Robert Hooks: On the NEC, its beginnings, its legacy.
I’m from Washington, DC and at the behest of my older sister I did some plays when I was nine years old and wound up liking it. Then my family moved to Philadelphia where I was enrolled in the Bessie V. Hicks School of Theatre. After that I came to New York and did a lot of stuff around. But my first professional job was the same play that prompted me to come to New York in the first place. That was A Raisin in the Sun. I took over the role of George Murchison at the end of the Broadway run and toured with it for a year. On that tour Douglas Turner Ward, Lonne Elder and I became The Three Musketeers.
We were just meant for each other in life because we have been friends since.
Both Doug and Lonne were a little older than me and we spent a lot of time talking about all kinds of things. Life, history, women, politics, all sorts of things. They were like mentors to me. I don’t think a person could have two better mentors than Doug Ward and Lonne Elder. From those guys I learned a lot about what was happening socially as it related to blacks in the industry. And one of the reasons I formed The Group Theatre Workshop later on was because I saw the opportunity to start creating what Doug, Lonne and I had talked about. It was a kind of workshop for blacks to work permanently in…I was doing Dutchman by Amiri Baraka ( Leroi Jones) at the time and living in Chelsea at the time. On my night off from the play I was asked to speak at the Hudson Guild, which was in Chelsea, about blacks in theatre and the problems they were facing. The talk was well received and there were a lot of kids who came up and asked questions after. I knew most of those young people because I lived right across the street. So I said to them: “If you’re really and truly interested in theatre come over to my house, I’m off on Monday nights so we can talk about it and see if we can work some things out. Maybe I’ll spend some time working and teaching. “And that’s what happened. There were six then twelve, twelve grew to twenty, twenty became sixty because the kids started coming from all over the New York area. So in my living room we started The Group Theatre Workshop. And along with Barbara Ann Teer, Adolph Caesar and a lot of dedicated friends we turned my living room into a theatre. Adolph and I knocked out a wall. I was eventually evicted from that place. But it was time to be moving anyway because we were growing in numbers.
Now a lot of the people in the neighborhood thought we were just partying because they saw a lot of kids coming and going. So I decided that we would put together a production and invite everyone around so that they could see what we were doing. The evening would consist of improvisations and poems and a one act play that Doug had been working on. He was working on two plays Day of Absence and Happy Ending that I was planning on producing with a man named Sam Engle. I took one of the plays (Happy Ending) and I added it to the evening. And Jerry Talmer, a reporter came and gave it a wonderful review in the New York Post. After the review I went to Sam and suggested that since he couldn’t raise the 35,000.00 we had budgeted if I could take the plays and try to raise the money. And, to make a long story short, I did and that’s how Happy Ending and Day of Absence were born.
In America we were in a revolutionary time (the 1960s). Black Theatre was producing revolutionary writers like Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins and people like that. Brilliant writers who were writing serious plays.
But Day of Absence and Happy Ending were really the first comedies to come along that were successful. But you see, in my mind, certainly in Doug’s mind and the people in the production they were just as revolutionary as the serious plays. So the approach that Doug took in those plays was in my mind just as effective. And it turns out that over the years Day of Absence has become a sort of classic and is still being done when all the serious plays from that time are not.
At the time you didn’t see many black producers. White producers were producing black plays. The Baraka play I was acting in (Dutchman) was being presented by white producers. The problem still exists in Hollywood today although that is changing. But even before I came to New York I was producing theatre. So I had started young. Anyway, the plays were successful and that’s when the Ford Foundation people inspired by Doug’s New York Times article, came to talk to us about starting an all black company. Now a lot of the kids that were in the workshop we had them in the professional production in smaller roles. And when I toured boroughs with the Public Theatre’s production of Henry V I made an arrangement with Joe Papp, our producer, who thought these kids were wonderful, for them to perform in the early part of the evening a theatre piece that Barbara Ann Teer and I put together called We Real Cool. So they were touring with us and gaining valuable experience.
Now Gerry Krone was the general manager for the plays we were producing. So after the Ford Foundation contacted us we brought Gerry into the combine and formed a triumvirate. Then the three of us created a proposal for the NEC on a tablecloth in a restaurant right near the St. Marks Playhouse where the two plays were running. And as you know, the wonderful people at the Ford Foundation gave us a million and a half dollars over three years and the NEC was born.
We did many wonderful plays including Lonne Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men which he had been working on since we were doing A Raisin in the Sun. After the tour we lived together as roommates for a few years. And I remember we would take turns on the one bed we had. He would sleep in it one night, I the other. And all the time he would be at the typewriter working on Ceremonies. Together we would read scenes from the play to see if they worked or not. So I saw early on what was there. I was privy to the beginning of what has become a classic in the American theatre. And all the while we would also be meeting with Doug at a bar on 14th street where he would talk about his next play and Lonne would talk about his. So I was privileged to be a part of this rich history that was taking place.
After it started the NEC had a tremendous effect in New York, on the theatre in New York and the people of New York. Then when we went out on tour we started getting letters from theatre companies because they were so moved and impressed by what they saw. I dare say there must have been about twenty five theatre companies started across the country because they saw and believed in what the NEC was doing and what we were all about. They saw hope for black theatre in their city. So the company had a tremendous effect on other black artists across the country and inspired them to go out and do like we were doing.
Now at the NEC we always wanted to play to mixed audiences. But we also knew that a black theatre audience had to be developed because we feel and have always felt the importance of black theatre, how it brings people together and what it has to say. So we wanted to build a black audience and we did. They were proud of us. They came and enjoyed what they saw. And they came back again and again and brought other people, other black people from all over the city.
Before going on I want to say something about Douglas Turner Ward. He has given the NEC his life for the past 30 years or so. Sacrificed his own professional writing career to build and sustain as well as maintain the high quality of the institution. Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC…Now I’m not taking any credit away from myself. I was one of the founders and that was important and I’m glad. It’s history. But after three years I had to leave New York to build the Washington DC Black Rep and I did so with Doug’s blessing because he was taking care of the shop here and I didn’t have to be there. So I thought that since it worked in New York I thought “Let me go to Chicago, Philly or some other place and see if I can help them do the same thing. So I did the DC Black Rep and it’s still going today. I was also able to help other people to build similar organizations in the cities I just mentioned….But Doug Ward, no matter what anybody says about the man, and you’ll get a lot of varied opinions about him, believe me,
because I get them. But Doug Ward is the lifeline of the NEC and the grandfather of black theatre in America.
But summing it all up I think that the NEC was our second Renaissance. The first was in the 20s, 30s and 40s. They left us art, books, paintings, sculptures, whatever but mostly books. The NEC left theatre. Writers, actors, directors, designers and others. Many of them are in the mainstream of the entertainment world and will admit how important the NEC was to their success. And there are those who won’t. To me that’s wrong but I understand because I understand those people. So when we talk about legacy I say the NEC was our second Renaissance because it was responsible for a true cultural revolution as it relates to theatre in this country.
Interview by Richard Kilberg – in 1987. Edited by GE for this issue.