Tag Archives: Soldier’s Play

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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On Critics and Criticism

On Critics and Criticism

 

GE: We’ve talked about this before but I’d like to get it down on tape if you don’t mind.

DTW: What?

GE: Critics, reviewers, whatever.

DTW: Well you know, my feeling about critics, whether they are necessary or not, like those award meritocracy things they do, is that they are a functioning regular part of this profession. It’s inescapable. You present a play professionally and reviewers will write critiques and publish them. Ideally you hope that they might be serviceable in a positive way to stimulate or reveal to you and the audience a more insightful view of what you’ve done or haven’t done. I mean you hope that what you might learn from it is significant and important enough that it helps to give you a vision outside of the participants and yourself because it could inform and even help you to do better work. But hell Gus, in my experience, I find that in the main, critics and reviewers don’t usually do that. They don’t do it for the mainstream work coming out of the majority culture and are at an even greater disadvantage when looking at or attempting to assess Black theatre. The majority of critics looking at black plays come to it from a reductionist perspective. In other words they try to reduce the dimension and the achievement in many of the black plays they see by trying to fit them some old fashioned Ibsenite , Eurocentric unit of size, and importance and everything else.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: Because when it comes to black theatre and what we at the NEC were doing they were usually two, sometimes three steps removed from the immediacy of what they were familiar with or comprehended. And it wasn’t just because 99% of them were white that this excluded them. No, that wasn’t it, because insight into what is going on stage could be brought by anyone by anyone of any   color if that person is knowledgeable and insightful about the culture and the lives and practices of the lives being presented on stage. It’s just that I is very rare for most of these critics to show that they had much insight into works coming from their own background and culture. And since they hardly know that how the hell are they going to know anything about ours? So early on I stopped expecting anything much coming from them.

Now saying that, as we went along and they became more familiar about where the plays were coming from several of those critics began to develop the ability to respond to certain types of works with some degree of accuracy and insight. But on the whole this was not generally true…Understand now that I’m not talking about what they were critical of or what they gave negative reviews to. I talking about the works they applauded and praised. The stuff they were fucking enthusiastic about. To me, frequently the angle they were coming from in dealing with those particular works were off the point and lacked insight. It was almost arbitrary. They seemed only able to deal with things they could label with terms like “the black protest play” or “the family drama”. The problem is that of course would not acknowledge their ignorance and therefore would not seek to figure out the means that would make them better equipped to appreciate and appraise some of the works that we were doing.

I guess what I’m essentially saying is that as artistic director or actor or director or writer I had very few times when I found the judgment or reportage of what had been done to be very enlightening beyond what I already knew about that particular play. And more often than not, I felt that I had a better, truer and wider grasp of the work than they did even though I was looking at it from within. Gus, I’m saying that very few times did they ever surprise me with sufficient insight so as to make me say; “Oh that’s right. I know so and so’s right about this.” And I can make it better or improve on it because they pointed it out to me. There were a few times when the critics were helpful on that level, but not very often.

GE: I’m not clear, on what level?

DTW: On the level of being the middle person to their own public. From a pragmatic perspective they could be helpful because after all they are the opinion makers. Therefore from a commercial standpoint they can make a difference with their consumers, the white audience. With the black audience only residually so. That is because what they say can sometimes create an atmosphere that will eventually affect some element of the black public. But with an institution like the NEC it wasn’t that significant.

GE: Why?

DTW: Because the NEC had from the start succeeded in appealing directly to the black public through a shared interest and through word of mouth. Therefore we were never much affected by whether the NY Times, Post or Daily News like our shows or not.

GE: I know that’s true because my play Weep Not for Me which didn’t get any kind of encouraging review in the daily papers was still popular with the NEC audience. So much so that you extended the run.

DTW: Yes. The people loved that show with all that incest and shit going on. And they didn’t bring all that positive and negative shit to it either. They just knew that they were looking at some crazy motherfucker making the best of a crazy situation and they were enjoying it. Shit, we had some playwrights I had to ban from the theatre because them motherfuckers were coming every night and sitting up in the balcony just to watch the shit and laugh. You know who I’m talking about.

GE: Yes, I do.

DTW: They were having a good time so shit they were coming every night. And that’s how it was with the audience.

GE: I remember when you extended it and I asked you why, because I guess based on the reviews I didn’t think it was any world shaker. You said to me;”Gus the people want to see the play. I wouldnt’ve extended it if that wasn’t the case.”

DTW: That’s true. And that wasn’t the only time that happened over and over with different plays.

GE: I know.

DTW: But going back to my original point, it isn’t that black people don’t read or depend on the newspapers for information. Things like discovering a play was there, that it opened and that a picture from the production gave a sense to its existence. Let’s face it, the black public reads the Daily News and other tabloids in great numbers. So for information and publicity, these papers served us. But ultimately the black public came because they liked what we represented. They liked what they were seeing and the fact that they could count on us to continue to do it on a regular basis. That’s why they came, not because of any sampling from rave reviews. Conversely, the white public generally came because of their opinion –maker’s advice. So with a rave in the Times the percentage of our white audience would go up for those plays. But that wasn’t true with our black public. They came because they were curious and faithful.

GE: So what would you say is the ideal function of the critic?

DTW: The ideal function of criticism, I think, would have been to give us outside views to rely on more than our inside, subjective knowledge to depend on. That’s why I had an idea that black critics might be able to do that and that’s why I’m sorry we were never able to develop a regular cadre of black critics we could rely on.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: Several reasons. One seems to be that as soon as we had say a hundred black writers striving to write most of that energy was going into the tributary or river of creativity. Or put another way, works of imaginative creativity. So many of the people who I thought might evolve into major critics went that way.

GE: Like whom for instance?

DTW: Well Larry Neal for one. He had done enough work in that area that he had a volume of his comments published. I always wanted to encourage Larry to at least concentrate on his critical writing. And by doing that he didn’t have to give up on his creative writing aspirations. But I always wanted him to at least continue regularly to develop his critical output because the quality of his mind, his insights and so forth, his lack of narrow subjectivity equipped him in becoming a major commentator and critic for what we were doing creatively. But Larry wanted to concentrate on his own creative writing. He wasn’t interested in putting that amount of time that I would have liked into his critical writing. But he’s just one example. There’s a lot of creative writers out there that if we had cultivated or had the time or leisure to put into it would’ve been fine. And then we would have had a number of good critical writers. The problem is what we did finally wind up with; many of those who got the shot had too many subjective axes to grind. The one who was at the Times for a while –

GE: Who was that?

DTW: I don’t want to get into names. But what I’m saying is that he had so many likes and dislikes that were so obviously subjective determined that suddenly I didn’t think that his reviews were insightful or reflective enough of an objective outlook. I’ll give you an example what I’m talking about. He, this same critic, made some snide remarks about two of the actresses in Ceremonies, the original production that I almost wanted to protest very sharply because he wrote a whole paragraph about what being a woman was not. Saying that Ros (Rosalind Cash) was not being a woman which had nothing to do with the review.  He also never revealed the fact that just before the last workshop of the play was done he had been an actor in it. This was one I was not involved with. This was done at some college in Staten Island I think. Now I’m not saying that this disqualifies you from reviewing the play. But as a reviewer myself I would have probably in the first or second paragraph reveal my own personal involvement in it for the reader to at least see where I’m coming from. Then you can accept or not accept what I say, but at least you know that I was being totally open with you. I would say “I’m going to talk about a Gus Edwards play. But first I want to say that Gus Edwards is a friend of mine.” And then go on from there but he didn’t do that. So it undercut his objectivity and whatever he had tom say so far as I was concerned.

GE: But you did try to develop some black critics didn’t you?

DTW: Yes, we tried with that thing we did when we presented Niger.

GE: I think you told me once that an intelligent balance for black theatre was: A) the production of the play B) a majority black audience to witness and experience the play, and C) black critics to analyze the work. Is that correct?

DTW: Yes. And to that end we sought out a majority black audience for all our plays. The reason Gus, is that it keeps us culturally honest. Because if we’re misrepresenting or stereotyping aspects of black life they’re going to catch us and point it out. And maybe curse you out too. The black audience ain’t shy about telling you full of shit. They’re not like the white audiences who have been educated out of responding in a primary way. Our folks speak up and that’s what’s wonderful about them.

GE: Now as I recall, in your search of a representative audience at each performance you guys went so far as to withhold tickets from sale to the general public at the box office in order that they would go specifically to African Americans who might come later. Right?

DTW: Yes, that’s true. You see when we had a show that got great reviews in the Times or wherever, white people who read those reviews would line up at our box office. If we sold all our tickets to them we would have a house that was maybe 90% white folks and 10% black. This was because most of our folks don’t read reviews and come out of spontaneous response or word-of- mouth. As a result they often came at the last minute in search of tickets. So to insure that the balance would be somewhere in the area of fifty/fifty I asked the box office people to hold back fifty or sixty for them. Sometimes it was really awkward to do because you would have this line of people waiting to buy tickets and we would put up that sign that all tickets were sold out. Then we would have to find a quiet way of telling that black people that we had seats for them. I did it because I felt that it was important to have them in the audience for all the reasons that I just explained.

GE: I know that part about word-of- mouth is true because I was in Boston doing a show when A Soldier’s Play opened here. I was staying at this hotel were a lot of other black folks, mostly theatre people, were staying and the next morning over breakfast all I heard was about this terrific new show that the NEC had just opened with all these handsome men walking around on stage  without their shirts, that they all wanted to see. This was coming from the women but a definite buzz was in the air. And I don’t remember anybody ever mentioning that it had also gotten good reviews. Just that it was a great show and there were a lot of handsome men on stage…Anyway, I want to go back to the part about getting black critics to review the shows and what you tried with The River Niger.Can you elaborate on that for me?

DTW: What I was trying to do was establish a precedent. I wanted to say that black theatre now exists. And because it does we need to have a regular representation of black critics in attendance. And since we didn’t have a black daily paper we needed to come up with a way of making sure that our black critics’ opinions were occurring. So when The River Niger opened I invited Jean Carey Bond, a contributing editor to Freedom Ways magazine, Joseph Opaku, editor and publisher of the Third World Press,  Lindsay Patterson, editor of the book Black Theatre: A 20th Century Collection of its best Plays and Maurice Peterson, an editor and critic for Essence magazine. They were invited under the proviso that what they wrote we would print, no matter what they wrote, no matter how they felt about the play. Their opinions were their own; we would not interfere with that. The only limitation they were given had to do with word count. This was because we had bought a certain amount of space in the New York Times to print their reviews and as I remember it wasn’t cheap. But even then a couple of them didn’t stick to the agreement anyhow. So if you go back and look at the way they are printed you’ll see that we had to use three different of type of print -face in order to make them fit. But still the black critics were represented. The irony of course is that some of the opinions expressed by the four of them were somewhat less enthusiastic on the surface than let’s say Mel Gussow’s review in the New York Times. So it was obvious that those reviews were in no way compromised by the fact that we were paying for them.

GE: Why the New York Times?

DTW: Because in terms of theatre criticism they are the most influential. They have the largest circulation and readership. I wanted the black critics to reach the same audience. They are the paper of record. I wanted to give these black critics the same exposure as the white critics.

Commentary.  The top of the space in the New York Times read: The Negro Ensemble, interested in stimulating and giving broader exposure to black theatre criticism presents the opinion the opinion of four Black reviewers invited to appraise its Tuesday December 5th opening night performance of Joseph Walker’s play The River Niger… The NEC solicited these views and assured their publication sight unseen, totally unedited whether favorable or unfavorable. The only condition being the limitation of space.

DTW: We did it again with Charles’s play In the Deepest Part of Sleep. This was in ’74. That time the critics invited were Vernetta Jarvis, a staff critic for Black American magazine and Lindsey Patterson. After that we couldn’t continue. We didn’t have the money to continue. What I was hoping to do was create an atmosphere where a regularity of black critical opinion would be given a hearing in a regular way not just in a weekly or monthly paper or magazine but in a daily newspaper. But we ran out of money and I couldn’t get any grant money to continue it. We wrote proposals but we were turned down. But if I had gotten the money I would‘ve done it for every play. I mean fuck Gus, I even a particular black writer who doesn’t function as a critic but he sometimes comments on cultural matters. And I said; look I would like you to come see this show because I’m doing something with music that I don’t think the other critics, good or bad, are going to grasp but you might have some sensitivity about where the spectrum of how the music fits due to your familiarity of the culture and your writing about it. That doesn’t mean that he would necessarily agree with me or I with him but at least he would know where I was coming from with that stuff.

GE: What about other black theatres, could you have partnered with them?

DTW: Gus, we made inquiries but the other theatres were either ill-equipped, not interested or weren’t advanced enough to know or understand why this was important. You see, what I wanted was a situation established so that when somebody let’s say 20 or 25 years from now in search of history or research they would find black critical opinion as well as white being brought to bear on our work. But as I said we ran out of money so it just didn’t happen. But the primary effort was to break the tyranny or monopoly of the critical point of view coming only from totally white critics and set a precedent. But I’ll tell you if we had succeeded and had been able to keep on doing it I’m sure that the newspapers would’ve rejected it after a while because they would have seen it as being competitive with their own opinion in that sense.

GE: In other words, as Langston Hughes put it that was: “Another dream deferred.”

DTW: Yes, I guess you could say that.

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Charles Fuller: In His Own Words

Charles Fuller: In His Own Words

Note: During the historical years of the NEC when Doug Ward was its Artistic Director he nurtured and produced the works of many writers. One of the most successful is Charles Fuller who won the Obie (Off- Broadway) Award in 1981 for Distinguished Playwriting for Zooman and the Sign and the Pulitzer Prize one year later for A Soldier’s Play. Both works were produced by the NEC and both were directed by Douglas Turner Ward.

 

In the Deepest Part of Sleep

 

When I left Philadelphia to come here (New York City), it was The NEC that I looked forward to working with. Any struggles I had in improving my work was really to work with the The NEC where I would not be embarrassed if Douglas Turner Ward saw this play. It would be written well enough that he would like it. They were a theatre really devoted to playwrights. Doug had a reputation for nurturing playwrights and working with them. And I was very concerned about getting my work to people who at least had some commitment to playwrights. The first play we did together was In the Deepest Part of Sleep(the 1973/74 Season). This particular play worked on two levels with four people. And so I was concerned with not only how this play moved but that you always had a certain kind of visual image going on in this single house.  A situation where you could watch all four people in four separate rooms. Doug helped me by giving me an idea of what I was trying to do, clearing it up for me so that the visual thing I was very much concerned with always happened, as well as the dialogue and the story line that had to go along with all that stuff. So he was really instrumental in giving me a vision of what you could do on stage. The size of it and what it meant. I hadn’t had that before.

Zooman and the Sign

 

In Philadelphia where I’m from there was a time when 40 or 50 kids a year would be gunned down by other teenagers. So Zooman was really and attempt at looking at the kinds of kids that were involved in those kinds of shootings. I used to work as a Housing Inspector for the city and I was involved in a shooting in the sense that I knew one of the kids who had shot another teenager. And I found that in talking to me right after he was absolutely without guilt or without any sense of conscience about it at all. It was simply a matter of turf and the other kid shouldn’t have been there. It was extraordinary. At that moment I began to feel that there was growing a group of young people in the black community who were diametrically opposed to the attitudes and values of what my generation had grown up with.  And that these young people were growing up without any other connection except the street. So I wanted to contrast this kind of character with the family of Reuben and Rachael (two characters in the play) and their closeness and the love that they had. I also wanted this to be the last of my kitchen plays.  I wanted to do something that would take my work out of the living room and out of the kitchen and begin to set it in other areas and other kinds of places because I began to think that the house as a place for a play was beginning to strangle black writers. So Zooman and the Sign was my first attempt to get the play out of the kitchen.

 

I also wanted to talk about the disillusionment of young black people in our society. There is an entire class of young black men in this country who have no connection to religion, culture or the social activities of their own people. They function in a world that is for the most part a jungle. They set the rules and abide by those rules. They have no loyalties to anything but that.

 

What is interesting about Zooman is that it unfortunately is just as viable today as it was when it was originally produced. And indeed there are more Zoomen on the streets right now than at the time the play was written. There are more young people alienated from what we perceive to be traditional black life. So Zooman was my way of providing a warning. My way of saying “This young man is on his way. This man is here, are we going to deal with him? He belongs to us, so we simply can’t ignore him. This group of young people is related to us. They’re our cousins, our nephews, someone’s son, someone’s grandson; they are someone’s brother and so on.  So they are connected to us.”… Now fifty percent of the people in prison are black people and about ninety nine percent of the crimes they commit are against other black people. It’s insane not to be concerned about that. So as I said Zooman was more in the order of a warning that if we don’t do something shortly this young man and his kind are going to overwhelm us and we must do something to make sure that they continue to be a part of our family. Otherwise we will have no control over what they do and how it impacts on us.

 

The play was done at the NEC; it won an award and so forth. But more important than that is the fact that through reviews, word of mouth or whatever a lot of people heard about it. So that the play wound up being done all over the place, even in the Detroit School System. And it is still the most popular play I have written thus far.

A Soldier’s Play   

 

I guess I should start by saying that I’ve always had this enormous fascination with the black soldier because throughout history he has been the only character who has functioned on equal footing with white people. During the settling of the Old West black soldiers were the police of the area. They fought in the Civil War and when it came time to do equal things only the black soldier had the opportunity to do so. Then when he came back to civilian life he was once again relegated to a subservient role. But after World War Two black soldiers came back and were the first group of blacks who went to college on the GI Bill. So they became the middle class of the 1950s and 60s. What I did with A Soldier’s Play was research the whole period. I wanted to research what blacks had done in the Second World War. Around that same time my best friend the poet and playwright Larry Neal died and as a memorial to Larry I wrote A Soldier’s Play. The play is in a way not just a memorial to my friend but also  in a way an attempt on my part to demonstrate that the black soldiers and the black officers were on the leading edge of what was going to change America in the 1950s and 60s. Davenport tells the white captain at the end of the play that you might as well get used to taking orders from black people because things in this country are starting to change. And he is in a position to begin to do that. So A Soldier’s Play was the result of a lot of research.

 

The Pulitzer Prize

 

It was done by the NEC with Doug directing a dream cast that has gone on to make names for themselves on stage, on TV and in the movies. During the run one day Leon Denmark (managing director for the NEC) called and said: “Charles, I think you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize.  I told him to hold off for a minute “Cause if you’re wrong I’d be awfully embarrassed to tell people I won when it just wasn’t so.” But then they announced it and Doug and I shared an interesting moment, because I called him and told him. We were very proud to have done it, to have worked as hard as we did and have the results be something so wonderful and acknowledged in this way. For me that was probably the most extraordinary moment of my relationship with Doug and the company. Now let me add quickly that I have always considered it our prize. That is the NEC and Doug and me and all the actors and everyone else who worked so hard on the production to make it what it was. I wrote the play but they were the ones who took care of the rest of it for me.

 

 

The WE Plays

 

After A Soldier’s Play it was important for me to try something totally new in terms of my own work and try something very different in terms of its complexities.  So that’s when I thought I’d tell a story over an extended period of time. Forty years to be exact. And in the process of telling this story introduce characters that you would meet again and again because you would meet them in different plays. Each play, each story would be connected but nevertheless each would stand on its own and yet when you look at the entire work it would just be one story. Sort of like a mosaic. It was very complicated and I didn’t know if it would work but the challenge was in doing it… The movies Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind and others have suggested that black people during that period were fools. They could not read, could not write, and could not talk. That they could do nothing but hope and rely on the goodwill of the white people they served. But the truth is quite different and part of the challenge for me was to contrast the nature of the story I’m telling against Birth of a Nation or against any of those stories which have become a part of the American myth and American attitudes in this society. So these facts about ourselves, these truths about black people that were for the most part obscured by Southern and Northern histories are now being overturned.  The book Reconstruction by Eric Foner and a variety of other pieces about the life of the slaves are overturning the idea that the slaves were stupid and incompetent.  So what I’m doing with the WE Plays is simply taking that history and examining it in realistic terms. It must be understood that we developed a class of people during that time who ran for public office. That they had to have strategists and campaign bosses in order to do so. If slavery prevented us from learning things, how was it possible that directly thereafter we created a class of people who had enough intelligence to start voting and start building political machines? So that was the idea, the challenge and the execution that became four plays collectively called The WE Plays. Individually they were Sally, Prince, Jonquil and Burner’s Frolic. The NEC did them during the 1988/89 and 1989/90 season with Doug once again directing.

 

About the NEC and Douglas Turner Ward

 

Theatre in America is fundamentally a segregated institution. If black people were to rely on American mainstream theatre, we would for the most part never see ourselves in those productions. We would not have any sense of ourselves as people in this country operating and functioning as human beings in the United States because most theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights except for the one or two they deem acceptable to their subscribers. Doug and the NEC for the longest while provided this country with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre.

 

Douglas Turner Ward is a writer so his commitment was to writers. The NEC besides being many other things was primarily a playwright’s theatre. I mean you can’t ask for more than that. Other theatres commit to different things, subscribers, raising money, their board of directors and all sorts of things. But the NEC under Doug every year opened their season with new plays. Every single year for nearly thirty years. No one else has ever done that. No other theatre I know has had that much commitment to playwrights. That’s an extraordinary thing and Doug ought to be really thanked for that. And certainly as a playwright I thank him all the time.

 

(Interview taped in 1988 and updated in 2011)

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