Doug Ward: On Black audiences/White audiences
GE: Let’s talk today about audiences. Black audiences, white audiences and how you perceive them.
DTW: If you’re talking about the NEC and how that breaks down it’s something like this. 20 to 30% of our regular audience over a given time will be white. Over a season let’s say. That numerical quotient or percentage will increase based on the assist of the opinion makers’ enthusiasm for a particular show. Therefore with A Soldier’s Play we’ll see an increase, with Home the same thing. Whenever the opinion makers’ establishment is strong enough in its enthusiasm you will see an increase of the white public to this core perhaps somewhere between 25 to 35%more. But over a given period of time when the NEC did not get the so-called rave critical reviews we still have a black public which will be stable enough to say; “Hey, let’s go to the NEC and see what they’re up to.” The white component might contract according to what the critics say but our core audience come because what we’re doing on stage is in one way or another relevant to them. With The River Niger on Broadway it was the black audiences that kept us running for as long as we did. Now when we went on the road with the show it can go either way. We go to Seattle and the house will be 90% white, in St. Louis it’s 50/50, we go to Minneapolis it’s 90% whites again but in South Carolina it’s going to be 90% black. So on the road the makeup of the audience shifts.
GE: I think that I read somewhere that you said that the NEC’s impact is felt more on the road than here in the city.
DTW: Yes, that’s true. The impact is most strongly felt in many places where we were giving them a view of something they were seeing and experiencing for the first time. Yes, for the first time they were seeing a bunch of black actors on a stage giving professional performances in a professionally produced play. That had an impact and in many cases according to where we went, it sparked many ambitions to emulate what they had seen or inspired ambitions that were lying dormant in various individuals. I have letters and stuff that people have sent me to that effect. The difference with us here at our home base is that we’re in competition with the whole cultural scene. We’re not just competing with theatre, we’re competing with everything. Everybody in New York is in competition with everybody else, be it for a job or a lover or sometimes even a patch of sunlight in the park on a Sunday. And let’s be realistic Gus, sitting in the park on a weekend is often more attractive to most people than sitting in a dark theatre with actors going through their stuff. So we’re competing with that. Still, we’re holding our own because of the black audiences we nurtured and developed over the years.
GE: How did you go about that?
DTW: Shit Gus, in all kinds a ways. In the beginning we sought to create them almost from scratch because we trusted them to ignore the show by show recommendations of the opinion makers and support us as an institution dedicated to providing theatrical entertainment culturally embedded in their area of personal interests. And education levels not withstanding they were and are artistically cultivated in the best sense of the word. What I’m saying Gus is that the black audience is the most sophisticated audience in the theatre? By that I mean they don’t bring all of that baggage of educated perception, preconception, predilections and shit when they come to see a play. Most of them anyway. You got to hold their attention. It’s as simple as that. Whatever you doing up there go to hold their motherfucking attention. Oh they’re kind and generous and want to be with you and so forth. But you got to hold their attention. You see, they don’t come in to the theatre and think shit like; “Oh I’m educated, so this is “style B and I’m supposed to like it. Or this avant garde so I’m supposed to respond to it this way.” All that labeling and stuff. The only people who bring that sort of baggage in with them is a minority within that group. The ones I call “the pseudo-black intellectuals”. You know the kind I’m sure. Ironically a lot of them are within the profession themselves. And some who are out of it too. They’re the ones you hear debating about things being “positive” and “negative “and all that stuff. But the regular black public, the cross section of all the classes that attend our shows don’t come in with any of that preconceived stuff. I mean a Gus Edwards play that didn’t have what those people would call a “positive” character in it was Weep Not for Me. I mean you had brother/sister incest going on and the audience loved it. Several came back more than once to see the show. I mean, if I remember well, we had to extend the run.
GE: You did.
DTW: Now they didn’t think;”How dare you show a Black brother getting sexual with his sister and so on. Why? Because it was provocative and it was given dimensional expression. They might not be able to express it in exactly those terms but they know that it wasn’t just up there for itself or any exploitative reason. They accepted it because they don’t expect every play to say everything about black life there is to say. Therefore if this writer’s play is negative, somebody else will be positive. And that’s what has been proven. That you don’t have to look at black art every single instance as having to become a microcosm of every statement or everything. Samm-Art Williams will take care of girl meets boy in a positive and romantic way, Charles Fuller with A Soldier’s Play and Zooman will raise provocative questions that the audience will have to deal with. You will deal with people on the margins of society or even people outside of the conventional moralities. Others will come up with sunshine and roses, others will give us bleakness and maybe doom. When you see them all together you get a cross section and a valid picture. So what our public has come to expect from us is an experience. Over the years they’ve gotten used to the fact that they don’t know what to expect except that it will be a dramatically valid experience. Samm –Art will get them one way, Joe Walker another, Paul Carter Harrison with his educated use of African literary forms mixed with funky black American idiom will engage them differently, you with your amoral outsiders and so on. They’ll accept it all if like I said it’s done with skill and dimension. They won’t always agree with it but they’ll accept it. That’s what I mean by their being so sophisticated. But on the other hand, if you did a provocative play and did it badly then they won’t tolerate it and might even walk out cursing your ass. Take a character like Zooman and all the shit he does in that play. They accept it, why? Because he looks like your son or your nephew or maybe your brother. As played by Giancarlo (Esposito) he looks like the angel next door. But then he comes out with all that fierceness and nihilistic shit but you recognize him still because of the dimensional way the character is written and expressed.
As I’ve said many times before we don’t need the New York Times to tell us if we have a hit or not. Gus, you know, for the most part the people who come to our shows don’t even read reviews. So they’re not swayed by what some motherfucker said one way or another about liking or disliking what we put up. And that puts us at an advantage because they’re not coming here preconditioned to look at the shit in any special way. They just want you to engage them and fuck the rest.
Our audiences Gus, is made up primarily of about 80% black folks and 20% white. Generally the white audiences come when the New York Times gives us a rave review for something. I mean we have some faithful white people who come to everything we do and that’s wonderful. But I’m talking in general.
GE: You also talked about the black audience keeping you culturally honest.
DTW: What is said that with the NEC we needed primarily black audiences because it will keep us culturally honest. You see if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to call us out on it. Sometimes right there in the theatre. They’re going to tell us we’re full of shit and maybe even curse us out. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you what they like and don’t like, what’s true and what’s bullshit. They’ll call it out to you right then and there. They’re not like white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. They speak up and that’s what I like about them.
GE: I’ve seen it. Now tell how you went about finding and developing your audiences.
DTW: We did it in a number of ways. We would go to churches, Community groups and show scenes, offer discounts and so forth. If the play had a Caribbean setting or characters like Derek’s (Walcott) work or Steve Carter’s Nevis Mountain Dew we would go into the Caribbean communities in Brooklyn and places like that. Other times we would find special interest groups or theatre parties. All that worked fine. We even had people who dedicated themselves to getting church groups and social clubs and others to come in theatre parties and so forth. And we would do talk backs with them after the show. If you’ll remember I refused to do it for your show The Offering and some people got mad at me for it. But in the case of that show I felt that a comfortable talk back after that play wasn’t doing them or the play a service. They needed to go and think about it for awhile. If they wanted to come back a week later that would’ve been fine. But not right after the show.
GE: Saying that reminds me of an incident that took place maybe 10 or so years after the play. I was living in Arizona by that time and was visiting New York one summer when this guy stopped me on the street and asked if I was Gus Edwards. When I told him yes, he said that he had been one of a group of black psychiatrists who bought out the show one night and were introduced to me afterwards. He said: “Would you believe, but when we get together as a group we still talk about that show?”
DTW: Sure. That’s why I didn’t want any talkbacks with that one. But going back to how we went after and developed audiences, we went and got them from various places. Youth groups, a lot of poverty programs generally from the most depressed sections. The youth group people used to come, trying to find something to bring these young black teenagers to the theatre as a form of exposing them and finding something else for them to do other than the narrowness of their sitting on a stoop just in their community context. So we had access to a broad diversity context just through the places we went to in search of audiences for our shows. And that to me is important. And I’m sure you’ve heard me say it many times. I always want a cross section in the house. Not just of color but along the social spectrum as well.
GE: Could you elaborate on that for me?
DTW: Okay. okay; let’s taker Broadway for example. How could anybody in the world except the same upper five percent who have the money can even afford to go there? I’m not talking about the content of what’s being presented; I’m just talking about the price of the tickets. You follow what I’m saying?
GE: Uh huh.
DTW: Because of those prices inevitably you have the same group or class of people whether they be tourists or local theatre lovers going on a regular basis. So inevitably what’s done there is going to have to address itself to that group. It’s not necessarily conscious but an understanding of the nature of the public that’s going to pay for it has to in a major way dictate what the producers will choose to put their money into. So what I’m saying is that it can’t separate itself from the public it appeals to. Even its avant garde is forced to function almost in this same elitist vacuum. Whether it’s’ BAM or the New Wave or whoever, who are they playing to? Shit, as an artist, a black artist on Broadway, who the fuck am I playing to? What audience am I playing to? Nothing much, I’ll tell you. Not a goddamn thing. So except for making me personally rich with to have a Broadway quote hit there’s just no reason for me to have a play done there with the ticket prices being what they are. That’s why when we did The River Niger there we insisted that we keep a certain amount of ticket prices down so that they were affordable to our core constituency. We made them the price of what people were paying for movie tickets because we wanted to go directly to the black public and get them to witness what was being presented. In that way our artists write and play to a real public. Because you have to ask yourself; who are those others playing to? They don’t think that because they want to idealize their audience. They want to think that everybody wants to come out and see a play by Shaw. That everybody wants to be cultured in some way. That’s bullshit of course. Fuck being cultured. Who are they playing to? Who is the work impacting on? The critic for the New York Times? Who is this art for, the elitist five percent? Look, when we went to Broadway, we the Negro Ensemble Company my only question was, my biggest question was always;’ Look okay, I don’t mind going to Broadway as long as being on Broadway gives me access for a longer run that will allow me to reach and expand upon the public that I already set out to reach.
GE: And who are they?
DTW: As I said before primarily black people and a significant amount of white people who are interested and so forth. But when I talk about a cross section, I’m talking about construction workers, cab drivers, char women, nurses, grocery clerks, custodial people, postal workers and so on. You know what I’m saying. In that way at least we’ll be interacting with something that’s real. A real public and not one that homogenous. And when I say homogenous I’m talking in terms of the white theatre because they’re playing to the upper class elite. Even in their intellectual posture, who are these intellectual consumers? The ones who are more daring to sit and experience the avant garde shit? It’s a section of the same elitist five percent…At the NEC our audience cut across all economic class lines. Our biggest advantage is that we’ve been able to deal with a real public. A real public are people who whatever way we’ve impacted on them has been real. They have not been restricted to one class; say the professional class for instance. Our audiences have cut across all economic lines. So that anybody can independently pay the relatively cheap prices that we have. Those people who have jobs, let’s say. But in the early days, I mean even that wasn’t so. There were poverty programs and we had and still give theatre parties. As a result, our artists write and our actors play to a real public. Another question; who the fuck are the American theatre public? Gus, if I was sentenced to playing to the Broadway audience that I’m talking about I’d be bored to death. I would be depressed after two weeks. The only think I might be looking at is my paycheck and in that way I might survive. But psychologically, artistically I would be hungry and starving. When we were on the road with A Soldier’s Play we couldn’t change their theatre system therefore we were playing in theatres with 90% white audiences who were subscribers. But by the middle of the run we were always able to get in some black people from the community. In a lot of those places they were 100% sold out and therefore we didn’t have much leeway to get others. But at The Goodman in Chicago we had like 60% subscribers therefore the other 40% we had access to. As a result by two and a half weeks into the run the majority of the audiences were black. Once they finished with their subscriptions that gave us access. I don’t mind dealing with that. I don’t even mind playing to 100% because once in a while you’re going to be stuck with that. But then if you’re going to say that’s going to be your way of life then I would have to say; “Man can’t we get some of our own folks in here?”…You know, I probably talk this shit more than anybody else because I haven’t seen anybody else talking about it, asking the question; “Who the fuck are you playing to?”
Now most companies seem to be happy to get an audience period. And whether that audience provides any vitality or feedback, any dialogue, any interaction with the source material doesn’t seem to matter much or any at all with them. But if you go back to our original mandate we said that we have to play to an audience who will tell us something, whether we’re good or whether we’re speaking to them.
Commentary : this is an excerpt from Doug’s original article in The New York Times.
But for the Negro playwright committed to examining the contours, contexts, and depths of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other negroes , better informed through a commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm, or reject the truth or falsity of his creative explorations. Not necessarily an all black audience to the exclusion of whites, but for the playwright, certainly his primary audience, the first person of his address, potentially the most advanced, the most responsive or the most critical. Only through their initial and continuous participation can his intent and purpose be best perceived by others. 8-14-66
DTW: And Gus, I’m not talking about this fucked up idea that Utopia shit that they’re necessarily going to tell us the right thing. I mean, sometimes they will tell us some shit that I will argue about. I’ll say: “You’re full of shit. You’re reacting that way because you’ve been conditioned in a fucking way that you know is wrong.” Yes I will argue with them but then there’s a real dialogue going on between the artist and the public. Not that we’re going to accept all their responses but we’re in communication with each other. It’s like I’ve always said, you have an obligation to the artist and you have an obligation to the public. A lot of times what I’ve found over the years is thankfully with the black public that obligation to the two sides have been harmonious. That to serve one had been to serve the other. But in a specific amount of instances you have to make the decision that my responsibility is to the artist. And I will not flinch to say: “Look, wait a minute, you’re not used to this but this artist is coming from a valid point of view. And since you’re not conditioned or your conditioning have been made crude by looking at soap operas or whatever you’re bringing some lazy habits that are preventing you from giving this audience
a hearing. What you desire and what you may claim is in opposition to what the audience is telling you therefore I, as Artistic Director will have to weigh that.” But as I said thankfully here you find those instances with the not over sentimentalized plays where the audience and work have been on the same wavelength. Plays like Niger or Louie and Ophelia. But with your other play The Offering, there we had the Ladies of Westchester almost quit the NEC because we weren’t going to talk about it because I knew that to talk about it in the way they wanted to talk about it was going to deny the value of the experience. That by talking about it they wanted to talk some bullshit and I knew they didn’t need to talk they just had to digest the work and throw it up maybe. But at least that would have been a real response. So it’s not a question of dealing with the public from their rightness or wrong. But that there’s an interaction with some real people who have a spontaneous response to it that’s more varied than just what we know the theatre gets from its five percent. And the truth is that it’s not even five percent, it’s the top, top five of that.
GE: I want to go back to that statement you made about the black audience being the most sophisticated audience in the world.
DTW: Because Gus, they don’t come to the theatre with that so called educated bullshit of putting plays into categories before they can respond to it. This is a farce; therefore I must react this way. This is a melodrama so I must have this response or whatever. In my 20 years of running the NEC in spite of what the critics say or choose to ignore we have put up every kind of play you can think of and the audience were never confused or alienated by the so called style in which it was written and presented. Their only response had to do with how well done it was and how engaged they were with it. I mean, look at our list and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I listed them here in the article here that the Times refused to print… Okay, Bogey, political in content, epic Brechtian in form, Kongi’s Harvest, Indigenous African in content, verse pageant in style, Man Better Man, Caribbean in locale, folk verse musical, The Reckoning, hyperbolic surrealism, The Great Mac Daddy, An Afro musical allegorical odyssey, Dream on Monkey Mountain, epic classicist poetic drama, Livin’ Fat, The Redeemer and Waiting for Mongo, farce and black satire, Daughters of the Mock, A Season to Unravel and Puppetplay, womanist in content, surreal, poetic, gothic and neoclassicist, your stuff The Offering, Manhattan Made Me and Weep Not for Me, bleak, sardonic meta realism, The Brownsville Raid, A Soldier’s Play, historio-real, Home, lyric folk impressionist, In an Upstate Motel, surreal, existential, Zooman, a social realist parable and all the rest. They’ve dealt with them, responded to them and never once questioned the style or form.
GE: We’ve talked about the black audience to a large extent but what about the white audience?
DTW: Let’s see, when we talk about the white audience we have to know and accept the fact that when we talk about them we’re talking about a very fragment of them from a demographical class. The white theatre audience is essentially upper middle class, generally educated in various ways and very restricted and limited in ways, behavioral ways I’m talking about. Their spontaneity has been interfered with or in a sense stifled to a certain extent. Their reception is generally internalized and cerebralized more than it is spontaneous. We’ve talked about the spontaneous response of the black audience but beyond that generally the black audience is broadened even among itself. It’s a wider class. I mean you will find a cleaning woman in a black audience.
GE: But not in a white audience?
DTW: If you do, it’s rare.
On Critics and Criticism
GE: We’ve talked about this before but I’d like to get it down on tape if you don’t mind.
GE: Critics, reviewers, whatever.
DTW: Well you know, my feeling about critics, whether they are necessary or not, like those award meritocracy things they do, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. But hell Gus, in my experience, I find that in the main, critics and reviewers don’t usually do that. They don’t do it for the mainstream work coming out of the majority culture and are at an even greater disadvantage when looking at or attempting to assess Black theatre. The majority of critics looking at black plays come to it from a reductionist perspective. In other words they try to reduce the dimension and the achievement in many of the black plays they see by trying to fit them some old fashioned Ibsenite , Eurocentric unit of size, and importance and everything else.
GE: Why do you think that is?
DTW: Because when it comes to black theatre and what we at the NEC were doing they were usually two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. And it wasn’t just because 99% of them were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on stage could be brought by anyone by anyone of any color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and the lives and practices of the lives being presented on stage. It’s just that I is very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from their own background and culture. And since they hardly know that how the hell are they going to know anything about ours? So early on I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.
Now saying that, as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from several of those critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole this was not generally true…Understand now that I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to. I talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were fucking enthusiastic about. To me, frequently the angle they were coming from in dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed only able to deal with things they could label with terms like “the black protest play” or “the family drama”. The problem is that of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and appraise some of the works that we were doing.
I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as artistic director or actor or director or writer I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Gus, I’m saying that very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say; “Oh that’s right. I know so and so’s right about this.” And I can make it better or improve on it because they pointed it out to me. There were a few times when the critics were helpful on that level, but not very often.
GE: I’m not clear, on what level?
DTW: On the level of being the middle person to their own public. From a pragmatic perspective they could be helpful because after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. With the black audience only residually so. That is because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC it wasn’t that significant.
DTW: Because the NEC had from the start succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never much affected by whether the NY Times, Post or Daily News like our shows or not.
GE: I know that’s true because my play Weep Not for Me which didn’t get any kind of encouraging review in the daily papers was still popular with the NEC audience. So much so that you extended the run.
DTW: Yes. The people loved that show with all that incest and shit going on. And they didn’t bring all that positive and negative shit to it either. They just knew that they were looking at some crazy motherfucker making the best of a crazy situation and they were enjoying it. Shit, we had some playwrights I had to ban from the theatre because them motherfuckers were coming every night and sitting up in the balcony just to watch the shit and laugh. You know who I’m talking about.
GE: Yes, I do.
DTW: They were having a good time so shit they were coming every night. And that’s how it was with the audience.
GE: I remember when you extended it and I asked you why, because I guess based on the reviews I didn’t think it was any world shaker. You said to me;”Gus the people want to see the play. I wouldnt’ve extended it if that wasn’t the case.”
DTW: That’s true. And that wasn’t the only time that happened over and over with different plays.
GE: I know.
DTW: But going back to my original point, it isn’t that black people don’t read or depend on the newspapers for information. Things like discovering a play was there, that it opened and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity, these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented. They liked what they were seeing and the fact that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. That’s why they came, not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion –maker’s advice. So with a rave in the Times the percentage of our white audience would go up for those plays. But that wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.
GE: So what would you say is the ideal function of the critic?
DTW: The ideal function of criticism, I think, would have been to give us outside views to rely on more than our inside, subjective knowledge to depend on. That’s why I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I’m sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.
GE: Why do you think that is?
DTW: Several reasons. One seems to be that as soon as we had say a hundred black writers striving to write most of that energy was going into the tributary or river of creativity. Or put another way, works of imaginative creativity. So many of the people who I thought might evolve into major critics went that way.
GE: Like whom for instance?
DTW: Well Larry Neal for one. He had done enough work in that area that he had a volume of his comments published. I always wanted to encourage Larry to at least concentrate on his critical writing. And by doing that he didn’t have to give up on his creative writing aspirations. But I always wanted him to at least continue regularly to develop his critical output because the quality of his mind, his insights and so forth, his lack of narrow subjectivity equipped him in becoming a major commentator and critic for what we were doing creatively. But Larry wanted to concentrate on his own creative writing. He wasn’t interested in putting that amount of time that I would have liked into his critical writing. But he’s just one example. There’s a lot of creative writers out there that if we had cultivated or had the time or leisure to put into it would’ve been fine. And then we would have had a number of good critical writers. The problem is what we did finally wind up with; many of those who got the shot had too many subjective axes to grind. The one who was at the Times for a while –
GE: Who was that?
DTW: I don’t want to get into names. But what I’m saying is that he had so many likes and dislikes that were so obviously subjective determined that suddenly I didn’t think that his reviews were insightful or reflective enough of an objective outlook. I’ll give you an example what I’m talking about. He, this same critic, made some snide remarks about two of the actresses in Ceremonies, the original production that I almost wanted to protest very sharply because he wrote a whole paragraph about what being a woman was not. Saying that Ros (Rosalind Cash) was not being a woman which had nothing to do with the review. He also never revealed the fact that just before the last workshop of the play was done he had been an actor in it. This was one I was not involved with. This was done at some college in Staten Island I think. Now I’m not saying that this disqualifies you from reviewing the play. But as a reviewer myself I would have probably in the first or second paragraph reveal my own personal involvement in it for the reader to at least see where I’m coming from. Then you can accept or not accept what I say, but at least you know that I was being totally open with you. I would say “I’m going to talk about a Gus Edwards play. But first I want to say that Gus Edwards is a friend of mine.” And then go on from there but he didn’t do that. So it undercut his objectivity and whatever he had tom say so far as I was concerned.
GE: But you did try to develop some black critics didn’t you?
DTW: Yes, we tried with that thing we did when we presented Niger.
GE: I think you told me once that an intelligent balance for black theatre was: A) the production of the play B) a majority black audience to witness and experience the play, and C) black critics to analyze the work. Is that correct?
DTW: Yes. And to that end we sought out a majority black audience for all our plays. The reason Gus, is that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to catch us and point it out. And maybe curse you out too. The black audience ain’t shy about telling you full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. Our folks speak up and that’s what’s wonderful about them.
GE: Now as I recall, in your search of a representative audience at each performance you guys went so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order that they would go specifically to African Americans who might come later. Right?
DTW: Yes, that’s true. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them we would have a house that was maybe 90% white folks and 10% black. This was because most of our folks don’t read reviews and come out of spontaneous response or word-of- mouth. As a result they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to insure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty/fifty I asked the box office people to hold back fifty or sixty for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up that sign that all tickets were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling that black people that we had seats for them. I did it because I felt that it was important to have them in the audience for all the reasons that I just explained.
GE: I know that part about word-of- mouth is true because I was in Boston doing a show when A Soldier’s Play opened here. I was staying at this hotel were a lot of other black folks, mostly theatre people, were staying and the next morning over breakfast all I heard was about this terrific new show that the NEC had just opened with all these handsome men walking around on stage without their shirts, that they all wanted to see. This was coming from the women but a definite buzz was in the air. And I don’t remember anybody ever mentioning that it had also gotten good reviews. Just that it was a great show and there were a lot of handsome men on stage…Anyway, I want to go back to the part about getting black critics to review the shows and what you tried with The River Niger.Can you elaborate on that for me?
DTW: What I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that black theatre now exists. And because it does we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper we needed to come up with a way of making sure that our black critics’ opinions were occurring. So when The River Niger opened I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways magazine, Joseph Opaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press, Lindsay Patterson, editor of the book Black Theatre: A 20th Century Collection of its best Plays and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence magazine. They were invited under the proviso that what they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play. Their opinions were their own; we would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given had to do with word count. This was because we had bought a certain amount of space in the New York Times to print their reviews and as I remember it wasn’t cheap. But even then a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. So if you go back and look at the way they are printed you’ll see that we had to use three different of type of print -face in order to make them fit. But still the black critics were represented. The irony of course is that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say Mel Gussow’s review in the New York Times. So it was obvious that those reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying for them.
GE: Why the New York Times?
DTW: Because in terms of theatre criticism they are the most influential. They have the largest circulation and readership. I wanted the black critics to reach the same audience. They are the paper of record. I wanted to give these black critics the same exposure as the white critics.
Commentary. The top of the space in the New York Times read: The Negro Ensemble, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black theatre criticism presents the opinion the opinion of four Black reviewers invited to appraise its Tuesday December 5th opening night performance of Joseph Walker’s play The River Niger… The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space.
DTW: We did it again with Charles’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep. This was in ’74. That time the critics invited were Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American magazine and Lindsey Patterson. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinion would be given a hearing in a regular way not just in a weekly or monthly paper or magazine but in a daily newspaper. But we ran out of money and I couldn’t get any grant money to continue it. We wrote proposals but we were turned down. But if I had gotten the money I would‘ve done it for every play. I mean fuck Gus, I even a particular black writer who doesn’t function as a critic but he sometimes comments on cultural matters. And I said; look I would like you to come see this show because I’m doing something with music that I don’t think the other critics, good or bad, are going to grasp but you might have some sensitivity about where the spectrum of how the music fits due to your familiarity of the culture and your writing about it. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily agree with me or I with him but at least he would know where I was coming from with that stuff.
GE: What about other black theatres, could you have partnered with them?
DTW: Gus, we made inquiries but the other theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested or weren’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important. You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say 20 or 25 years from now in search of history or research they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen. But the primary effort was to break the tyranny or monopoly of the critical point of view coming only from totally white critics and set a precedent. But I’ll tell you if we had succeeded and had been able to keep on doing it I’m sure that the newspapers would’ve rejected it after a while because they would have seen it as being competitive with their own opinion in that sense.
GE: In other words, as Langston Hughes put it that was: “Another dream deferred.”
DTW: Yes, I guess you could say that.
In Conversations with Douglas Turner Ward
NEC History – Part 2
GE: I want to ask you about the New York Times article (American Theatre: For Whites Only). If you had any idea about why they asked you to write the article besides the fact that you had the two one act plays running?
DTW: Well basically it was Howard Atley, our publicist for Day of Absence, who initiated the idea. Howard made the initial contact with the Times. But the one who made it happen was the editor of that paper’s Sunday Cultural section, a man named Sy Peck who died tragically a few years ago. He was killed in an auto accident on the West Side highway. Him and his wife were coming back from the theatre and got hit by another car. It was really a tragic thing. I was one of the people at the memorial who eulogized him, also Dave Rosenthal, the editor of the paper at that time and Joe Papp, they eulogized him too. I consider him completely responsible for getting the article in the paper. He was sympathetic towards the proposal and sympathetic towards the potential of a non-majority voice being heard.
GE: I want to also ask if with the production of Day of Absence and Happy Ending doing so well commercially, was there a feeling that perhaps beyond the run of the plays you and Bob might take the idea of producing more black plays just the way you had done with Day of Absence?
DTW: I guess or I assume that the idea was always there. Bobby, at the time, had developed his Group Workshop and had become a producer also and I know that Bobby had intended on developing the Workshop and continuing to produce. So that was there. And I by that time already knew that my fate in the theatre depended on a specialized type of theatre and the development of a public for it. Well, let’s put it this way. Since the growth and development of my personal convictions had always been involved with alternative channels and with dissidents, social and political outlaws you might say, it never occurred to me at all that I had much future in conventional or mainstream theatre. So I knew that what was not going to happen. Therefore, I wasn’t even much interested in it. Because by that time, I was making a living in the theatre as an actor. I had no problem acting in commercial theatre and making money. But I knew as a writer, that that was hardly going to be the case. So it was my aspiration. You see, I knew that my creative ideas didn’t fit the mainstream idea of theatre. And to a certain extent, they didn’t fit the Off-Broadway scene either. You see, that was being influenced by what I call an imitation of European Absurdist style and I knew that there was no room for me there. So the idea of black-based theatre or the NEC was just in the norm of my thinking. In fact, some years later, while I was doing The River Niger in California, after a matinee performance this middle-aged white lady who had seen the show waited until I came out and said “I thought you’d like to have this”. She gave me this brown envelope. I opened it and there was this magazine that Lorraine Hansberry and I were involved with called Challenge. This was the only issue that ever came out. Anyway, I open it up and there was an article by me talking about Negro culture and almost word-for-word it was the program that was later written for the NEC. I had forgotten totally about it. I had written it when I was twenty-three years old, but it said everything I had wanted to say about the state of blacks in theatre and what was needed.
Now for some reason I haven’t been able to find it. I been looking for it in all my possessions. I know it’s somewhere because I read this and said “Goddamn this sounds like my final proposal for the NEC”. Because as I said, there I was at twenty three writing about what was needed for blacks and for the development of black culture in the theatre. Finally, those became the elements for the article in the New York Times.
Now I want to explain. When I wrote the article, I was really hoping that it would effect and influence and maybe attract some attention toward creating an institution like I was talking about in the article. What I didn’t necessarily think is that we, Bobby and myself, would be the ones who’d be asked to make such a company happen. Each of us career wise had no real need for this. Bobby was getting ready to go away to co-star in the film Hurry Sundown (1967), Gerry Krone, who became part of the triumvirate, had his very successful Off-Broadway management company to run and I was making a living as an actor. Now it wasn’t a big living but I had reached a point where I could reasonable depend on making enough money to qualify for unemployment from time to time. That would have been alright with me. So what I’m saying is my ambition to act long enough to qualify for unemployment for say half a year would give me that time to write, if I managed it right. So, we didn’t need to create an organization and wasn’t even thinking about it as far as I can remember. The article was written because I wanted to get some thoughts said, things that needed to be said I thought, and that was it. Next question.
GE: I want to continue with you on this a little while longer.
DTW: You have the floor and this is your tape machine.
GE: Alright then. Let me get this straight. You wrote the article and the Ford Foundation called you in how soon after? A day? A week?
DTW: No. What happened was a set of very fortuitous circumstances. It came through a childhood friend of my wife Diana. For some reason, we had gone to New Haven and met this friend of hers. Ray was his name. Him and his wife were going to Yale Law School I think. So, we met, and it turned out that no too long after he was working for the Rockefeller organization in a key position in their foundation. Now by this time, we had become friends. In fact, he had either rented or leased a townhouse belonging to Harrison Salisbury, the great New York Times correspondent. And at some time after the article, Ray had a dinner party at his house.
Now as I said, he was working for Rockefeller and the people in these various foundations knew what each was doing and what interests were being expressed in the corridors of their power structure. So when Diana and I went to the dinner party, Ray informed me that he had heard through the grapevine that a.) my article was causing a lot of discussion and b.)that McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation was very struck by it and was interested in talking to me. “Give him a call”, Ray said, “I mean I think if you call he will probably want to talk to you.” So it was through Ray I then called Mac Lowry and immediately he said “Yes, I would love to talk to you”.
The first meeting was between Mac and me. Then there were later meeting when we went further into our discussion and Bobby and Gerry were both brought into the picture. Then he asked us to submit a proposal. “What kind of proposal?” we asked. “A proposal that would allow you to create an organization that would address the kinds of things that you talked about in the article.”
GE: Was he asking you to write a proposal to get grant money?
DTW: Gus, what the fuck else do foundations do? They give money in case you haven’t heard.
GE: Thank you for clarifying that.
DTW: Anyway, after the second meeting he says “Ok”, he said, “Would you entertain making a proposal?” And we said, “Yes we would”. Then he made a provocative statement, offering to perhaps give a grant jointly perhaps to us and some other group. Almost immediately all of us said no. I remember saying to Mac, “Look. If you decide to give the money to any other group with a purpose similar to this, I will support them in every way. And even volunteer and offer up my services to help them get started. But I will not be officially involved with another group because even if we are sympathetic to their aims, there’s no way that we can share common vision. In other words, give it to them or give it to us.”
GE: Why did you say that?
DTW: Because I knew how I felt and also because I had observed other people in these other kinds of projects and they never got much of anything done besides a lot of talking. As a matter of fact, Mac Lowry had even given seed money to some other group to study the same situation and so forth. And when I met Mac, he was frustrated because he said “They haven’t made any decisions about anything at all. They haven’t reached the point where they’re going to be active in any kind of way.” So what I’m saying is I think he liked us because we were activists. We were not interested in waiting to build a building. We didn’t want to create an edifice. We didn’t have the time. We all felt that if we were going to do something, the idea would be to do it right away, get it stabilized, then leave and go back to our own priorities and our own individual directions.
Finally when he asked us to draw up the proposal, we said “This shit is for real. The likelihood is that if we come up with something specific, they’re really going to consider giving us this money.” So I began to talk with Bobby and Gerry and said “Ok now if we did it this way, what would it entail in the area of money? How many productions could we reasonably do for this amount? And so forth.” So that’s how it began. We wrote it down on our napkins and ultimately formalized it into a proposal.
GE: And you gave it to Mac Lowry and he gave you the money.
DTW: Yes. And there was another key moment after we got it. Because we realized that this would absorb at least two years of our lives. I mean, for our own reasons, in order for us to do this project right, we had to suspend at least two years of our individual careers and career goals. And Gus, I will tell you, it was that point where we sat down, and the world will never realize that at this supposedly moment of triumph, we were almost in a state of depression, saying “What the fuck have we gotten ourselves into? Do you realize that this shit is going to be a significant part of our lives in terms of not days and months but years?” And for me it was even worse because I had to commit more time than the other two. You see, when McNeil Lowry asked the question “Who is going to be in charge of the shop?” he also said “You’re a wonderful team but like Doug said committees don’t work. So who is going to be in charge of the shop on an everyday basis?” The answer was obvious. Because at the time, I was the only one who within the context of my priorities could do it. I mean, in no way could Bobby suddenly abandon the priority of his acting career, which had always been the centerpiece of his existence. And Gerry as I said had this very successful theatre management company to run. In fact, I don’t think Gerry realized how gradually the NEC would usurp as much of his life as it did. At the time of the proposal, he was going to fit it in but continue what he was doing so successfully as well. So it was obvious that I was the one who was going to be responsible on a day-to-day basis.
Gus you have to understand, the Ford Foundation wasn’t going to give us the money and say “Yes Bobby you can go away for six months and do a movie. And yes Gerry you can handle fifteen other Broadway shows and work with this other company part time. And Doug, you can go off and spend six months writing your own plays or acting in whatever you want to and then come back when you feel like it.” No, they weren’t going to say that. The question they asked was Who’s going to run the shop? So that was the point where I knew that I was the one. And it was also obvious that this was going to change and occupy our lives and thoughts for an extended period of time. Little did I know that in my case it would be nearly thirty years. In the beginning, I sorta gave myself a good five years and hoped for three. But it didn’t work out that way, as you well know.
Once we came to that realization, the first thing we did was began to define how each of us would function.
GE: Had you decided on a name?
DTW: Yes. I had decided that we would call ourselves The Negro Ensemble Company. Negro, because I wanted to tell everyone through the name what the content of our material would be all about. And Ensemble, because I wanted us to be an ensemble of actors, writers, designers, and what have you, like the Berliner Ensemble.
GE: But why the word “Negro”?
DTW: Because at the time, that’s the word black folks or African-Americans if you like, were describing themselves. There was no shame attached to the word then nor do I feel there should be any attached to it now. If anything, the black folks I knew took pride in being described as Negroes. My father did and so did I.
GE: Let’s go back to the forming of the organization and how each of you would function.
DTW: Well, we thought and thought about it, that since Bobby through his Group Workshop was the catalyst of all this, he would be the Executive Director and assume production responsibility. In other words, the broader overall job of representing the institution to the public. He had already demonstrated his talent for doing this in a variety of ways.
Then you had me, who for lack of a better phrase was the visionary. You know, the idea person. In actual terms, the one who had the artistic ideas and skills to carry out those functions. But what we lacked was the third piece of the puzzle and that was a Business Administrator and Manager. Someone who knew the nuts and bolts of how to handle the money and the other mountain of concerns that any organization of this kind must address. And that’s where Gerry came in. He had the skills, he also had the experience. We needed his expertise if we were going to make this thing work in a business-like way, you know, like paying the rent on time, budgeting the various aspects of our programs, and all the other shit that goes into running a theatre company.
GE: What about Lonnie Elder? I thought he was there at the beginning with you guys as well?
DTW: He was. Lonnie was a close friend. But he wasn’t an organizer in the sense we’re talking about. Lonnie was a playwright and that’s all he wanted to concern himself about. So we made him Director of the Playwright’s Workshop. His abilities and talents were not organizational, they were creative, and that’s why we put him there.
See Gus, the minute it was announced that we had received the grant people who were creatively connected with us in one way or another felt that they equally deserved to be involved. But what they didn’t seem to understand is that we were building a professional organization that was going to have both creative and practical elements to it. This was not about giving jobs to our friends. In our minds this was about creating an ongoing professional black theatre…If we were just looking for friendship and equal contribution on some level as a reason for creating the NEC there were many people who might’ve been included but were weren’t. As I said before were creating, or I should say trying to create a professional black theatre organization, and we were very serious about it.
See, because of my previous experience with groups, cultural and otherwise I knew that this was not going to be an organization with a board making all kinds of decisions creative and otherwise. One of the things I had told Mac Lowry almost from the beginning is that I was not a committee person. Other people might be. Other people can work in that way but I couldn’t. I wasn’t interested in committee theatre and I’m still not. I’m not interested in five or ten people getting together and voting. Voting on anything and everything involved in running a theatre. You’re never going to get anything done that way. It’s going to lead to evasions of responsibility, to hemming and hawing over making important decisions, to arguments due to different points of view and all kinds of other delays etc. No. for better or worse we were going to be a three person organization autonomous unto ourselves. That angered a lot of people that we knew who as I said, felt that they should be involved. But we were not here to start a friendship club. We were trying to build a durable organization and these other people just didn’t fit into that view of things. I had no irritation or animosity about it. That’ was just the way it was, so I took on my shoulder the responsibility of answering all those questions to the people we knew. It was the burden I had assumed when I said that I would be to one in charge on a day to day basis. There were writers, actors and others who I knew were going to be angry with me, if not now later on, for not including them. Because they for their own reasons thought that when the NEC came into business it would automatically become a conduit for doing all the existing plays that these writers had been trying to get done for years. The plays that the white majority theatre companies and producers had either looked at and rejected or just ignored. That since we’re into doing black plays the NEC would become a dumping ground for these works no matter how good or bad they were. That “Oh a black producing institution. Now my play’s going to get done” kind of thinking. And the fact that I didn’t do them have made any number of people, many who were formerly friends, mad at me ever since. But I don’t have any negative feelings toward them. That was the burden of responsibility that I had assumed. And through that, as Artistic Director, I had to be honest about my own taste and my own direction about what I felt would help to give this new institution its best shot.
But back to your question, Lonne for his own career reasons, didn’t want to be anchored too closely to an organization such as ours. Where we put him was where he fit, and he was happy with that.
GE: Before we go on, let me ask you this. Right after you got the money you decided that you would do a show within four months which is awfully fast. How did that come about?
DTW: Well you have to realize that at this time Gus, we were not… see the thing is ,well I guess that it’s hard for people to understand, but we were young and each had other things we wanted to do. Other priorities. Other things we wanted to do with our careers, so we couldn’t wait. If we had to wait around to develop a whole idea of getting something done over a year it wouldn’t have happened. We didn’t have time for that. I would’ve, all of us would’ve said: “Wait this is going to take too much time.” All of us would’ve felt that we were wasting our valuable time creatively. We didn’t feel we had time to sit there and .plan something for a year or two years in advance. If we were going to do it we had to move along and get the thing done now.
GE: Alright, so you’ve got your organization together, offices, rehearsal spaces, dressing rooms, and two theatres (a black box space upstairs and a mainstage space down stairs). So now the next step is getting a group of actors together and forming a company, am I right?
DTW: Yes. That’s an over simplification but yes.
GE: So where did you get the idea for getting the company in that particular way?
DTW: I mentioned The Berliner Ensemble model before. But there were a lot of other influences. I knew for example about the existence of a lot of other companies and how they operated more or less. And ironically the American free market commercial theatre was at the time and still to a large extent now an anachronism to most of the world’s approach to creating and maintaining a theatrical organization. The Berliner Ensemble was greatly influential because of its international reputation and the results of its work and so forth. But it wasn’t like they were exceptions. They were the norm. In Germany, Russia, Britain and other countries at the time had theatre companies created in this model. So the business of bringing together a company in this way was sort of a routine format actually and not something unique or particularly innovative. At least it wasn’t to me.
GE: But it was unique for here in the US wasn’t it?
DTW: Yes. And in many instances some of the early descriptions in the press treated the structure of the company like it was unique because we were one of the first real companies to come together in this way. And because we came together and did it so quickly. I mean Lincoln Center had that company that Kazan and those others put together. But all these other groups and all those other efforts had floundered and here we were coming along with not only a company but even consciously using the word “Ensemble” in our name as an indication that we would be a company, a collective where everyone would be equal. Where there would be no layers of status or hierarchy. The fact is we were too small to have any rings of status or any layers of apprenticeship. We had fifteen actors and all were equal to each other. The only distinction of work was going to be determined according to the nature of the plays and what they required casting wise. But of course as Artistic Director I always had to program and keep in mind selecting plays that would maintain an equitable utilization of people because I knew that you couldn’t have and I didn’t want a company where a third of the actors would let’s say play leads while the other two thirds provided support. I don’t care how many people you have, fifteen, thirty or fifty. There is no way in the world that a company can develop as an ensemble unless all of its members are satisfied that within a range of choices they were being utilized in an equitable fashion.
GE: Sounds sensible. Next question: Did they, the actors, know the group of plays you were selecting from? And did they have any say in the selection of what was going to be done?
DTW: Gus, when I talked with the Ford Foundation people I told them “Look I have too much experience and have been connected with too many attempts to create theatres of one kind or another to fall into the trap of a democratic theatre. I knew that whether it was me or whoever the fuck it was that you don’t create a theatre by community. There is no democracy in the business of artistic choices. You have to be not so much a dictator but the one who takes responsibility for the final choices. And particularly for the errors that are made. And one lesson that I already knew and have always maintained in terms of theatre is, everybody shares in the success of a theatre company or unit. But when it fails or what you do is perceived as a failure, then somebody has to carry the weight. At the NEC I chose to carry that weight. And since I was I had to be assured that whatever artistic decisions were made had to be mine. That had nothing to do with people suggesting things or plays to me. I was open to advice and suggestions and everything else but the final fucking decision was always mine.
GE: So even the idea at the beginning of bringing in teachers for the actors employed was all your idea? Or was that something you discussed with Bobby and Gerry?
DTW: Look, by the time we gave the Ford Foundation our proposal we knew who and what areas we each would specifically deal with. The artistic and training decisions were considered part of my job. So it was my decision and my responsibility.
GE: So, let me get this straight, the main thrust of your idea was that you wanted to create a professional company. You said that in the New York Times article. A professional company with the emphasis on the word “professional”?
DTW: Right. And that’s where the shit gets fucked up. I keep telling people that that’s where things got all messed up because we allowed the power structure to throw black theatre into one general mix called “Black Theatre” which made no distinction between Community, Regional and professional. It all got thrown into the same hamper. Then we allowed the power structure to make judgments as if there was an equality between them as far as money went. And some of those community theatre companies were stupid enough to think they should be competing with the NEC to get money when they weren’t dealing with budgets that had anything to do with professional standards. Now we could be here for years talking about the merits of good and bad. About the abilities of a high school kid who has more talent than some veteran actor with an Equity card for thirty years. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about who’s good and who’s bad. I mean somebody might come up to me and say for example: “My theatre in wherever did a production of The First Breeze of Summer” let’s say, “And it was better than the one you did on Broadway.” So the question becomes “What’s the fucking difference?”…Well Gus, the difference is the one on Broadway is professional. And why is it professional? Because the actors and other people involved with that production on Broadway were putting their lives, their livelihood, and their careers on the line every time they go up there on that stage. Good or bad their professional reputations are at risk. With community theatre no matter how good you are or how bad for that matter the scrutiny brought to the enterprise has nothing to do with putting your career on the line or being judged as to whether somebody is going to pay fifty or a hundred dollars to see you. So how the hell could those other companies consider themselves equal to the NEC when everything the NEC did required that people pay for the privilege of attending. With community theatre a lot of the times the actors will get their relatives and friends to come and tell us how good and wonderful we are. But with professional theatre even when we get our friends and relatives to come generally they have to pay and generally have the right to tell if they thought we were good or bad and if they felt that they wasted their time and money in coming.
Gus, all I mean is when I say “professional” from the start is that this was not a word addressing like or dislike. It was controlled by the practices of a profession where people were being hired professionally to undergo professional scrutiny and the risk on that level which meant their life or death about whether they made a living or not.
GE: To reiterate your comment in the Times’ article:”A theatre of excellence, black in content but completely professional”. I’m interpret ring to mean that you were interested in sending in demonstrating that black people were capable of doing work of that kind on the best possible level.
DTW: Gus again, whatever the criteria is it has to be controlled and determined by some standard. Now we all know that when we say professional in anything ,professional teaching, professional doctor, professional dog walkers that there are mother fuckers out there who are so bad at what they do that it stumps the imagination how they ever they ever got that far. But still you got to have some standard. Some standard by which you can kick the sonofabitch out of the profession. Being an artist of course the standards are a little more inexact but there are levels of criteria. So therefore I always tell people that in my estimation, the failure of a professional production is superior to the greatest achievement of a non professional play. I don’t care whether that non professional production in many instances had better results in specific areas. Now I could go out and hire somebody, a non professional, and work with them until they are able to face up to the baptism of professionalism, like the baptism of war. But until they went through that process I couldn’t say that that person who might’ve been great in a community theatre production of let’s say the Grandmother in The River Niger is a true professional. And I wouldn’t hire her until she was baptized to the point where she could go out there eight times a week and not lose her voice when faced with the scrutiny of a paying public that might put her through something where her nervousness or what have you might completely unravel her.. You see Gus, at that level there is no safety net or safety valve under those circumstances. In community theatre there is not as much at stake therefore the pressure isn’t as great. People don’t seem to understand that. Even the not so great actors who have been acting professionally for say 50 years are on a certain level that is way beyond the community theatre level… And that is the kind of level minimally we were working to achieve with the ensemble.
GE: So how did you go about selecting the actors that would be a part of this collective?
DTW: Well the early group was selected from people I already knew. People like Francis Foster who were essentially already veteran actors. Esther Rolle I knew from Day of Absence and Happy Ending. Others were actors I had worked with in various productions. Clarice Taylor for instance I remembered from a marvelous play called Nocturnal, I think. Lloyd Richards was in that same play I remember. I had also seen her in a play called Never for Willy in which she was absolutely stunning. So I sought her out and invited her to join us. Rosalind Cash I knew but I hadn’t seen too much of her work. The truth is I don’t even remember if I auditioned her or not. I may have just invited her. Hattie Winston, who was just 20 years old at the time, I knew because she had been in Bobby’s workshop. Denise Nicholas was someone I had hired as my secretary when the NEC first came into being. I knew that she was an aspiring actress and had even seen her in something at the Jefferson Memorial. She had also been with The Free Southern Theatre but I didn’t know too much about her as an actress. When I finally auditioned her I was pleasantly surprised. Still, like Hattie she needed a lot of work. But both were in their early 20s and we needed people in that age range.
The one that I took straight from an audition was Judy Ann Johnson who later became Judy Ann Elder after she married Lonne. She had just come out of Emerson College in Boston and gave one of the best auditions I have ever witnessed. She was so strong and so fluid, so alert and so in the moment that I said “Bring her into the company right away.” But that’s how it went in selecting that first group of actors.
GE: What about Moses Gunn. He was part of that first company wasn’t he? You haven’t mentioned him.
DTW: Yes, you’re right. I knew Moses from way back. He was in The Blacks and also in the play In White America. He was also in Day of Absence too. So I knew him and knew his abilities.
(The original company of actors were: Norman Bush, Rosalind Cash, David Dowling, Francis Foster, Arthur French, Moses Gunn, William Jay, Judy Ann (Johnson )Elder, Denise Nicholas, Esther Rolle, Clarice Taylor, Hattie Winston, and Alice Woods along with Robert Hooks and Douglas Turner Ward.)
GE: Question: Was the company put together before or after you had selected the first play?
DTW: It was a combination of both. I knew that a certain percentage were going to be in the company because I knew that whatever plays I selected would need people in various age categories. As to what plays would be done part of that would be determined by who I had. Let’s say I hired more of the younger women than middle aged ones then the selection would go that way. Or let’s say it was the other way around then the selection would go towards plays with roles for more mature women. And it was a similar situation with the men. That’s why Song of the Lusitanian Bogey was such a fortunate choice. The casting was flexible and not dependent on age categories so far as the various roles were concerned. That play helped to shape the company because if this.
Now the curious thing about that is I probably knew that we were going to produce Kongi’s Harvest and The Summer of the 17th Doll first. But as I said I wanted a play that would utilize the entire company fully and I found that with Bogey, thank goodness.
But you also knew that I had a school for these actors that was being created at the same time.
GE: That leads me to my next question. Why did you decide this, and how did you convince a group of experienced and in your words “veteran actors” to essentially go back to school for acting?
DTW: Gus the purpose was…well I always knew that most black actors at the time needed training or more training than they already had.
GE: You mean even the experienced ones?
DTW: You’re damn right, even the experienced ones. I mean shit; they weren’t working enough to train themselves. And the work that was being given wasn’t enough for us to train ourselves except perhaps in one or two areas Except for those of us who had taken it upon ourselves to get trained via individual study most black actors you came across during that time weren’t trained in most areas. Many were instinctively talented but yet biggest obstacle for them as far as training was concerned was money. I knew this and that’s why I created the free training program. This was the biggest handicap. So I said “Fuck it, I’m not going to ask for money to train them.” In the original proposal I asked for and received enough money to create tuition free training program and offered classes in well you know…acting, dance, design and so forth. But I knew that the training program would be even larger than the acting program… I might have had 15 or 16 spots to pay actors round the clock. Because let’s face it the actors who were hired to be in the company were being paid just like actors in a show… But in the tuition free classes you could have 40 students and sometimes even more. But let’s say two classes of forty and in the advanced class that Lloyd Richards taught they had about 30 students. So we were training over a hundred actors right away tuition free. But hell I knew from the many auditions that I had conducted that we needed formal training. Several were good enough to be in the company but I didn’t have room for them so I offered the training program. And as you know many who came out of that program went on to have just as successful if not more successful careers than those I hired for the original company. Mary Alice is a good example of what I’m talking about.
GE: You didn’t answer my original question. How did you convince a group of veteran actors that they had to go back tom school?
DTW: I don’t think any convincing was required. As I told you they were being paid for one thing. For another most thought it was a good idea as I remember.