Doug Ward / the NEC /and Awards
During the years of his tenure as Artistic Director of the NEC the company has won or were given just about every major theatrical award there is. Some years ago I spoke to him about it and this was his response.
DTW: First let me just say that I, like a lot of people of my generation have pretty much gone on record as not being enamored with this business of getting awards. I think that all cultures need a way to acknowledge the worth of their artists and the value of their artistic achievements so they look for various methods to celebrate it. Ritualistically it gives special attention to the creators of this art in the form of awards. I think in some ways this is valuable. But the competitive business of who’s “Best” and who’s “Worst” or who’s “Second” or who’s “Third” in terms of artists just about renders those awards as invalid. And I have gone on record as not being in anyway interested in such distinctions. I don’t care if it’s the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys, The Grammys or what have you. The sort of thing where you vote on the best player and so forth. You vote and say; “Well this actor in a particular play is better than all the others in totally different plays presenting totally different challenges and everything. How do you find some kind of common way to say “This is better…This is worst.”? If people want to get into better or worst they should then set up a system where all the actors would be playing the same part. And even then you’re going to get into trouble because of the different interpretations that’s possible. So again there would be no common element to measure them against. In truth the whole thing, this award business is publicity, its public relations for the field but it pretends to be more than that. It pretends to have value that goes beyond its actual worth and merit. So that is my own philosophical point. However, just like everything else I’ve done I’d never impose my subjective philosophy as an objective standard for participating in the field. If I did that I would tell them all, everyone involved in a production, writers particularly; “Alright, I’ll do your play and don’t worry. It’s not going to be reviewed. I’m not interested in putting it out there.” No that would be foolish. As a professional you have to put the work up to whatever existing scrutiny of the profession at the time that qualifies and evaluates it on some level as being professional. There are standards that are there. But the business of awards I can do without except for the public relations aspect.
GE: You mentioned The River Niger in an earlier conversation we had and I wanted to get into that and why you refused the Tony Award nomination for acting in that play.
DTW: Let me start by saying that The River Niger existed in its own environment, Broadway and everything. And therefore you couldn’t escape the fact that it was going to be put within the system. So when the play was nominated and so forth, I was happy for the play. Happy for what it meant for the theatre and the NEC. The publicity value and all that shit was fine. When they finally came down to the actors I was in California appearing in another production of the play and it was Gerry (Krone) I think who called me and said that I had been nominated for a Tony and I said; “Okay.” I didn’t give a fuck. But then he said it was for “Best Supporting Actor” and I said; “What supporting actor?” The size of that role in that play was equal in size to any other leading role on Broadway at the time. I think Jason Robards was doing an O’Neil play as well. (Moon for the Misbegotten). I think he may have even won the award. But Gus if you look at the size of his role in that play and the size of the role I played in The River Niger you would see that they are equal. In fact the role of Johnny Williams in Niger might be even bigger. So how the hell they could’ve viewed it as a supporting role? But I knew what had happened. The committee or whoever decides on the various nominations couldn’t ignore my performance in Niger. But since the field was crowded with star names that year they had to find a way to deal with the nigger because they couldn’t avoid the motherfucker being there. So I guess they said; “Oh why don’t we put him in the “supporting actor” category” even though the size of the role and the weight of it in the play says otherwise. And they tried to justify it by saying that the reason why they were doing it is because their rules say that in order to be nominated for the leading category you had to have your name above the title of the play in the playbills and on the marquee. So they were bringing up rules from the small print to justify the fact that by calling Johnny Williams in the play a secondary role they were essentially devaluing not just me or my performance as an actor because as I said before I don’t give a shit about that. But they were devaluing the play and the effort of the company. I don’t even think that they were even conscious about what they were doing because it had become so traditional for them to put blacks in a secondary category whenever those questions came up. For years they did that shit with the Oscars too. And although I didn’t care about any of it I had to protest as a statement that went beyond me personally. So I rejected the nomination. I put it half sarcastically when I said that Johnny Williams didn’t support anybody but his family alluding to the fact that he was a patriarch within the play. I made it because I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t personal, I was making a statement for other blacks and by extension for all other actors white or black or whatever who were getting shafted because they didn’t have a box office name. The irony of course is that I didn’t give a shit about the system but I wanted to insist that the system adhere to its own rules. I mean if they want to talk all that bullshit about a so called meritocracy then it had to adhere to its own standards of what that meant.
So anyway Gus, that’s basically what I did. But of course they refused to take my name out of the nomination and went on with it which then caused me to protest by not going to the ceremonies. And then despite of all the sound and fury the play won as the “Best Play”. Now I didn’t impose any edict on Joe Walker or any member of the company saying that they couldn’t attend or anything like that. What I did was personal for reasons that I stated before. So Joe Walker and Gerry went and accepted the award. Roxie Roker who played my wife was nominated in the supporting actress category and I was very happy for her. It helped her careerwise. She got to Hollywood and The TV show The Jeffersons which was great. Thankfully I was in a position where I wasn’t dependent on a nomination to do anything for my career as an actor. My career was running the NEC first and foremost. But that’s the story about the Tony and me and the refusal.
GE: One final question on this subject; was there any kind of response back from them, The Tony Award Committee when you sent your letter of refusal?
DTW:As I said I was in California doing the play. When I came back everybody met with me. The whole American Theatre Wing group. Essentially what they said is that it was too late to take my name off and for me to play the game. Again I said; “Just take my name off.” And when they said that they couldn’t then I had no choice but to write to all the voters. I wrote a letter to all the voters and made it public. I publicized it and they then printed what I said and asked them not to consider me.
GE: Now I’m a little puzzled. You refused the Tony but I know that you have more than once accepted the Obie Awards. Why the contradiction?
DTW: Again I will say I don’t give a damn about awards. My distinction is about awards that get into that first and second and third bullshit. The Obie and Vernon Rice Awards we received were for achievement. They didn’t get into all that; “Give me the envelope bullshit…And the winner is-“crap. There weren’t on that level and therefore they were much more acceptable. Now that we’re talking about it I’ve forgotten how many Obie and Vernon Rice Awards we’ve gotten. It seems like nearly every year we were getting something or other. And thankfully they were often for some of our less recognized plays.
GE: One more question. You’ve gotten several of honorary doctorates along with other awards. Do you have a list of them anywhere?
DTW: No, I don’t. And yes, I’ve gotten a lot of awards but basically the City College and the one from Columbia are the ones that I think are for real.