Backstage at NEC: Marie McKinney 28 Years Since Theatre 4 NYC

top l. Graham Brown, bottom l. Ester Rolle, l. center & bottom r. Rosalind Cash, bottom r. Gerald Krone

Marie McKinney l., Angela Bassett r. at National Black Theatre Festival, Winston Salem, NC 1994

Negro Ensemble Company was exciting in those days at Theatre 4! Marie McKinney was NEC’s wardrobe supervisor and her costume shop was above the big flag, up the stairs on the second floor between the men’s and women’s dressing rooms. The place where actors and tech congregated. This was the time when, Samuel L. Jackson was Sam Jackson,  Phylicia Rashad was Phylicia Ayers Allen (Debbie Allen’s sister), L Scott Caldwell was “Scottie” we had a Count in our midst ( Count Stovall !), Brad Brewer gave life to an 8 foot puppet made by Wardrobe Supervisor, Marie McKinney, that dangled in the lobby of The NEC Offices on Broadway for years. Brad Brewer went on to create the Crowtations for the Muppets TV show) and then there was Charlie Brown and Charles Weldon (NEC’s current Artistic Director)!!! Abiola Sinclair of the Amsterdam News reported on everything black. Mary B Davis of Audelco saw and supported all the black plays. Everyone including Laurence Fishburne, did play readings at Garland Lee Thompson’s Frank Silvera’s writers workshop on 125th Street and 8th Ave

Garland Lee Thompson Founding Director of Frank Silvera's Writer's Workshop

(which meets now on Monday nights at Harlem School of the Arts), a door or 2 down from where Popeye’s is now, up 2 flights of a steep stairway on Monday nights.

At Negro Ensemble Co, Lisa Watson did props. Wynn Anderson was House Manager. Jesse Wooden, Stephanie Hughley and Edward Bourke stage managed,while Marie McKinney (actor, singer dancer, writer) Judy Dearing (excellent dancer), Myrna Colley-Lee (then, wife of Morgan Freeman), Fontella Boone (later designer for Spike and other films) designed and produced costumes, Douglas Turner Ward (writer, director, co-founder of NEC and NEC Training Program) and Clinton Turner Davis directed and stage managed, Arnold Pinnix was box office, Malik Yoba (NAACP Image Award-winning American actor and occasional singer. and star of NY Under Cover) was  an usher, Leon Denmark, Douglas Turner Ward and Susan Watson managed in the office a few blocks away on Broadway on 50 something street..

Marie McKinney, The NEC Training Program’s Acting Instructor and Founder of The NEC Monthly Meet at Riverside, got her first job as NEC’s Wardrobe Supervisor. After 2 years of study with Philip Meister at National Shakespeare Company Conservatory, Philip Meister walked Marie McKinney from NSC’s 52 St and 9th Conservatory to the NEC office.  Doug Turner Ward (more on Douglas Turner Ward) met Marie McKinney. As fate would have it. Not long after, (a truly starving artist) she went to the Unbroken Chain Prayer Group at St Lukes Church on 46th Street Between 8th and 9th Ave in NYC where Ben Harney, Olive Pointer-Harney, Noel Pointer, Ray and many of the Broadway and Off Broadway actors met, sang, eat, networked and prayed. It was a close group with a small, anointed, gospel/jazz flavor.Music and Arts HS and Juillaid, runs BAMSS Theatre and programs in Brooklyn now.

Marie McKinney confided: “Stephanie Hughley asked me if I had ever done costumes, I said yes (??), which meant: “I’ll do anything right now and, actors always says yes and figure it out later”.  I had worked as a  seamstress. I  had spent the summer sewing for designer Sara Mique.  Judy Dearing’s Brilliance bridged the gaps. I got to meet virtually all the greatest black actors, who would become famous within the decade.. I remember wishing the world experience the talents of Sam Jackson and Carol Maillard and Delroy Lindo and Keith David and Frances Foster… Black was not necessarily in, in the 80’s.  Denzel and Adolf Caesar were leaving to film Soldiers Story based on A Soldier’s Play which had just closed as I loaded in my first show there.  Puppet Play by Pearl Cleage with Seret Scott , Phylicia Ayers Allen (Rashad).and puppeteer Brad Brewer was directed by Clinton Turner Davis, who pioneered diversity in the arts as Co-Founder of Non-Traditional Casting Project in NYC . My designer, Judy Dearing.”

“I never told anyone ,that I had spent many of my weekends at my Aunt Juanita Poitier’s house, eating Fig Newtons from their cookie drawer, running passed the Oscars in the stairs in their great hall, with black and white tiles, over looking the ping pong table on their back porch.  I rode many hours on their bike to the main road and back at my Bahama cousin’s, Pleasantville, NY house.  Sydney Poitier’s fame was of little consequence to me.  As an 8 year old, I was more interested in cookies and running around the house’s secret passageways.

My cousin, Gina Poitier, my sister Margaret and I played “Operation”, eaves-dropped on Sherri Poitier and Pamela Poitier’ s girl talk, watched as they sewed dresses.  Jean and Aunt Juanita cooked African, peanut butter stew and spoke of their trips to Paris. We  listened to Guy Davis play the blues guitar and my brother Theo McKinney play the piano (self-trained virtuosos, the really talented ones).  We made up skits before we knew what the word improv mean’t,  in the living room.

Guy Davis Bluesman

Theo is a great artist, (yet humble to a fault) visual artist as well.  Sidney Poitier (when he came home)  taught the children, from his example, from his amazing, jaw-dropping presence, when we walked into a room.

Many celebrities like Cab Calloway family, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Harry Belefonte ‘s family, The Manhattans.. always came to birthday’s, weddings, weekend happenings.

I learned early that I could not share the knowledge of my special cousin with everyone.  I was mocked and laughed at during 5th grade  show and tell.

Sidney taught his children, at that time,  that they had to “make it” on their own first. .. I agreed.. Until years later.   I played Nellie Monk in Laurence Holder’s 3 character play called Monk ‘n’ Bud with Alvin Alexis and Tony Jackson at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem. Sidney Poitier was being honored that year.  Irene Gandy noticed when Aunt Juanita and the family were hugging me in the lobby. The next thing I knew, we were included in all the press conferences. We took the show to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, The Festival for Experimental Theatre in Cairo, Egypt and of course the premiere was at  Crystal Field’s and George Bartenieff’s Theatre for the New City in NYC.”

Alvin Alexis Marie McKinney Tony Jackson in Laurence Holder's Monk 'n' Bud directed by Jasper McGruder and Tom Ross

As wardrobe supervisor at NEC’s Theatre 4 ,  “I washed many dirty shirts and underwear, quick-changed and calmed many actors. Learned from the best costume designers and directors. Learned to run an arts business from over heard phone and after the show conversations with Epatha Merkerson Phyllicia Rashad and Carol  Maillard and Elain

l. to r.Alvin Alexis, Michele Shay, Samuel L. Jackson in NEC's WE plays

Graham and Michele Shay and Clinton Turner Davis…. I learned most importantly that humility and team work go along way when dealing with production staff. You fool yourself when you base your success on who you know and how well they think you are doing, instead of what you are doing, how you are making a difference. The ability to keep doing the next right thing with or without the agreement of others is key.  I have so much still to learn.”

As Wardrobe Supervisor, Marie was able to witness the great work of Samuel L Jackson (before film) when he, Delroy Lindo, Count Stovall, Graham Brown, Frances Foster, Arthur French, Keith David, Walter Allen Bennett, Bill Jay, Reuben Santiago Hudson, Carla Brothers, Alvin Alexis (who later was awarded and traveled  with her to Eqypt, N.C. and Scotland with Laurence Holder’s 3 character play Monk ‘n’ Bud)…. Charles McClennahan created that great set with the huge car coming out of the wall for District Line with Sam Jackson as the snake like character “Side Winder”. Says Marie, “I think the best performances while I was there were in: Trevor Rhone‘s Two Can Play with Hazel Medina and Sullivan Walker and Leslie Lee’s Colored People’s Time with Carol Maillard, Charles Weldon, L Scott Caldwell, Angela Bassett… I don’t know if Phylicia Rashad has ever forgiven me for putting her dress on backwards in one of my first  quick changes at Negro Ensemble Company. Yes I was an actor you learned to be a dresser in time..It was a little like being a child in a candy store on a vegetarian diet. It turned out it was a lot harder to find costumers and at that time. I learned so much from the actors about life and arts in NYC.”

Michele Shay included her in Arts and Essence Magazine events and PR at Michelle’s house, Hazel Medina took time to encourage and talk the artist in her, Malik Yoba talked of his many dreams of performing and and they would always promise each other that they would some day be on stage there or on TV. That happened, when she worked for several months as a waitress on TV show New York Undercover (many SAG hours were spent on that set.  She would go on to play Carmen the waitress in Carlotta’s Diner on ABC’s “One Life to Live” for 9 months). Sandra Reeves Phillips inspired Marie while she made costumes for Saundra’s travelling show Great Ladies of the Blues. Says Marie McKinney, Lisa Watson, Clinton Turner Davis, Count Stovall, Keith David, Charles Weldon, Charlie Brown, Ves Weaver, Frances Foster, Stephanie Hughley..  taught me so much about life and art and being black in NYC. I am very grateful.”

After the show Split Second in 1984 by Dennis McIntyre with Michelle Shay and John Donnell , Marie McKinney moved on to her acting career on stage, film and TV, with many great stories, as she watched the doors of NEC’s Theatre 4 close. Much of the memorabilia, plays and info from that time is housed in the Schomberg Center for Reseach in Black Culture’s NEC Archives on 135th St And Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem with some holdings in an off site archive in NJ.

Marie McKinney began working to build NEC with O.L Duke and Robert Whaley in 2000 from the 42St and 8th Avenue Theatre location at 303 W 42St;

O.L. Duke

marketing, costuming and writing for the play like Tea, Taxes and Shakespeare for young audiences, and she was incorporated into Lou Meyer’s A Little Bit of Something as a dancer, actor and on stage quick change costumer.

In 2003, Marie McKinney ran the NEC Arts-in Education Residency Program, including work with The Richard R Green Middle School’s: The Forward School for Creative Writing, which partnered with principal, Terry Ballard, to create a black box cafe in this public school, created original choreography, scripts and original music in parttnership with NYU Film School, which aired “The Skillet Show”on MNN Cable TV and initiated the schools Creative Writing Newspaper. As an Acting Instructor and the Co-Founder of the re-launch of what was called The Negro Ensemble Company Training Program, started in Robert Hook’s apartment in 1967, Marie McKinney, Erik Kilpatrick,  Leslie Lee, Beverly Summers and Laurence Holder now carry their accomplishments into the future with play writing and acting workshops. The NEC Monthly Meet, every first Saturday at Riverside provides resources and info to artists, writers, directors and tech, about the many service organizations and tools available for producing their work on stage and screen in the US and abroad.

Marie McKinney presents Laurence Holder with plaque, cast of NEC's Lost and Found: Classic Plays and Emerging Playwrights 2009 featuring Actors and Playwrights from NEC's Training Program

NEC Actor’s Training Program features acting, voice production, character, classics and style, dramaturgy, improvisation, accents and play writing workshops , a website providing information, articles, grants, events, opportunities and resources to artists, writers, directors and arts organizations called and the The NEC  Monthly Meet (1st Saturdays at Riverside Church home of Theatre of the Opressed Multi-Purpose Room) ) gives arts professionals access to artist service orgainzations, small business resources, structures and teams to fulfill on their arts projects. Meets have featured staff from Arts Service Organizations, Film Producers and have covered Grants and Website development, career development, business planning and free business tools available for to grow arts businesses. The group is developing it’s mission statement as a team, planning and creating arts projects for the coming year at Riverside Church and other venues, building partnerships with The Field, Harlem Arts Alliance, Fractured Atlas,  and other Artist Service Organizations..