Tag Archives: Paul Carter Harrison

The Great MacDaddy

The Great MacDaddy

– a statement from the author.

NBFC Nov 2012

The Great MacDaddy has always been one of my favorite theatrical challenges. It required that I take a close look at the magical universe of Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard to determine what these Nigerian mythic figures shared in common with African American mythic characters. Once the connection was established, I was able to erect a mine-filed of antagonisms that the young, untutored MacDaddy had to negotiate during his odyssey toward enlightenment. Resurrected from the American urban and rural Oral Tradition were such mythic characters as the Signifyin’ Monkey, Shine, Stagolee, Gut Buckett, and old Gran Dad who became sentinel, yet amusing guideposts toward new illumination. So, as Young Mac Daddy sets out on his ten decade time-travelling odyssey, armored only with the legacy of his departed father, the Big Mac Daddy, a legendary provider of fast life pleasures, he crosses the American landscape with its many hostilities and discovers a Great Ancestor in South Carolina who instructs him that being The Great Mac Daddy signifies that one must become a Patriarch of a community.

After more than 30 years since its original production at The NEC, it is gratifying to realize, perhaps that due to its classic style The Great Mac Daddy still has the potential to resonate with an entirely new audience.

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Paul carter Harrison- 2010

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The MacDaddy Experience or Ode to the Palm-Wine Drinkard

The MacDaddy Experience or Ode to the Palm-Wine Drinkard

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

GREAT MAC DADDY PHOTO 1

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

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

MacDaddy rehearsal Oct 2012

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

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

palmwine

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

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

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

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

MacDaddy_Poster-final_0

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

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

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

Amos Tutuola  – from  The Palm Wine Drinkard

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

Sati Jamal

10/2012

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Doug Ward on Paul Carter Harrison and The Great MacDaddy

Doug Ward on Paul Carter Harrison and The Great Mac Daddy.

 

I met Paul soon after he had ended a long stay in Europe. On first encounter he was articulate, suave, almost debonair. His work then surprised me by being as nitty-gritty in his writing as his demeanor was sophisticated.  The Great Mac daddy was supremely representative. Inspired by Amos Tutuloa’s The Palm Wine Drinkard, it is a superlative syntheses of African and African American motifs, drawing upon myth, folklore, fantastic forces, spirits-beliefs, superstitions and hyperbolic tales (sacred and profane) from both cultures- merging them into a seamless form and stylistic unity of drama, music and dance. It was and (still remains) innovative in form, content and production method. Its message was simple but the telling complex…A prominent reviewer hailed it as “the birth of the new black musical”. Its powerful scintillating realization buttressed the reputations of its talented creative team: Diane McIntrye and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson et al…Two separate NEC productions were sites of a who’s who of stellar performers: Adolph Caesar, Hattie Winston, Phylicia Allen Rashad, Cleavon Little, Lynn Whitfield, Charles Brown, Barbara Montgomery, Charles Weldon, Al Freeman Jr., Carl Brown, Frankie Faison, BeBe Drake Hooks, Majorie Barnes, Victor Willis, Graham Brown, Martha Short – Golson, Dyane Harvey, Freda Vanterpool, Carol Malard, Joella Breedlove and David Downing, among others. 

GREAT MAC DADDY GRAPHIC

GREAT MAC DADDY GRAPHIC2

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Playwrights of the NEC

Playwrights of The NEC

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

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

Douglas Turner Ward – 1995

Paul Carter Harrison

Steve Carter

Gus Edwards

Charles Fuller

Judi Ann Mason

Samm-Art Williams

Joseph Walker

Lonne Elder III

Derek Walcott

Wole Soyinka

Leslie Lee

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On Black Audiences

 Doug Ward: On Black audiences/White audiences

 

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

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

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

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

GE: How did you go about that?

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

GE: You did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GE: Could you elaborate on that for me?

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

GE: Uh huh.

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

GE: And who are they?

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

GE: But not in a white audience?

DTW: If you do, it’s rare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gus Edwards

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The NEC: A Writer’s Theatre

The NEC: A Writer’s Theatre

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Doug Ward (tape interview 6-6-95)

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

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A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

A Conversation with Paul Carter Harrison

paul carter harrison

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

GE: Starting when?

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

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

phylicia rashad 

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

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

 

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

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

 the blacks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

GE: Thank you Paul, well talk some more.

 GE 8-18-11

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Talking With Doug Ward

Over the years since we met in 1977 I have been interviewing Doug Ward via audio tapes almost continuously. Here is a sampling of one such interview.

GE: If you had to advise someone with the highest intentions about trying to create a black theatre today, what would you tell them?

DTW: First of all I would tell them not to do it…I’m joking but I’m serious too because it’ll take up the better part of your life. But if you don’t mind the commitment and felt passionately inclined then I would say they would have to study in minute detail the history of the NEC because all the lessons are there. They will be able to have something to give them a concrete measure or yardstick or maybe a point of departure. But it’s there at least as a guideline. It may take them somewhere else but still it provides them with a model of what has been done before. It gives them something to look at and say: “Oh I see how it was done before.” As a result, they don’t have to start from scratch because other people have done it…

When I created the NEC I was absolutely instructed by what other people, other institutions had done. Some things were positive other lessons were negative like the situation when the American Negro Theatre (ANT) did that successful production of Anna Lucasta uptown in Harlem that somebody picked it up and moved it to Broadway taking the cast people along with them, including Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee who I think met in that production. Anyway, it caused jealousy and many other problems among the members not selected to go with that production. And may have ultimately led to its demise.

So when I had the opportunity to create the NEC I made up my mind not to let that happen. And when we were faced with the same situation when Ceremonies in Dark Old Men came along I said “No. I know we should not go to Broadway. It is too early.” We were at exactly the same junction as the ANT all those years ago. The move would interfere with too many things. It would’ve destroyed our credibility for what we claim we were supposed to do and probably lead to the same result. So without getting theatrical about it, you have to draw on concrete examples and draw your own conclusions that will help instruct you in terms of what you have to do.

Now, the biggest and most important question in terms of what I would tell somebody is that you have to have a vision. It is not enough to want to do something just because you want to become rich or be a star and so forth. You have to have a large vision in terms of what you want to accomplish artistically. You have to have a vision that is bigger than just the minutiae of small scale goals. You have to have an overview because that will sustain you in the times when you will be facing all kinds of disappointments and criticisms and things of that nature. You need to have a larger vision and beside that you must develop a standard of artistic value and quality. And I will take credit in an arrogant way to say that the thing that helped the NEC through the years was my high artistic standards. They were higher than the average therefore they helped me to sustain the company and make sure that the work we did was always of superior quality. Even in failure, when we did not realize our ambitions for a particular work, many of our failures were better than some other folk’s successes.  That only came from the fact that I had high, very high artistic standards. High standards of what I wanted to do in terms of creating black theatre. I mean black theatre doesn’t interest me when somebody has mediocre intentions. It is only worth the effort when it is dedicated to excellence.

GE: I know there were many things the NEC couldn’t do. Many unrealized artistic ideas and programs that were thought out in some detail but for one reason or another, mostly having to do with lack of money, the company wasn’t able to do. Could you talk about them?

DTW: There were so many, where do you want to start?

GE: The Director’s Project.

DTW: Let’s see. In my mind and on paper it was called ‘The Director’s Choice Program’ and it came about this way. A few years after I became a director I began to realize that the only thing that could stimulate a director’s ability to even have a chance at doing their best work or the best work he or she is capable of was when they are totally committed to the project through their artistic desire, choice or stimulus…Look, basically and pragmatically, a lot of people, a lot of directors figure that once they’ve reached a point where they’ve acquired a certain level of craft skills, they think they can simply apply that skill to whatever project you assign them and get excellent results. It’s almost like you’re just a craftsman. Like what people believe about working in movies, that once they acquire a certain degree of technical skills, all they need to do is become a hired hand and they can turn anything they’re assigned to into something worthwhile and even terrific…Now I know that in the theatre the odds are so much against a director doing what he or she is capable of doing until that person is totally engaged, that there is no reason for them to do anything else. In other words, they have to be engaged and committed almost one hundred percent artistically, without any distraction or stress.

Now once I came to that conclusion, then I realized that you just can’t shop projects out to directors. In the early days when I didn’t know better I thought that all I had to do get a good play, match it with a good director so long as he or she was favorably inclined toward the material and the end result would be a full and vital realization of the work. But then what I found out was being ‘favorably inclined’ on their part really represented their subjective point of view that was embracing many different ambitions. I mean being ‘favorably inclined’ for many directors just meant that they were getting a chance to direct. And that would ad another credit to their resume’ and further establish their credentials. But in any meaningful way, like I’m talking about, they didn’t give a damn about the play or the project. Their egos were telling them that they could turn shit to shinola. And for those people that was all it was. But that never works. We’re not geniuses enough as writers, directors, or actors that we can turn out great work willy, nilly, no matter what our feelings are about working on it. That we are so expert in what we do that we can take anything we put our hand to and turn the project into gold.

So Gus, once I reached that conclusion, I said that in order for directors to reveal their capabilities, their potential and their talent, the first step was that they had to be 100% desirous in doing the play. So the basic premise of the ‘The Director’s Choice Program” was that first and foremost the director had to select the play or project he or she wanted to do. That was the bottom line. They had to select the work and convince me that they had a viable and passionate reason for wanting to do it….Now by this time we had in our files over a hundred plays that they could select from. They could read them all and select one. They could also select plays from writers they knew, or they could bring me a project from outside. Once again, as artistic director I didn’t want to select what I thought was a good play and then just put them on it. Because by this time anything I gave the directors they’d say yes to and try to talk enthusiastically about how much they loved it only because they knew it would give them a directing credit. I didn’t want that. I wanted it to be totally their choice, first and foremost. Then once they made their selection we, the company, would give them the resources to do it. Not in a full scale production at first for the simple reason that I didn’t want the directors to have the burden of the institution’s reputation riding on their choices. I wanted them to be free of all external pressures and burdens. I just wanted their total concentration to be on the work. So what I devised is that it would be done workshop style, therefore it wouldn’t be reviewed. It wouldn’t have judgmental pressure on it. I worked out a form where the work could be discussed and even praised in a reasonable and professional manner. Not some bullshit session where the audience says ‘I like this’ or ‘I didn’t like that’. This session would be with me, the director and whoever else’s judgment we trusted. We would discuss what the results were and how we would proceed beyond that. I called it The Director’s Choice because I wanted to see what directors would do given these options.

Now of course if somebody brought me a project that was so horrendous that I would have to say no, or say; “Look, I think that this material is so bad till you almost prove to me by the selection you made that you’re not a good director. Because you don’t even know what the hell to select.” But even with saying that it should be understood that what they selected didn’t have to be on the level of what I would have chosen to produce. All I had to be was positively inclined toward the material selected and the rest would be left up to the director. All they had to have was a valid concept that I thought was worth being attempted and I would say yes. I would then provide them with class A actors because far as I was concerned The Director’s Choice Program couldn’t work with mediocre actors. So I would provide them with the same level of actors that we were hiring for our mainstage productions. So if the project failed or just didn’t work I didn’t want it to be because of poor acting or any such thing. And also it wouldn’t be due to the fact that the actors or the director were rushed into production circumstances. I wanted them working under the best possible conditions. So since it wasn’t a full scale production they could work at it as long as they felt was necessary.  And they could work at it in stages, starting with a staged reading perhaps, then a fully staged reading  with blocking and movement but no costumes or set. Or some could even be fully scaled productions in a skeleton fashion. So, as I said, the field was wide open and the choice was theirs. And the end result would be theirs as well.

Gus, my ambition was to make this a regular part of the NEC, like The Playwright’s Workshop, an independent entity that would function in a way that I just described. But once again, none of it came to fruition due to the lack of funds. We applied for grants all over the place but didn’t get any of them. I even looked at our own budget to see if there was some way I could make The Director’s Choice Program a possibility. But it wasn’t possible. We couldn’t even meet our own basic budget, so there was no room at any point for it…Hey, I’m still sorry we didn’t get a chance to do it, because I think the results it would’ve yielded would have been a significant contribution not just to the artistic viability of our theatre but for other theatres as well. Because as I have always said, the NEC couldn’t produce all the worthwhile black plays we received or hire all the excellent black actors that were out there. But if we showed who they were and showcased their abilities in some way other theatres, white or black, might create opportunities. But it wasn’t to be. That’s all I can say, it wasn’t to be.

GE:  I’d like to talk about reviews and critics. I know that right from the beginning you always had questions about the necessity of reviews and quality of those reviews in terms of assessing black plays.

DTW:  My feelings about reviews and critics, whether they are necessary or not, 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. Unfortunately, in my experience I find that in the main, criticisms and reviews do not usually do that. And that they were at an even greater disadvantage when looking at and attempting to assess Black Theatre. Because when it came to what Black Theatre and the NEC were doing, they were one, two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. It wasn’t just because ninety-nine percent were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on onstage could be brought by anyone of any color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and practices of the lives being presented. It’s just that it was very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from even their own background and culture. So after a while, I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.

Now as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from, several of these 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. Now I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to, I’m talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were enthusiastic about to me, frequently, the angle of dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed to be only able to deal with things they could label with terms like ‘the family play’ or ‘the black protest play’. And the problem there is that they 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 then appraise some of the work that we were doing.

I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as Artistic Director or actor 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. Very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say ‘Oh that’s right. I know they’re right about this. And I can make it better or improve on it just because they pointed it out to me.’ There were very few times where critics and reviews were helpful on that level.

GE: On what level?

DTW: On the level of being a middle-person to their own public. ….Now from a pragmatic perspective, they could be helpful yes, after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint, they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. But with a black audience, only residually so. 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. The NEC had already succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never that much affected by whether the New York Times, The NY Post, or The Daily News liked our shows or not. But that is not to say that the black public didn’t depend on these organs for information. Things like discovering that the play was there, that it had 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 that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. This is 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 review in the Times, the percentage of our white audiences would go up for those plays. But this wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.

But to go back to the subject of critics. The ideal function of criticism in our case would have been to give us outside views that were somewhat insightful and knowledgeable. Toward this end I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I am sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.

GE: But you did try as I remember.

DTW: Yes, but first let me say I felt and still feel that a majority black audience attending our plays was an absolute necessity. The reason being that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping any aspect of black life, they’re going to point it out to us. More than point it out, they’re going to curse us out for it. The black audiences aren’t shy about telling you that you’re full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. These folks speak up and that’s what I always found wonderful about them.

GE: Didn’t I hear that in  search for a representative black audience at each of its performances, the company might go so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order to assure that they would go specifically to African-Americans who might come later?

DTWYes. 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 would be maybe ninety percent white folks and ten percent blacks. Because most black folks didn’t read reviews they generally came out of spontaneous response or word of mouth and they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to ensure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty-fifty, I asked the people at the box office to hold back fifty or sixty seats 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 the sign that all tickets for the day were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling the black folks that we had seats available for them. I did it because I felt it was important to have them in the audience.

GE: Can we now talk about the efforts you made to get black theatre critics more involved in the process?

DTW: Well Gus 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 should come up with special ways of making sure that black critics’ opinions were occurring. So, with the opening of The River Niger, I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways Magazine, Joseph Okpaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press, Lindsey Patterson, editor of Black Theatre: A Twentieth Century Collection of Its Best Plays, and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence Magazine. They were invited under the proviso that whatever 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 was about the word count. Only because we had a certain amount of space in the New York Times that we were paying for, and as I remember, it wasn’t cheap. But even with that, a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. And if you go back to look at the way they were printed, you’ll see we had to use two or three different types of print- face in order to make them fit. But still, 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 the Mel Gussow review in the Times. So it was obvious that these reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying to have them published.

Note:

The top of the ad in the New York Times (3-28-72)which printed the reviews  read The Negro Ensemble Company, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black Theatre Criticism Presents the Opinions 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. Then the reviews followed.

DTW: We did it again with the opening of Charles Fuller’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep in 1974. Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American Magazine, and Lindsey Patterson were the critics invited. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was really hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinions would be given a hearing in a regular way. And not just in a weekly or monthly magazine, but in a daily newspaper. I selected the New York Times because it was a major paper with a large circulation and readership. I wanted black critics to reach the same audience as the white critics for the paper. But like I said, ad space is expensive. We ran out of money and couldn’t get any grant monies to continue it. And the other black theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested, or wasn’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 twenty five or thirty years later 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.

GE: When I first met you and we started talking one of the things you mentioned was the possibility of having two theatres. A large mainstage theatre and a smaller experimental space. Could you elaborate on that?

DTW: Sure. The idea, and I guess this was more like a dream or a fantasy, but the idea was to get to the point where we operating two theatres. One would’ve been a 750 seat size house and the other would’ve sat maybe 100 at the most. In the big theatre I would’ve put the big sort of, for want of a better word, conventional type work. And maybe some Shakespeare adaptations maybe an all black Shakespeare season or something like that. We had the actors who could do it. All they needed was the opportunity.   And in the other space, the more experimental type work. The kind of stuff you and I like to do. But there were others as well. People like John Scott and that cat (Silas Jones) who wrote Waiting for Mongo which we did in our sixth or seventh season (actually it was their eighth). They weren’t the only ones I was constantly getting scripts that would’ve fitted such a theatre. So that’s what our season would’ve been like. The big stuff in our mainstage. And I would have liked to do six plays instead of four. And in the smaller space even more plays but with shorter runs.

GE: So why didn’t that come about?

DTW: Gus we had enough problems maintaining what we had. We couldn’t expand. In fact we were cutting back all the time. So it was what I was telling you, a dream, that’s all. Just a dream.

GE: But at the time when we spoke about it you didn’t suggest that it was just a dream. You made it sound like it was a firm plan for the future of the NEC.

DTW: That was probably during or just after the run of The River Niger on Broadway. We had a little extra money and for a year or two it looked like we might be able to do some of the ambitious things I was thinking about. But that didn’t last for long, believe me.

GE: Did you tell anyone else about these ideas?

DTW: Probably Gerry (Krone) and Bobby (Hooks), maybe my wife and you. But that was about it. In fact Joe Papp at the Public (Theatre) did something like that one season. But to me that was more like a stunt. My interest was to do it more consistently. Maybe one show a year at least. I was also interested in doing Brecht, Sean O’Casey and Chekhov as well. That was another major interest I had.  In fact in our first season I did the transfer of an Australian play (The Summer of the 17th Doll) into a black play for the company. I adapted it. But when I say adapt I mean I didn’t change any lines of the dialogue. I changed the location from Australia to Louisiana and also some bits of slang that was unique only to Australia. But other than that I left the play intact and it played truthfully. And nobody who saw the play would ever think that it was set in Australia originally.

GE: So it would’ve been the business of adapting plays from other cultures to ours?

DTW: No, not exactly, the idea was a little more thought out than that.. Take the great Irish playwright Sean O’Casey for instance. That’s someone whose work I really would’ve liked to have done. Of course you would need excellent actors. But let’s assume we had that, I think that excellent black actors can and would do a play like Juno and the Paycock better than most white American actors.  Ethnic wise O’Casey in that play and several others was investigating  a period of Irish revolution  and the ghettos of Dublin which were almost like the ghettos of Harlem. He was writing of working class Irish life which is very close to ours here in America.  For this reason and others I claim we have a more natural ability to do those works because we would be bringing to them a felt organic experience. For most white actors or white company, given their middle class upbringing, this would have to be realized through an act of will. But we naturally come from the same type of background and deal with the same types of frustrations and limitations…Now, I told this to several audiences and theatre people in Dublin when I was there doing Home with Sam Jackson. Soon as I got there I was interviewed by all the major papers, The Irish Times and all the others and I said that stuff to them as well. And the first questions they asked wasn’t about why or any of that. The first question they asked was: “When are you going to do it?” They were more than interested, they were eager to see black actors tackle those roles. It threw me off a little how interested they were. But then I had to explain that my budget was too constricting for me to do what I was talking about. I meant it but I didn’t have the means to make it a reality.

GE: Did you ever attempt to get a grant that might’ve supported that?

DTW: Gus, we had trouble getting grants to support our existence. So this was a luxury that couldn’t be considered in practical terms.

GE: This brings us to another unrealized dream. Doing African plays. I know you did one or two and a few readings but the plan was for a more ambitious pattern, wasn’t it?

DTW:  Well on one of my trips to Europe I wound up in Paris for about two weeks. While there I went to book shops where I found several volumes of African plays written primarily by Africans in French. I bought several volumes and brought them home. This was true when I went to Africa too. In fact I have about 40 volumes of African plays in my office right now. I tried to get a grant to have them translated and then ultimately produced because I thought that they would provide an expansion of our mission about putting black life on stage. I didn’t get the grants but it just so happened that I had a Latino woman in our development office who spoke French fluently. I asked and she gave me a rough translation for a couple of them so that I could see what was there. In fact, I did get to do some of them in our reading series.

GE: I know. I saw some.

DTW: But once again we couldn’t because we didn’t get the money. We tried lots of avenues and wrote lots of proposals but it was no go. It was the same with The Women’s Project I wanted to do. Similar to The Director’s Choice Program I wanted to do one where black women playwrights, directors and actors would get together and develop their own projects. The closest I got to that was the season (1978-79) where I did Daughters of the Mock and A Season to Unravel under those circumstances.

GE: What about the series of NEC classics that was announced?

DTW: I don’t particularly like the word “classic” because it has a sort of Euro-centric sense of providence and superiority about it.  Still it’s a buzz word that people understand, so that’s what we called it. The idea was to give extended life to many of our plays that were well received but somehow became forgotten once they weren’t on stage anymore. It was a programmatic thing. The idea being that we would do one a year as an addition to our four play season. The first play selected was Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and we did it. It was a valid time period because it had been 17 years since our original production. So it was time. And we actually did get a grant to do it. There were plans to do several others. I think we may have even announced some other titles like Sty of the Blind Pig and Song of the Lusitanian Bogey but after Ceremonies the grant monies dried up once again.

GE: The last question I want to ask is about legacy.

DTW: Legacy?

GE: Yes. What do you think is the legacy of the NEC under your stewardship?

DTW: I’m probably the not the one to answer that. That’s a question that you should ask an historian or somebody like that.

GE: Would you take a try at it anyway?

DTW: Well let’s see now. The company accomplished so many things that there’s certain things we don’t need to do anymore. We created a body of work that now exists as living proof of the vitality and greatness of our black playwriting talent. We have a whole cadre of successful theatre artists from all areas of the profession, actors, designers, directors, producers and others. At the start of the NEC those people weren’t out there. Today they are everywhere thanks in a large part of what we were doing at the NEC. Some of it was by direct training, some by hiring and a lot by inspiration. But it’s all legitimate and all proof of the impact we had just by doing the things we were doing .So I would say that the legacy is across the board. But probably the most visible is in the number of successful actors we produced. People like Sam Jackson, Denzel, Larry Fishburne, Roz Cash, Esther Rolle and others .Directly I take pride in the number of playwrights we developed and introduced and the variety of work they produced. Charles Fuller, Steve Carter, Paul Carter Harrison, Judy Ann Mason, Leslie Lee, you, Samm-Art Williams, Joe Walker and a whole host of others. Any one of these areas would be a worthwhile legacy to boast about. But together I think it says something about the true value of the company. Anything else?

GE: No. Not now anyway. Thanks.

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