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Memories of Paul
by Douglas Turner Ward
Mine was the first generation to come to maturity after World War 11, also the first draftable to fight the Korean War…Paul Robeson would influence our lives.
I first saw and heard Paul in 1948 at a huge stadium rally in Detroit during the Progressive Party’s Presidential campaign for Henry Wallace. If memory serves, I had taken a bus from Ann Arbor where I was in the process of dropping out of the University of Michigan. If memory is faulty, I was already in the Big D after flunking out…Anyway, there is no doubt about the thrilling excitement of Paul Robeson’s presence.
Earlier as a youth growing up on New Orleans, LA, I was aware of Robeson merely as a world-famous singer, and being a dedicated athlete myself, acquainted with his legendary career as a great all-around sports star, especially his gridiron exploits which had earned him laurels as a two-time Walter Camp All American. But it wasn’t long before my peers and I were looking towards Paul as the model – antithesis grinning, dark skin movie buffoons causing us to grit out teeth while they cut the fool up on the Big Screen.
But let me interject here to counteract a current day revisionist notion afloat, that we who objected to the odious stereotypes foisted upon us were not some hincty bourgeoisfied Negroes flinching from what was perfectly acceptable to mass black taste. To the contrary, we were the sons and daughters of hard, working-class parents. Particularly, we were early-to- mid-age teens sitting in the peanut-gallery balconies of segregated movie houses, instinctively aware that the Stephin Fetchit antics served up by white folks for their own hilarity and our base defilement were truly offensive to our desire to be depicted humanely. Our spontaneous derision spurred us to hurl popcorn and spittle down from our protected aeries above onto exposed heads of whites attending below. A most memorable object of our Screen contempt and hurtful to our ears was listening to the high pitched screeching of Butterfly McQueen… “Miss Scarletting” through Gone with the Wind (1939)…Only to be topped by hoot-calls shouted at the burly black servant rescuing his mistress from drunken, carousing Negro Carpetbaggers in the same film. (Down South it was no laughing matter to witness the lynching beast aroused by scenes of lily-white besmirchment.)
More specifically, we were Second World War African-American youngsters being shaped by a juncture of history that revealed the contradictions of our un-freeness at home as our fathers, brothers and uncles were CeeBee constructing and Red Ball Express trucking, fighting and dying abroad to protect our country for freedom and democracy. In essence when attitudes, images and representations were subject to overt challenge and contestation; contrasted to our present time where illusions of immunity from harm of misrepresentation along with a ‘post-modern’ acceptability of offensive disparagement proliferate. All the while racist power structures are as much in control of our lives as ever before.
(Back then it was humorists and comedians like Pigmeat Markham, Moms Mabley, Dusty Baker and a young Red Foxx on the all-black circuit, who were truly liberating; addressing their brother/sister constituency unflinchly, never shirking the cathartic, bracing comic effects of subversive exaggeration, parody, satire, self-mockery and no-holds barred self-criticism…a much different can of peas that gratuitous self-degradation and pandering to the insistensies of majority-derived carractures.)
Following the devastating wake of the Depression, my generation was lucky to tip into teenagehood parallel to the United States’ entry into World War 11. It assured that our puberty would be supported by the stable employment of our fathers and mothers and allotment checks from our brothers and uncles. It wasn’t class status bolstering our attitudes, but economic security.
Despite all the efforts of powers-that-be to maintain the status-quo, docility was not acceptable to us. The war ended as we were graduating from high school. We were primed to be intransigent about our rights.
Our ranks swelled with the return of slightly older peers discharged in droves from the Armed Services. They were even less willing to put up with any waste matter. The Establishment, especially of the South, was determined to continue where it had left off before the war. Fresh conflict was inevitable.
We wartime beneficiaries first-in – family graduates from High School flocked into college, joined by our subsidized GI-Bill-of Rights veterans. A cadre of non- bourgeois blacks was being educationally equipped. Subsequentially, a majority may have settled into the safe niches of societal advancement, but a significant number became radicalized, both through struggle and intellectual stimulus…To the latter Paul Robeson was exemplar non-pariel.
My main goal in entering college centered primarily on athletics. Even with my knowledge of Paul Robeson’s stellar accomplishments, it was the Midwest Big Ten Conference that occupied my focus. Buddy Young at Illinois, George Taliaferro of Indiana, et al. Only UCLA where Kenny Washington and Jackie Robinson had cavorted out West could compete. However the University of Michigan stood above all. As early as the mid thirties Michigan had featured a black football star and just recently had produced had produced the All-American Guard Julius Franks. It was there where I wished to excel. After a one-year detour at Wilberforce University in Ohio, I realized my dream and enrolled, determined to emulate my football predecessors. (Incidentally, it was at all-black Wilberforce where my knowledge of Paul Robeson deepened. Wilberforce, almost unknown for the time, offered courses in Negro History…in itself not so surprising since Dr. Charles Wesley, a leading historian and disciple of the great Carter Woodson, was the school’s President.)
Only 17- years old I found myself at the University of Michigan as a walk-on candidate for the freshman football squad during a season when the varsity led by black All-Americans Len Ford and Bobby Mann with Gene Derricotting as backup halfback, would go undefeated and win the National Championship. Another African-American, National Champion shot-putter Chuck——, captained the track squad.
Quickly, my stint on the freshman team revealed my terminal athletic limitations, and almost as rapidly, my naïve illusions about Michigan’s non-segregated purity in athletics were shattered. It became clear that (more accurately, only blacks with super bluechip abilities) were welcome on the football and track teams, but needed not apply for basketball team membership or possible places on other less high-profile sports squads.
Racism, evident in many other areas of campus life, combined with segregation throughout the surrounding city of Ann Arbor, heightened my disillusionment. But as my disenchantment advanced, my politization increased. My southern conditioning made me a ripe candidate for radicalization. Civil rights activism and contact with campus Marxists, outside black trade unionists and African-American left-wing political leaders from Detroit contributed to my education and enlightened me about social issues and world affairs. Before the first semester I was scrapping my athletic ambitions and becoming persuaded that that further stay in academia was useless. The advent of the Progressive Party’s presidential campaign further convinced me that my interests lay elsewheres. By the time I was hearing Robeson in Detroit, I had already decided to quit college and travel closer to the action…That meant New York.
It is hard to describe the euphoria of the Wallace-for- President Campaign compared with the pallid Third Party efforts ever after. Then, almost to the end, victory seemed possible or at least a massive showing that would entrench an Alternative Political Presence upon the American body politic forever. This expectation was rudely squelched when Truman eked out his victory over Dewey; only consolation being that Truman had been pressured by the Progressive Party threat to co-opt important elements of its civil rights platform as his own. A tactic which siphoned off support from Wallace and by election day Truman had garnered almost a unanimous vote from the African- American electorate. This vote proved decisive in a contest fought out between a wide range of candidate and philosophies, from Dexiecrats to Progressives…But this denouement lay ahead, when I arrived in Harlem that summer of ’48.
One stroll down 125th Street confirmed to me that Harlem was indeed the Capitol of black America; and I doubt if there was any other place where Paul Robeson was revered more. In addition, Harlem electorally, had an established record backing candidates of radical political pedigrees…maverick Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Communists Councilman Ben Davis, American Labor Party Vito Marcantonio and others.
Parading through Harlem streets in the Youth-for-Wallace brigades was like a great big festive holiday. Where ever Paul Robeson appeared, he was cheered wildly. Campaigning within uptown boundaries, being greeted with such ecstatic acceptance, deceived us about the depth of commitment to the Progressive Party and the size of the vote to be expected on election day in November….For me on a more personal level, as much as political engagement was exhilarating, the total panorama of Harlem life was even more transfixing to my newly-arrived eyes and invigorating to my sensuous sensibilities. Especially the music. To me, an ardent bebopper, it was paradise.
I was too young and inexperienced to anticipate the surprising revelation that pragmatism often impels the Afro-Electorate to abandon candidates they most admire in favor of those whom they rate to have a real chance of winning.
Truman’s victory shocked us back to earth.
Little did we realize that the Wallace challenge would be the peak point of Left Wing optimism for decades to come; that Reaction would pick up momentum and push progressivism more and more to the margins, making Paul an immediate target in their bullseye sight…Early in 1949 a Robeson speech in Paris had brought down the wrath of the Cold War high command. More precisely, it would provide the occasion for it cynically to craft a campaign designed to stifle Paul’s voice and damage his creditability, deflate his lofty standing among his people. However, instead of silencing or intimidating Paul, it aroused him to stronger defiance.
Apart from mainstream black leaders who were armtwisted into denouncing Paul, residents of Harlem were supportive. They saw through the cold warriors’ script. Needing help, Reaction drafted Jackie Robinson as star witness to Counter Paul and bestow legitimacy upon itself. ..For an umpteenth repeat we were treated to the sorry/sad spectacle of a compliant black seduced or pressured into doing the dirty work of established power; enlisted to subvert the views of a more uncooperative figure, slavishly parroting the orders of an officialdom proverably inimical to black interests. Usually, the credentials of such puppets rest solely on the fact that they are also black.
An added twist to Jackie Robinson vs. Paul Robeson was the pitting of great athletes from epoch against another from a different period. Only the pattern was reversed: it was the conformist youngster used to cut the radical elder down to size. So much for the notion that rebelliousness is an exclusive property of the young.
The Un-American Activities Committee’s ploy didn’t work. It played well in Peoria but flopped in Harlem. The patent transparency of such Uncle Tom ventriloquism was so obvious that it cancelled out whatever critical testimony Jackie Robinson offered against racism and left him stripped of his heroic mantel. Reactionary manipulators whose positive record of Civil Rights couldn’t fit the size of a fingerprint had hoped to piggyback upon the enormous esteem Jackie Robinson had reaped by his pioneering Major League baseball breakthrough and brilliant on-the-field achievements…But the effort failed. Harlem was furious. Despite media distortions of Paul’s Paris thesis, African- Americans agreed with its essence. Like many decades later when another great black athlete would proclaim pithily: “I don’t have nothing against them Viet Cong”, Paul’s earlier comment echoed similar sentiments. Abjuring the trappings of official jingoistic patriotism, he merely asserted the priority of one’s own fight for freedom and the determination to first and foremost achieve it at home. The gist of this is what really incensed the cold warriors.
Blacks sensed the truth intuitively. They didn’t fault Paul for distorted interpretations trumpeted by the press and even more generously, gave Jackie Robinson the benefit of the doubt. They understood his precarious vulnerability. They criticized him for allowing himself to be used, but they didn’t abandon him. He was not rejected, just regretted…Paul was just as giving as he refused to be drawn into any argument with or about Robinson.
Among youths of radical persuasions, we were not so forgiving. It took a long time to view the episode with kinder objectivity. Our mood grew angrier when the crucifixion of Paul Robeson escalated, climaxing at Peekskill.
I was not at Peekskill but assisted at a command post on 125th Street, helping out every way possible to aid Paul and those trapped with him as news filtered back from the beleaguered site. One impressible memory remains of a conference at that Harlem headquarters devoted to finding a way to dissuade the Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson from sending his henchmen up to Peekskill “to get Paul out of there…”
The anti-communist hysteria that triggered the Peekskill atrocity outraged Black America and elicited more sympathy for Paul than his persecutors could imagine. Even Ralph Bunche of United Nations’ fame was active behind-the-scenes in attempting to protect Paul that infamous night.
Peekskill, if not a conscious plot, was no accident. It was the enviable result of US cold-war strategy and its demonization of Paul. While the American Communist Party was selected as the main organization to bear the brunt of cold-war assault; no individual was pilloried more than Robeson. Yet, we marveled, the more embattled he became the more combative his response. Like a magnificent counterpuncher he returned blow for blow. Excepting those black leaders whose self-complicity wedded them to the System, admiration for Paul among the black mass majority never faltered. Even more timid souls in the community shook their heads while complimenting him with “he’s a better man than me…” Amid black youths the attitude remained more consensus pugnacious.
Before long Korea would transform the US propaganda offensive into involvement in an actual shooting war. The stakes for dissent were upped. Dissidence could get you incarcerated… Thus, my own fate.
Less than one month past my 21st birthday I was arrested and whisked away South in chains, indicted on a phony Draft charge…Now I really needed Paul in the worst way. Not literally, but to bolster my stamina and boost up my morale. Only a giant would do. Despite my youthful revolutionary bravado, I had not suffered any real personal hardship to prepare me for my sudden non-theoretical tribulations. When reality dawned, imagining how Paul managed to endure was invoked to help calm my churning apprehensions. Shortly I would even share a form of the gulag he was sentenced to experience by his passport seizure. My boundary would enclose slightly more prosaically since I wound up confined to a tri-state radius comprising the federal district crossing through Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.
My two year enforced stay in New Orleans was wracked by a constant nightmarish fear that at any moment I was liable to punishment anew under hastily-passed draconian Louisiana anti-communist statutes that demanded mandatory 20- year jail sentences! I was in jeopardy by just being in the state!.. Against my will!..Through no choice of my own!
Earlier, before I had disappeared behind the Pelican curtain, Paul Robeson, through his weekly journal Freedom, had publicized my case through an interview by Lorraine Hansberry, recorded during what turned out to be my final trip to New York before magnolia exile. The article would serve as my last public statement for a long time. Until a year so ago I also was ignorant of the fact that Paul had made
a lengthy (to me) mention of my plight at a public rally back then. I came upon the quote in a published collection of his speeches. I could not have been more thrilled; or cherish a mention more.
My original contact with Paul with Paul Robeson had been mainly a few inclusions in the squadron brought together to escort and protect him during public rallies. It was only after I became friend and associate with Paul Jr. and Marilyn Robeson that I saw Paul Sr. up close socially. At their Harlem apartment on 128th Street off Convent he was just another doting grandfather playing with his newborn grandchild. In conversation he was warm, affable, unpretentious, considerate and did everything possible to put you at ease. He was almost lifesize. But the truth was fleeting. I could never shake my awe of him. To me he would always mesmerize back into monumentality. The formidability of his impression upon me refused to relieve my reticence, break down my reserve. No matter what, I was unable to relax. Part of my inhibition, of course, was traditional…we were not of the same generation, respectful deference was warranted. But most of my unease was just plain hero-paralysis. This was neither his wish or intent. In our current time of fierce self-promotion and egregious public-image inflation, it is a wonder to remember how naturally Robeson attracted worship and adulation without striving to induce it.
Paul was the embodiment of charisma before the word gained currency. In all my years since, I have never witnessed again the hold Paul held over audiences even before he was speaking…Even consummate great orators like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X could never duplicate Paul’s spell-of-anticipation overran audience. It was as if the entire assemblage held its collective breath waiting in suspense for his first word. As his inhalation signaled the onset of a sound emitting, a universal relieved gasping sigh would escape from the crowd. Paul couldn’t even utter his “Well” before the house would erupt with applause…It wasn’t just the voice, in all its marvelous, splendid luster, but the promise behind the voice, the anticipation of honesty, sincerity, passion, sympathy, intelligenceand meaningful content.
In 1953 I returned to New York. A no-comment unanimous Supreme Court decision threw out my bogus 3-year jailterm Draft conviction. Freed of my two-year out-on- bail hiatus I left New Orleans a little older, warier, and more seasoned but no less determined in commitment.
Compared to my entry in ’48, New York was more somber. The Rosenbergs has just been given their final rejection by the Supreme Court and were scheduled to be electrocuted within weeks. Ironically, this judgment had been delivered along with the same batch of Court rulings, one of which had exonerated me. I had learned of my good fortune an early Sunday morning before hearing about the other decisions. My elation, shared with my overjoyed and relieved parents was shortlived upon the news about the Rosenbergs. Though conflicted I gladly would have sought an opposite resolution of our two cases. Three years in prison for me in exchange for their lives was a bargain I would have made without regret.
The Rosenberg case highlighted so many different issues relating to America’s postwar hegemony and ethos, nationally and internationally. The crusade to prevent the Rosenbergs from being sacrificed captured world attention and global support. Once more Paul was in the forefront. His voice took on greater passion and urgency as he counseled us to understand that injustice done to the Rosenbergs eclipsed all other injustices, including his own victimization.
The fight to save the Rosenbergs failed and Reaction followed up with only slightly horrific agonies. Paul’s defiance continued without cease. His efforts to maintain an artistic presence, despite a virtually complete lockout from all mainstream concert and performance venues, pioneered the search for alternative outlets of creative expressions.
It was during one such appearance of his at the Renaissance Casino in Harlem that I had a spontaneous, untutored intuition about the vacuum suffered by Paul’s exclusion from the one art form which could have given full use of his multiple gifts. Paul sang and acted an excerpt from Mussoursky’s opera Boris Goudonov. Although I was totally ignorant about and previously uninterested in opera, the stunning force, beauty and impact of his rendition, combined with the depth of his emotional interpretation convinced me that opera was indeed the perfect medium combining his multitudinous endowments for harmonious expression in a single art form. Many decades later, having been trained and experience myself in theatre, I still find no reason to change my assessment, even after learning that Paul chose voluntarily not to perform opera because of other valid artistic preferences. Without slighting his wider-ranging prolific and prodigious creative achievements, I still believe it to be the 20th Century’s loss not to have seen or heard Paul Robeson match his larger-than-life gifts with a medium that is in itself larger-than-life.
The campaign waged against Paul Robeson and the Left after World War 11 was the precursor of McCarthyism. Unfortunately, this victimization and demonization was insufficiently grasped in time. What was happening only involved the dreaded Reds. By the time the nation had awakened, the plague had spread across the board. The virus had penetrated into the citadels of establishment institutions and infected the fabric of routine American existence. Targeting the radical Left had been merely a trail run. Next, the witch- hunt sought unsuspecting victims. Fifty years later we’re still counting the toll.
Nevertheless, the ongoing tradition of dissidence and struggle sustained throughout the darkest days of the forties and fifties sedimented traces of antidotes for later use. The ‘Old Left’ which had recorded its admirable record of almost lonely resistance, despite its own grievous errors and dogmatisms, by the onset of the sixties had gone into decline, battered into submission; fatigued; ideological differences leading to fractures and uncertainties; but its intransigent legacy would transmute into other forms of protest.
Paul’s passport victory in the late fifties earned him much-delayed relief from the odiferous fumes wafting across US shores. He was able to vacate. Yet, during his absence his spirit remained, his influence continued…even when only subliminally.
It is quite predictable that America’s dissident tradition always will be suppressed, evaded and devalued by a hegemonic Establishment, totally true to its nature…but history will persist in so many embodied ways. It is always available for recuperation; always there to inspire and instruct future generations as long as we have generations to inspire.
Even though the Left of my youth and Paul’s prominence took a lethal hit, Montgomery, Alabama peered above the horizon and a host appeared behind it. Much of the vanguard resistance and combativity of Paul Robeson and those like him migrated into mass attitudes and gigantic protest activisms. Whether those who followed after him knew it not, they had picked up Paul’s banners.
Douglas Turner Ward
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
1938 – The family moves to New Orleans, LA, where Ward Jr. attends a two-room
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Financial constraints force the NEC to drastically cut back on its staff and
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
1984 – The NEC gets a $100,000 donation from Citibank but is still facing serious
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
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.
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,
2005 – Ward receives the New Federal Theater’s Award of Excellence at the Town Hall
Ward receives the NAACP Award in Los Angeles, CA.
This chronology is still evolving because Mr. Ward is still very much alive and active.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“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, 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.
“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.
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.”