Tag Archives: Lonne Elder

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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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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Robert Hooks

robert hooks

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 ceremonies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Douglas Turner Ward Chronology

Douglas Turner Ward

A Chronology

 

The Early Years:

1930 – Born May 5th in Burnside, Louisiana. Father: Roosevelt Ward, a forklift operator.

            Mother: Dorothy (Short) Ward, a dressmaker. He was given the name Roosevelt

            Ward Jr.

1938 – The family moves to New Orleans, LA, where Ward Jr. attends a two-room

            School.

1940 – Attended Xavier University Prep, a black Catholic school.

1946 – Attended Wilberforce University for one year.

1947 – Transfers to University of Michigan. Majors in Journalism. Played football as a

            Halfback. After a serious knee injury, he focuses his interests in politics and

            Theatre.

1948 – Moves to NYC. Meets Lorraine Hansberry and Lonne Elder III. Joins the

            Progressive Party and becomes a Left-Wing political activist.

1949 – Wrote Star of Liberty, a short play about the rebellious slave Nat Turner. The play

             is performed before an audience of five thousand people.

             Ward is arrested in New York for draft evasion and returned to New Orleans,

             LA, where he is imprisoned for three months. His case is appealed.

1951 – Remains in New Orleans for two years while the case is pending. During this

            time, writes his first full-length play The Trial of Willie McGee.

1953 – The Supreme Court overturns his draft evasion conviction. Ward moves back to

            New York City and attempts to start a literary magazine called Challenge with

            Lorraine Hansberry and Lonne Elder III. One issue is published.

            Attends Paul Mann’s Acting Workshop and writes for The Daily Worker, a Left-

            Wing political journal.

            At the Hotel Teresa in Harlem, Ward along with Hansberry and Elder read his

            play The Trial of Willie McGee. This reading inspires Elder and Hansberry to try

            their hand at writing plays.

           Ward joins the Harlem Writers Workshop but leaves after a few weeks because

           he felt that their literary outlook was too limiting.

1957 – The Daily Worker closes. Ward’s career in journalism is over. He decides to

            pursue a full-time career in theatre.

1958 – Ward gets his first professional acting job at New York’s Circle in the Square

            Theatre in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

            For acting purposes, Roosevelt Ward Jr. changes his name to Douglas Turner

            Ward.

1959 – Performs a small role in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway

           and understudies Sidney Poitier as a lead character, Walter Lee Younger. Lonne

           Elder is also in the show. Robert Hooks joins the cast late in its Broadway run.

1960 – Ward assumes the lead (Walter Lee Younger) in the extended national tour of A

            Raisin in the Sun. Hooks and Elder are also in the touring company. The three

            become close friends.

1961 – Returns to New York City to play Archibald Wellington in Jean Genet’s The

           Blacks at the St. Mark’s Playhouse.

1965 – Robert Hooks produces two short plays at the St. Mark’s Playhouse written by

            Ward. The plays were Day of Absence and Happy Ending.

            Ward marries Diana Powell.

1966 – Ward wins two Obie (Off-Broadway) Awards. One for writing and one for acting

            in Happy Ending and Day of Absence.

 

            Wins Drama Desk Award for Playwriting.

            Ward writes an article for The New York Times entitled “American Theatre: For

            Whites Only” (8/14). The article stirs discussions about blacks in theatre and

            because of this McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation invites Ward, Hooks, and

            Gerald Krone to submit a proposal for funds to establish a repertory company and

            training program for black theatre artists.

The NEC Years:

1967 – The Ford Foundation gives Ward, Hooks, and Krone $434,000 to start the

            company. The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) is incorporated with Robert

            Hooks as Executive Director, Gerald Krone as Administrative Director, and Ward

            as Artistic Director.

           The company opens its first show, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey written by

           German author Peter Weiss and adapted by Ward. Controversy and acclaim greets

           the opening.

           Other plays of that season include Summer of the 17th Doll by Australian author

           Ray Lawler, story adapted to the American South by Douglas Turner Ward,

           and Daddy Goodness, a French play by Louis Sapan, adapted by the black

           novelist Richard Wright.

1968 – Ward directs his first show, which is Daddy Goodness.

            Ward and the NEC are publicly attacked in the black press for not producing one

            play by a black American playwright in its first season. And also for using the

            word ‘Negro’ in its name rather than ‘Black’.

1969 – In their second season, the NEC produces Lonne Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark

           Old Men. Ward plays the leading role and wins a Drama Desk Award for his

           performance.

           The NEC receives a Tony Award for Special Achievement in the Theatre.

           Despite its perceived success, the company is forced to cut down its training 

           programs due to shortage of grant monies. Later that year, a benefit organized by

           Robert Hooks at the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway saves the company from

           financial collapse.

           Robert Hooks leaves his day-to-day operation at the NEC and moves back to

           Washington D.C. to create the D.C. Black Repertory Company.

1970 – Ceremonies in Dark Old Men starring Ward is broadcast in primetime on

            ABC TV.

            A performance of The Harangues, a short play by Joseph Walker, featuring Ward

            in a principal role, is interrupted by a black theatre group protesting its content.

            The NEC and Ward come under more fire in black periodicals for being located in

            Greenwich Village instead of Harlem and for retaining its white administrator,

            Gerald Krone. Ward refuses to respond to these criticisms because he did not

            consider them valid.

1973 – Ward directs and acts in The River Niger, another play by Joseph Walker. This

            becomes the first NEC production to move to Broadway.

            The show receives two Tony Award nominations, one for Best Play and one for

            Ward for Best Supporting Actor. Ward refuses the nomination because his was

            not a supporting part but the lead.

            The play receives the Tony Award as Best Play.

1975 – The First Breeze of Summer by Leslie Lee, directed by Ward, becomes the second

            NEC play to move to Broadway. It receives a Best Play Tony Award nomination.

            Ward receives the National Theatre Conference Person of the Year Award.

1977 – The Louisiana Performing Arts installs Douglas Turner Ward in its Hall of Fame.

1979 – Ward receives an Honorary Degree (Doctor of Fine Arts) from City College of

            New York.

            Financial constraints force the NEC to drastically cut back on its staff and

            production schedule.

1980 – Ward is given the Ebony Magazine Black American Achievement Award for

            Accomplishment in Fine Arts.

 

            Home by Samm-Art Williams and directed by Douglas Turner Ward becomes the

            NEC’s third play to move to Broadway. It receives two Tony Award nominations.

            The NEC moves from the St. Mark’s Theatre in Greenwich Village to Theatre 4

            on W. 54th St. in midtown Manhattan.

1981 – Ward receives the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award for

            Outstanding Contributions to the Progress of Human Rights.

1982 – A Soldier’s Play, written by Charles Fuller, directed by Douglas Turner Ward,

           receives the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

           Gerald Krone formally resigns his administrative position at the NEC to work in

           television news.

1984 – The NEC gets a $100,000 donation from Citibank but is still facing serious

            financial troubles.

1987 – The NEC celebrates its 20th anniversary while facing a major financial shortfall.

            Ward calls for public support. But some of his announced productions have to be

            cancelled.

            Ward announces his resignation as Artistic Director and retires the title.

            Leon Denmark is named Managing Director of the NEC.

            Ward is invited by The New York Times to write a follow-up article to his

            “American Theatre: For Whites Only”, assessing the state of African American

            Theatre after twenty years. When the article “Counterpoint: A Twenty Year View

            of Black Theatre” is submitted, the Times refuses to print it. The article is

            ultimately published in Black Masks Magazine.

 

            PBS’s American Masters series broadcasts a documentary, narrated by Ossie

            Davis entitled “The NEC: A Company of Excellence”.

1990 – The NEC announces that it will produce Charles Fuller’s ambitious four-play

      series about the Civil War and the Reconstruction period collectively known as WE

      but financial difficulties make this a difficult task.

1991 – Ward receives an Honorary Doctorate from Columbia College in Chicago.

            Ward returns to the NEC as Artistic Director in an attempt to resolve its financial

            crisis. He announces in The New York Times that the NEC will have to shut down

            if unable to raise $250,000.

1993 – Ward produces and directs Last Night at Ace High, which became the NEC’s last

            show under his auspices as Artistic Director.

             That same year, the NEC is honored at the National Black Theatre Festival in

             Winston-Salem, NC, as an “indispensable cultural and national resource”.

After The NEC:

1996 – Douglas Turner Ward is inducted into the Broadway Theatre Hall of Fame.

            (1/22)

1998 – Ward receives Honorary Doctor of Literature from Louisiana State University

2002 – Directs John Scott’s Farma at the Ensemble Theater in Miami, FL.

2003 – Receives Legend Honors Award at the Zora Neal Hurston Festival in Orlando,

            FL.

2005 – Ward receives the New Federal Theater’s Award of Excellence at the Town Hall

             in NYC.

             Ward receives the NAACP Award in Los Angeles, CA.

Note:

This chronology is still evolving because Mr. Ward is still very much alive and active.

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Actors, Directors, and Other Theatre Professionals

Actors, writers, directors, producers and other theatre professionals on the NEC.

The number of people the NEC has had an impact on through its existence, its productions, its standards as a professional Theatre Company along with the inspiration and confidence it inspired is innumerable but here are a few comments from many who were directly involved in one way or another with them during the years of Doug Ward’s tenure. 

Ed Burbridge – set designer

The NEC personally gave me a place to grow… Now I had worked before the NEC came along. I had designed on Broadway and done a lot of other work. But the NEC gave me a consistent place to work. A place where I could work “hands on”, where I could spend the night if I wanted to, which I didn’t often want to do, but I did. It gave me a place to try things out. And it gave me really direct contact with the actors, the director and importantly, with the playwright. We were actually working with the authors that were there and present. That’s a big difference. You could actually sit down at The Orchidia Resturant, which was just down the street from the theatre, after work and talk to the author and find out what the author meant. That’s invaluable for a designer.

Ed Bullins – playwright and educator (The Taking of Miss Janie – Northwestern University)

Well, there’s black theatre now in St. Louis now and in Atlanta and much of that is due to the NEC and its projection of itself and its work in black theatre. Black theatre is now in the classrooms. I teach Black Theatre Performance and things like that at places like City College in San Francisco and other places. But those courses are being duplicated in many other educational institutions across the country. And one of the institutions which was the foundation of black theatre in this country is the NEC.

Rev. Calvin Buttssubscriber

I was proud of the NEC as I am about Morehouse College. I grew up in New York but it was only when I went to Atlanta, in that kind of experience, where I was surrounded by black professionals who were extremely competent, that I realized how powerful our people really are and how we had developed in America. And the NEC really reinforced that even more in the theatre. Culture plays an important part in our lives. I mean Africans in America gave America its only original art form in terms of jazz basically. And DuBois would say: “We gave America its only fairy tales and its subtle sense of song amidst its money getting plutocracy.”

Rosalind Cash – actress (1938-1995)

At the NEC I stood a little taller and spoke a little clearer and walked with a little more certainty during and after the NEC. You see I was a little timid before the NEC. It was like: “Excuse me; I’m just a humble, poor black actress. But when I went to the NEC it was: “You’re an actor, you deserve your spot.” …You see, during the time of integration I was integrated into shows. But in many of them I was just a piece of furniture put there to satisfy the demands of integration. At the NEC I felt like I was home, like I had my little family. I have my memories and they’re precious. I had an experience that I think was unique. I was able to train and work in a compatible atmosphere and be appreciated. I liked the fact that they didn’t have a star system there or a pecking order. Everyone was equal and that was great. I still feel a connection to the NEC and I always will.

Zaida Coles – subscriber / fund raiser

The NEC makes it possible for the average person to see theatre that relates to their life experience without paying an arm and a leg to do it. Now that’s not to say that the NEC couldn’t prosper by charging more and I certainly hope they won’t charge more, though they need the money. So that’s where fundraising comes in. But what they do is valuable because they’re keeping it within the scope of the average person who wants to see theatre and theatre that relates to their life.

Lonne Elder the 3rd – playwright and screenwriter (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Sounder) 1927 – 1996

The NEC caused a number of people in the black communities across the nation as a whole to all of a sudden recognize that there’s this place you could point to with a certain degree of pride. It changed a lot of lives. I was working with a young man doing a show and he remembered when we would come down South on some tour. He was in school and they went to see the show and he said that it changed his life. That’s when he made the decision to become an actor because he knew there was a possibility. Never before had he thought it was possible.

Charles Fuller – playwright (A Soldier’s Play)

Theatre in America is fundamentally a very segregated institution, unfortunately. In the mainstream theatre for the most part we never see ourselves in any meaningful way. We never have much of ourselves as a people operating and functioning as human beings in the United States. Most of the theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights on a regular basis. If they do it’s only every now and then. Well part of the problem is that we function in society every day of the week. Douglas and the NEC for a very long time with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre….And in doing so, I think that the NEC through its consistent work really changed attitudes in a strange kind of way. The company raised the level of consciousness in the US with regard to what black people can do, the kinds of things they can think.  That I think is very important and it will probably have a lasting effect far beyond anything I can imagine.

Norman Jewison – film director (In the Heat of the Night/A Soldier’s Story/Moonstruck etc.)

The NEC besides providing like all private theatres, an outlet for artists and a source of encouragement and hopefully confidence in young people, especially black writers and directors and actors and scenic designers and so on provided history. I think part of the theatre is dealing with one’s history. This is what most plays are written about. They’re written about our feelings. And through theatre we can learn about the past as well.  I think constantly at the NEC you see this Black history in America being used as a source of inspiration. So I think it is very important. And I think that it is also important for the white community because it constantly gives them insight into their own history and their own relationship with Black Americans.

Woodie King Jr. – Theatre administrator (The New Federal Theatre)

We looked, saw and said; “Well if the NEC can do it maybe it’s possible that my dream could be realized. They do four plays a year and I’m inspired, I’m moved. I see acting like I’ve never seen before. And it’s the same with direction. Then I go back to the University and I say: “Well I know this is possible because when I get out I know there’s an institution that exists that I might be able to go and work in. That’s what I think happened across America. So Black theatres in particular are, in a sense, indebted to the NEC. And in a sense, indebted to the contributions of Douglas Turner Ward.

 Sylvester Leeks – journalist

In terms of accomplishment and the NEC I think you have to say, first it survived. That in itself is a miracle. No one gave it five years. Frankly I thought that once the first grant from the Ford Foundation was exhausted it would probably just peter out like so many other groups have done. And number two; it has left its footprints in the sands of time in Black culture and Black American culture. It has brought awareness to the world because it’s done productions all over Europe as well America. And insight into the black psyche. And it has left a repertoire of plays through its production of them for others to come along and either duplicate or supersede. I think that’s perhaps the best way to put it.

 

W. McNeil Lowry – Ford Foundation Administrator (1913-1993)

They came along and said to these young, aspiring black people “it can happen to you.” This to me their greatest accomplishment and their greatest legacy.

This was done through the training program, the existence of the training program. That became a factor that others couldn’t ignore. So that when the NEC started going around to black colleges their young people didn’t say “Maybe someday this will apply to blacks” because they were looking at a tour by some small white company.  They say: “Look, this applies to people who graduated from colleges like ours, or didn’t graduate at all. Who came out of high schools and other places.  And here they are, theatre professionals.

Joseph Papp – Founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (1921- 1991)

Although the NEC has demonstrated that some of their plays can move into the commercial arena, it doesn’t need that justification at all. Its existence is its own justification. It has done excellent plays and important work. Black writers have to write for black actors and that is important.

 

C.T.Perkinson – musician/ composer (1932 – 2004)

I think NEC’s community was the New York theatre audience. And I think with its growth over the years it has impacted favorably. They produced work that otherwise would not have been seen, some of which have gone on to becoming films, which give you a much broader, larger audience. And they’ve impacted favorably upon that larger audience. So they began with this microcosm, so to speak, of New York and blossomed into that audience of America.

 

Lloyd Richards – Director (Fences) and Educator (Dean: Yale School of Drama) (1919 – 2006)

The NEC was not the first black company. There had been others before it. But it came at a time when many things were in question, when there was a social revolution taking place in this country. And it significantly demonstrated in its time the potential and the artistry of black people. And it manifests and realized the possibility for accomplishment, both in terms of the artistry of the theatre and the technical artistry as well as the writing artistry. It manifested that and it permitted people to say: “Hey wait, that is possible also.” I think it spoke for its time I think it demonstrated those things in a very important time.

Esther Rolle – actress (1920 – 1998)

You didn’t have to be white or blonde or thin to do this really. You just had to be you. And that was, for me, the most wonderful thing that could have happened because I didn’t have any of the requirements that the establishment said they counted at the time. My skin was black; my hair was short and curly. I wasn’t exactly Twiggy and I wasn’t twelve. So the chance that the NEC gave me I shall be eternally grateful for. And it gave us all the same chance.

Roxie Roker – actress (1929 – 1995)

The company is important for those things we don’t always stress: the backstage work. Training technicians, wardrobe people, lighting people, directors etc. It’s all there. And if you didn’t have a place like the NEC in which to work and learn, where would young black performers or artists or technicians het the opportunity? There needs to be many more companies and we hope that many more will be formed. But the important thing is that it launched us out into the commercial world, the commercial theatre and what have you. And my gosh, what more could be said than that?

 

Michael Schultz – Stage and Film director

The legacy of the NEC is almost its motherhood. It gave birth to most of the dramatic actors that are on screen today. At least in the past ten years. Roz cash, Moses Gunn, Esther Rolle and the list goes on and on. It definitely started my career with a major splash. But what I think will live in is the worth of the writers it produced because that’s what always lives on. They have been responsible for creating at least four classic pieces to my way of thinking.

Denzel Washington – actor

I grew up in beauty parlors and barber shops. So when I had a special affection for Ceremonies in Dark Old Men because it takes place in a barber shop setting. And I said to myself when I saw it: ‘This is what my life is all about.” And it was one of the first opportunities where I really saw a part of my life reflected on (TV) the screen, and I felt as though I belonged. So I wanted to know who was responsible for that. And it was the NEC. So I tracked them down over the years and finally got a chance to work with them in 1981.

Samm-Art Williams – actor-playwright (Home) and producer (Fresh Prince of Bel Air)

I think that the NEC gives the writer a chance. That’s all you can ask of a producing company; is to let the writer see his play. The primary concern initially is the writer. That’s one good thing about Doug that you can always depend on. It’s constant and as sure as rain; the writer will have his say.

Hattie Winston – actress

Part of the vision of the NEC was to develop an audience that had never experienced theatre before. Particularly people who had never even been out of Harlem. When they saw themselves on stage there was pride. They were very proud. NEC was not just fifteen actors who were on stage. NEC was an entire community. The NEC was the audience because they saw themselves and it was exciting. It was absolutely exhilarating because they identified so passionately with what was happening on stage. They would talk back to us on stage. “That’s right! Yes, I understand what you talking about sister. That’s gone girl, tell me about it.”

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Doug Ward: The Early Years

Early Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Street Corner Radical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Friends

Lorraine Hansberry

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

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

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

Lonne Elder

Paul Mann

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

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

Paul Mann with fellow teachers Lloyd Richards and Patricia Benoit

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

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

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

Name Change

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

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

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

Robert Hooks explained:

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

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

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

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

So, Ward continued writing.

Robert Hooks

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

Robert Hooks:

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

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


The Group Theatre Workshop

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

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

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

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

Gerald Krone

Hooks, Ward, and Gerald Krone (far right)

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

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

Barbara Ann Teer:

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

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

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