I felt was out there. I also knew that Black theatre and Black artistry was considerably more varied than most people suspected. In fact it is more varied than it is alike. We have all sorts of stories that we tell and an infinite number of ways of telling them. But unfortunately many people, white critics in particular, have tried to stereotype black writers by throwing them all into the naturalistic bag. The  “Family play…Family drama” nonsense. But if you look closely even the term “family drama” is a misnomer because if they ever bothered or were even capable of looking at the works closely they would see that the so called “family drama” were more metaphoric than naturalistic.

 

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What you had were black writers who during that time were beginning to express themselves in a wide variety of ways and styles… They were broad and diverse using whatever modes they needed to communicate whatever it is they had to say. They were eclectic and like black musicians they were using whatever raw material  was on hand to fit their purpose. So when you look across the spectrum of the type of plays we produced you will find everything from realistic and naturalistic dramas to farce, satire, poetic plays symbolic comedies, musicals, science fiction, gothic horror, and history plays. It’s all there all one has to do is look. And it wasn’t accidental. This was something I set out to discover and prove right from the beginning.”

 

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The virtue of the NEC being in the NEC’s writer’s workshop was that you could develop yourself regardless of whether the NEC produced you or not. You have to remember we were only able to do four plays a season and sometimes even less when money was a problem. So that there was no way we could produce the works of every good or potentially good writer who came through the door. That was never the idea. The idea was to help writers develop their work so that they might have a chance of getting them produced elsewhere perhaps .And that was the idea of our “Season within a Season”. We had a 75 seat theatre space upstairs of the St. Marks Theatre and I thought “Why the hell not use it?” Lonne Elder was the first writing workshop director and then Steve Carter took it over. Steve basically ran it as a workshop theatre in the sense that plays were selected and they were given at least a staged reading and sometimes close to a full but skeletal production in that  space.. So we were trying to give those writers every chance we had available to us.

Doug Ward (tape interview 6-6-95)

If one is interested in looking at a cross section of the plays produced by the NEC under Doug’s tenure as Artistic Director take a look at the book Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company edited by Gus Edwards and Paul Carter Harrison with an insightful introduction by Douglas Turner Ward. The book was published in 1995 by The University of Pittsburg Press.

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A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

paul carter harrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were together for one week this summer at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony to inaugurate a new program called The August Wilson Theatre Poetics for which Paul was the host. We spent quite a bit of time together. And I took one of these times to talk to him about Douglas Turner Ward, the blog and about serious black theatre in general.

GE: As you know I have this blog called The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly. What in your view is the validity for such a blog?

PCH: Well, as you know, we don’t have reference points any longer in terms of what was going on in black theatre during say the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s. So generally speaking unless you’re a university student addressing that specific subject, there are no reference points as to what has been happening in black theatre in the last fifty years. Its evolution and development.  It’s amazing really when you come to think about it. So a blog of this kind provides some kind of record or history of a very lively and fruitful period in our development.

GE: Starting when?

PCH: If we look back on it I would say starting in the early fifties. And definitely with A Raisin in the Sun which was 1959. That would become the anchor. Then you had The Blacks by Genet. It wasn’t quite African American but it was an opportunity for black performance in a certain kind of way. Beyond this we get to Baraka’s Dutchman, Doug Ward’s Day of Absence and the works of Adrienne Kennedy and so on. This is somewhere around 1964, 65 when the idea of the Negro Ensemble was coming into being. I think they actually started around 1967 or 68, somewhere around there.  So we’re talking about a certain works by black writers that made an impact on the stage in a different kind of way during that time…So what you have is a blog with Douglas Turner Ward as the center and that is appropriate because he was the one responsible for the emergence of so much black work, black theatre writing. And not just in terms of being a producer but also as a dramaturg. I think he was intimately connected or involved with every piece of work that wound up on that stage. So that any writer whose work was done by the NEC at that time had to pass through Doug’s scrutiny. His dramaturgical scrutiny. They would have to pass the test of validity for his company…The problem is young people in these times don’t have much of a frame of reference as to how all this work emerged. So this blog provides them and anyone else who’s interested with the opportunity to look back and also come into contemporary connection by being able to hear and engage with contemporary voices ad talk with them as well. Talk about the NEC, address how important it was and what it contributed to our theatrical landscape and heritage.

The NEC as we knew it ceased it’s functioning around 1988 or 89 and has not been operating as it used to. But for around 20 years we had the NEC developing and presenting new work by black dramatists on a regular basis. This blog helps with that point of reference for discourse and discussion of the work. And by that I mean serious discussion and not just celebration like: “Well I remember when so and so had a play on.” etc. No, not general conversation or talk as a homily. I’m talking about serious, challenging discussion about the work, its impact and its durability as drama and as black drama too.

phylicia rashad 

GE: There is a new NEC which I will distinguish from the former by calling the version that Doug ran as “The historic NEC” and the current incarnation as “The New NEC.” How do you view the difference?

PCH:  Well, the current NEC, the NEC of let’s say the past five years or so strikes me as a club. It’s sort of clubby. They’re not producing serious work. The call themselves “The Alumni of the NEC”, the people who are involved…And there have been attempts in the last ten years to revive the NEC in what we’re now calling the Historical NEC that had a particular kind of mission. That mission was develop new work and to establish a highly professional presence on the American Theatre scene. That presence has not happened since the Doug Ward period of the NEC. They’ve fallen away from prominence. The new NEC is only connected to the old version by name. To me it’s a kind of clubby situation not necessarily with bad intentions. I think its intentions are locked down in a situation or mode of not just survival but revival of what it had been. But in order to do that you must have the underpinning of strong leadership and guidance. And a real sense of mission and purpose other than simply doing a show or being part of a play.

 

Now interestingly enough I might be getting involved with them. I wanted to commit one of my works to this new inauguration of the old company just by way of maybe reviving or giving them a sense of legitimacy. When I mentioned that to one of the prominent people of the historical NEC this question was asked; “Why would you want to revive that?”…Now it might be naive of me to see that happen. To see them recover and revive the professional values that Doug Ward had put forth in the works the company had been doing 20 years ago. We’ll see. But I do believe that that there’s a distinct difference between what had been done , the purpose for doing it and the outcome in terms of serving the careers of so many black actors, writers, directors and other theatre personnel. It brought so many of them into the professional theatre, filmmaking and television as we know. So it had a function and did it, which is what this new organization doesn’t seem able to do. Still we’re going to try with my play The Great Mc Daddy and see where that takes us.

GE: A visionary leader it, seems to me, is what this or any other theatre company needs. One that can view the larger picture as well as the immediate circumstances. And one with a plan of action that can animate creative excitement and take the theatre in a new direction. Does that sound reasonable to you or even sensible?

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PCH: Yes, that’s what the historical NEC did all those years ago. For instance I can recall vividly a time in 1969 or 70 when I was teaching at Howard University and the NEC came there to do a show. Esther Rolle, Doug Ward and all those others were there and these starry eyed students including Phylicia Rashard , her sister Debbie and several other who since then have turned out to be excellent performers and theatre artists. People like Clinton Turner Davis and others. They were all students of mine at the time at Howard and their eyes lit up when the NEC cast and creative personnel came around to visit the classes and to talk to them at the Fine Arts Building. They stood around in awe. That’s how they felt about the NEC.  Today you couldn’t get the current NEC people to walk into a room and create a sense of awe based on the work they are doing. Those students saw with the old NEC people where they wanted to go and who they wanted to be. And interestingly enough most of them did actually work for the NEC at one time or another. That’s the kind of legacy the old NEC created.

 So for me a blog like The Douglas Turner Ward Quarterly provides us with a forum and a clearing place where all these histories, legacies, ideas and discussions can be recorded, discoursed, challenged and preserved.

GE: Thank you Paul, well talk some more.

 GE 8-18-11

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Editor’s Note

Quote:

What we needed was a theatre where black artists could decide, promote and oversee their own destiny.
Doug Ward – 1967

Editor’s Note

We’re back with our 4th issue and we must be doing something right because our readership is increasing monthly. This is gratifying because it tells us that we’re not just whistling in the dark.

We also like comments, opinions and suggestions. It energizes us, makes us want to do better and more.

There is a book by Otto Lindenmeyer called Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed. It is a wonderful book and every time I read it I think, “That was true then, but there is no reason for this to be the case now.” We are now in charge of our own destiny, including history. Theatre history specifically. Let us not let it slip away by benign neglect.

Gus Edwards, Chief Editor

Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

All Material Contained Within is Copywrighted and Permission must be secured for use of any material.

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Doug Ward on Artistic Directing

As I think I have indicated before over the years I have been taping my conversations with Doug concerning various aspects of his function or functions at the NEC. This session was taped in the Spring of 1995 while I was on sabbatical from Arizona State University and living in New York.

Doug Ward:  – On Artistic Directing

GE: You have been the Artistic Director of the NEC for nearly 20 years now. I remember that we talked about this before but I forget because I wasn’t taping anything then, but what did you tell me about how you go about selecting plays for the season?

DTW: Well, first I look at what our budget can support, then I look at the works that I have available to me. And there’s always a lot to choose from because almost from the day we opened our doors plays have been coming in from all over the place hoping to get produced, hoping to get a reading by at least. And I’m not talking about your garden variety say conventional plays but some exciting, adventurous stuff in style and form and content. I read them and try to figure out how programmatically they fit into our season in terms of like I said budget and resource. But let me say this, black theatre has the most vital and varied body of theatre works by that I mean plays of any place. The problem is we can’t do them all. So people get upset and say; “Oh the NEC turned down my play for thus and such reason which always is something they made up or think they perceive. But the truth is just the opposite. I mean sure we get plays that are incomplete or unfocused or not good in any acceptable sense. But I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the good stuff, the provocative stuff. We just don’t have the means to do them all. We more often than not hardly have the means to do the ones we select.  What people forget is that we generally can only do 4 plays per season, sometimes even less. This is one of the reasons we do things like sit down readings, staged readings and workshop presentations where we the work is staged in a skeletal way. It was in the hope that other theatres would pick up the ball and produce some of these plays.

GE: And have they?

DTW: In most cases no. Occasionally I’ll hear of one getting done in some community theatre out of town or out of the state but hardly ever here in New York.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: I don’t know and couldn’t say exactly. But it just goes to show how underrepresented the black voice is in our so called mainstream theatre, which is the reason why we started the NEC in the first place. Our intention wasn’t to be the only game in town but to start the ball rolling where you would have other black theatres and white theatres too doing collectively an intelligent percentage of the worthwhile black plays that are out there.

GE: I want to go back to the original intent of my question. I think it had to do with the aesthetic of what informs your choices. I was riding in a car with a black theatre academic in California about six months ago and she was trying to articulate what was the black aesthetic in theatre. I wasn’t quite sure what to tell her but I thought you might have some ideas.

DTW: If you’re asking about what informs my choice let me just say that I have no rigidly, academic or intellectual notion as to what I look for in a play when I read it. The first thing I ask myself is; “Does it hold my interest.” Because if it doesn’t then the fucking thing is boring and not worthy of consideration. I don’t care lofty or worthy the ideas it contains are or how it politically it subscribes to whatever it is we are championing right now. Boring is boring and that’s all there is to it. Now a lot of what I look for in a play comes out of my instinct as a writer. But, and I emphasize this, it doesn’t have to be like something I might have written. In fact it almost never is. But my instinct has to tell me that there is something there. Something worth developing, something worth producing for the audience to witness and enjoy… And of course there are the criteria standards of craft and uniqueness that have to be met. What I’m saying Gus is that this is an artistic medium that has its own rules. And one of those is that it has to be able to keep the audience engaged for the duration. So when I look at a play I look for something that says to me “This is a playwright with a unique vision or perspective as well as voice. Hell, everything we see has been stated and stated over and over again down through the centuries. So there is nothing really new or original in terms of subject matter. But in the manner so expressing it, yes.  And sometimes a writer will bring a new insight or a fresh view of it that hasn’t been seen or heard before. And that’s what I look for in a play and a playwright as well. A voice that’s original and unique that coupled with craft can create, at least on paper, something that’s compelling. Then the rest is up to us production wise to see that it carries over on stage.

But your question is narrow in scope because that isn’t all that goes into being an Artistic Director. It isn’t just the selection of plays and seeing them through to production. There are a whole lot of other things involved as well.

GE: Such as?

DTW: Well what I mentioned before, budget. You can’t, me or any other Artistic Director, we can’t select four let’s say 25 character plays just because we have that many on our desks and they’re all excellent. There has to be a balance from an aesthetic perspective and from a budgetary one too. Also the size of the theatre comes into play as well. For instance when I selected The Brownsville Raid for production I knew that we couldn’t do it at the St Marks. We didn’t have the stage space for a military type play of this size with all those men marching around and shit. So I had to see about renting another space and how that rental cost would impact on our budget for the season. So that’s one example.   

Now, as Artistic Director I set out to do text theatre for one reason, because it is transferable. It can be duplicated, it can be transferred, entered into and revived and re-experienced. But saying that doesn’t mean that I’m talking about freezing a play into a rigid, unbreakable mold. Yes, on one level a text play is frozen but it can be re-thawed constantly and repeated with new actors, new interpretations and what have you. And this wasn’t important in terms of just my own choice. This was important for where Black Theatre was at the time. We needed a body of work that could disseminate itself into the environment. And I think you have to agree that has been done to some degree.

GE: Yes, I would.

DTW: But you asked something about selecting the plays I think.

GE: Yes, I did. What is your process? What is it that attracts you to a play and makes you want to do it? Do you know what it is?

DTW: No, I couldn’t put it in concrete terms because it shifts, it changes. Generally speaking something sparks and engages my interest. But it’s hard for me to define because you have to remember that I wound up directing almost a third of the plays we did. And I directed them out of necessity for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with our finances. But it was more than that. You see Gus, when you’re the Artistic Director there are considerations that take you further beyond just the subjective excitement. I mean you read a play and you say to yourself that this is the play that playwright had to write. I can feel that he or she had to write it. There’s an urgency there, and that coupled with talent and craft tell me that this is a play that needs to be done. That needs to be exposed to the public.  You do this for a while and you’re creating a body of work that can be disseminated, produced and taught.    

And it contributes to the health of the art as well. Because once the work is out there published and produced people can’t come along and pretend that these works don’t exist. Much as they sometimes don’t want to, they have to acknowledge that progress have been made, works have been created. So since they (the writers) can’t repeat what’s been said they’re going to have to come up with something different or new. And that’s healthy for the art, that’s healthy for any art.

GE: Last year we talked about the possibility of putting together a collection of “Cutting edge” plays that the NEC had done. Can we talk about that a little bit?

DTW: In what way?

GE: What would you consider to be some of the “cutting edge” plays done during your time as Artistic Director?

DTW: Let me say this Gus, the entire NEC body of work could all be considered to be cutting edge in so many ways. We were innovating in so many different ways just by being autonomous by selection the plays that were concentrating 100% on black life in some form creatively in the theatre. So in that sense the whole body of work could be considered “cutting edge”….But from the beginning I always knew that I wanted a variety of expression of black creativity in theatre through the presentation and interpretation of scripts. And I always knew, as you know, that the black experience in America to me is a national experience. I mean just numerically, black people comprise some 30 million or more of the population of this country.  Thirty million strong, that’s more than damn near two thirds of the nations on the globe. And our particular experience historically and everything else by being both inside the mainstream culture, being deeply embedded in it and at the same time being outside of it. By being marginalized within that culture. All of these peculiarities developed a national culture that is in a sense unique because of, as I said, being inside and outside more or less at the same time.

Gus, what you have here is something similar to the Irish experience. The only difference is that the English colonized them within their own territory. Where with us they brought us out of our original homeland and colonized us, more or less, on new soil. Other than that we were basically two people who in many ways, were usurped by history and the original invaders. Just as Ireland was invaded and occupied to a certain extent and then controlled by the British. So all of that meant to me is that it created a wide range of expression among us in relation to our experience in the world…. So from that standpoint my desire to be various in selection material and training myself to recognize both what was good in theatre of what was submitted to me in scripts, while at the same time recognizing what was good in different things. By that I mean writing, theatre writing from different cultures with the same kind of outsider/insider status and wanting to show the breadth of expression that led to my particular choices. The bottom line of course being that they had to be good theatre. Because as you’ve heard me say so often, a bad play is by its very nature is counter revolutionary.

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Doug Ward in Las Vegas

Doug Ward in Las Vegas

 
Gus and Travis (editors of the quarterly) with Doug Ward in Las Vegas

In the summer of 1999 I took Doug to Las Vegas, Nevada for the first time. It came about this way… After years of recording our conversations on audio tape I decided that it would be great to get him on video tape telling me all the things we had spoken about before. Because by that time I had a few friends, former students mostly, who had the technical ability to help me get it done. And who knows, perhaps in the future I might be able to make a documentary or education  tape out of the whole thing. But that remained to be seen. Right now the task was to get Doug out here to Tempe, Arizona and get the ball rolling. So I called and told him what I had in mind. He liked the idea and said sure. I would pay is way, put him up in a hotel and we would hang out together. As an added incentive I said that after the week of taping we would go to Las Vegas for a few days. He said; “Sure, I don’t mind.”

Now Doug had visited me here in Arizona a few times. All of it related in one way or another to my tenure as a faculty member in the Theatre Department at Arizona State University (ASU) since I started here in 1986. Twice he directed plays on our main stage and twice he was here to sit on panels of some conference or another. So coming to Arizona was no novelty for him.

My reasons for picking Las Vegas were multiple. First off it was close, exactly one hour by plane from Phoenix. Another reason is because I love the place. It is possibly my favorite city in the US. Now when I say that to most people immediately I get that knowing smile as if to say; “I understand . You don’t have to say anymore. The gambling, the shows, the liquor and all that sex, right?” And just about every time I let them go on thinking it because I learned a long time ago that it does no good to protest or explain anything. People are going to believe what they want to believe in spite of evidence to the contrary. But the truth is I hardly drink and I’m not much of a gambler either. For one I don’t know how to play any of the board games. And second, I hate to lose. I get irritated and mad when I do. So generally when I go there I will budget fifty to a hundred dollars as playing money and spread it out over the time that I’m there. Usually I play the quarter slots and if I win twenty dollars or more I run like a thief. And if I lose ten dollars in any sitting I quit for the day. The other thing about Las Vegas and me is I can’t stand to be in the place after three or four days at the most. After that I get bored and want to go back to my own life….So why do I love the place?  First off, I love the look of it. The topography. All the fake architectural replicas, the Statue of Liberty, the Eifel Tower, the Medieval Castle, the black pyramid, the stratosphere needle and all those indoor malls. The Parisian street, the Monte Carlo market place, Caesar’s Palace where Atlantis sinks into the ocean every day on the appointed hour, San Marco’s Square and the gondolas at the Venetian. The simulated wonders go on and on… Another thing I love is all the buffet deals and the great variety of food they offer. I also like walking the street looking at all that neon and all those people going to and fro. So all together I see the place as a Disneyland for adults where I can mentally lose myself in its absurdity for a few days. And I was hoping that perhaps Doug might find it as amusing and restful as I did.

My final reason for wanting to take him there was somewhat sentimental. Doug had produced my first play The Offering (1977). Not only did he produce the play he directed and acted in it as well. That production started my career in the theatre and changed the course of my life. If he hadn’t done that who knows, I might still be waiting tables or tending bar in some restaurant or bar. Instead I (with only my High School diploma) was a tenured professor at a major university. So I had a lot to be grateful to Doug forThere is a moment in my play The Offering where the old man (Doug’s character) says: “Vegas. That place always seemed like a magic land to me. Never really believed it was there…Always wanted to go to Las Vegas. Always… When I wrote those lines I hadn’t been to Vegas either . But now more than fifteen years later I had been there several times and wanted to share it with him.

Now I wasn’t sure if Doug would like Vegas. If it was his cup of tea even. I knew that politically he was of a Marxist/ socialist persuasion so the ostentatious display of material excess and splendor that Vegas flaunts so shamelessly might be anathema to his philosophical sensibility. Nevertheless, I took the chance anyway.

We got there on a Sunday morning and right away he was taken by the sheer size and scale of everything. We were staying at the Golden Nugget which is in downtown Vegas. He liked the area because it is what they call “Old Vegas” and looks very much like Vegas from the old movies. We went to the various buffets and spent sometimes 4 to 5 hours eating slowly and talking about everything under the sun. Because that’s what we do whenever we get together, talk and talk and then we talk some more. Other times we would walk the streets or visit the various malls until he got tired. Then we would retire to our rooms, take a nap and meet up later for dinner and drinks. Sometimes we would gamble a little but not much.

Doug’s idea of Vegas prior to going there was the one most people who haven’t been there have. That is the Frank Sinatra Rat Pack ring-a-ding Vegas of “Broads, booze and dice”. But the city has changed, changed a lot… One afternoon we were sitting outside the Monte Carlo Hotel just watching the crowds go by. I said to him; “Look at those people, what do you see?” He got it right away. Most of the people we saw passing by were around our age and grey haired. I reminded him of the scene near the end of Scorsese’s film Casino (1995) where Ace Rothstein (played by Robert DeNiro) narrates how Las Vegas had changed. Then the Panavision screen fills up with senior citizens moving forward toward the camera. That’s what we were seeing right there in front of us and it was great because we were seniors too. I was 60, Doug was 69.  They were having a good time and so were we.

Anyway, somewhere in the middle of all this eating and sightseeing we did take time out to shoot a video interview with Doug. A section of it can be seen on YouTube.

One last note. Doug absolutely loved Las Vegas. He was amused by, as he puts it; “The sheer scale of everything.” And also by the unabashed, unashamed vulgarity of its material display. He calls Vegas “The Cathedral of Capitalism.” because the place is strictly about money and isn’t afraid to shout it to the world. There’s honesty in its vulgarity and he admires that honesty. And since that time we have been to Las Vegas on three other occasions and each visit was more fun than the time before.

-GE.    

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