NEC’s First Douglas Turner Ward Emerging Writers Award at Tisch NYU
Truly, history in the making, Douglas Turner Ward, founder of The Negro Ensemble Company, visionary of Black Theater was interviewed on March 7th, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts by award winning playwright Leslie Lee, as part of NEC’s the first Leslie Lee Playwright’s Award Ceremony.
The event was a collaboration between Negro Ensemble Co. and Adrienne Thompson at the Rita and Burton Goldberg Dept. of Dramatic Writing at The Abe Burrows Theater at NYU. Emerging playwright, Antionette Nwandu, graduate of Harvard University and NYU received a $1000 award Douglas Turner Ward.
Veteran director, Seret Scott and alum of NEC rehearsed The Three Graces, a self-made, coalition of multi-cultural performers. Lively dialogue and valuable coaching was given before and audience of writers, performers and administrators by:
Clinton Turner Davis, a force in American theater for 30 years, as co-founder of Non-Traditional Casting Project, award winning director, producer, dramaturg, consultant, advocate, and production and company manager or, as Davis says, “on all sides of the business, really, from front of house to back of house to boardroom. He directed at NEC for 16 years.
Playwright, Aaron Carter and Dr. Polly Carl, head of The Playwrights’ Center, a quarter-million-dollar fellowship and residency program and producer of the renowned annual PlayLabs Festival, as well as Gregg Henry, American theater, film, and television character actor and rock, blues, and country musician gave valuable insights an a public dialogue with Antoinette Nwandu.
Clinton Turner Davis directed actors, Phylicia Rashad, Seret Scott and puppeteer Brad Brewer in Pearl Cleage’s Puppet Play. A play with an 8 ft puppet made by then wardrobe supervisor, Marie McKinney, who is now an instructor and co-founder of The NEC Rep and NEC Arts in Ed Dept and founder of the Lost Plays of the NEC Archives Events. Audience members were a lively group including: NEC staff, administrators, NEC Rep participants, NYU faculty and students, playwrights and actors, who were able to network with these luminaries of theater history.
The following is an account of Leslie Lee’s interview of Douglas Turner Ward:
Leslie asks Douglas Turner Ward what it was like to start NEC in the 60’s:
During the run of River Niger, Doug explains, he was in L.A., and someone handed him a pamphlet. A magazine called, “The Challenger”, containing an article he wrote when he was 20 years old. It essentially was the proposal for The Negro Ensemble Company. After NEC began, Doug wrote the NY Times “Manifesto” article explaining that Black people need a platform where they are “in charge of what the work is, who it is being done for, who it is being done by”. In 1966, at the time of the article, his plays Happy Ending and Day of Absence were being done across the street (near NYU) at St. Mark’s Playhouse in ’65-66, when the article was written.
Leslie Lee asks whether NEC is a “separatist organization”:
“In my generation, we were pre-mature militants. Lorraine Hansberry, Lonnie Elder and I were a left wing militant movement. “Separatism” never occurred to us. We were “internationals” and being “internationals” doesn’t dilute autonomy. This allowed us to achieve our own destiny. During the run of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, we were always made aware of the importance of solidarity. We were influenced by a wide range of writers, like Sean O’Casey and I for one, consider myself very Brechtian (Bertolt Brecht)”
“The Black Artist Movement was misunderstood and punished for being left wing. The label “Communist” then is like the label ” Terrorist” today.” Doug spent 3 years in jail due to ignorance and false charges of draft evasion were framed against him. He appealed, and finally overturned the charges. Douglas Turner Ward worked with the Labor Youth League. He was exiled to Lousiana and this contributed to his development as a playwright. It was during his exile that he wrote his first play.
On his return to NY his work was criticized by a prominent writing group “They stomped me. They were supposed to be the best writers and they didn’t know anything about playwriting.” They were too busy being politically correct. The play was set in a small town in Mississippi. I was a very assiduous writer. I studied the characters to write it “just like they said it. If the words, “Nigger” or “M..F..” were not in the script, it would not be true to the people. Realistically.” If the script is wrong or exaggerated, yes, “correct it; but not during the process of writing it. This became a great danger to black writers.”
Black writers come from a variety of backgrounds. They often got the same “positive, negative” feedback. NEC championed writers. At NEC we did a wide range of “plays like, “Home”, which was a “boy meets girl” script about a middle class Black family and Gus Edwards’, who allowed you to explicate the script, yourself. Gus won’t explain his scripts. You have to figure it out for yourself.” Leslie Lee, adds: “no one wanted to produce it except NEC, because they felt no one cared about middle class Black people.”
Doug continues: “Don’t start from a premise of self-censorship.”
Leslie Lee asks Doug’s views of playwright August Wilson:
“Black experience cannot be put into one bag. Labels like “The Hood”, do not begin to describe every Black experience.” “We’re talking about 40 million people. It’s a mixed bag. Working class. New Orleans. Mixed Blood.” There are many different experiences. “The source of their experiences couldn’t be harnessed into one way”. “August Wilson was used. As militant as he was; the way he allowed himself to be the only spokesperson for Black writers. As if he were the only one. There was nothing about his presence or work that I hadn’t already done in River Niger. I had already done those plays.”
“Who is Joe Walker? Does anyone know Joe Walker? Joe Walker won the Tony Award, yet just a couple of years later, no one knows him. His name is in the dustbin.” NEC works were prominent. “When we were funded, major educators, like NYU, with all due respect, were not studying them in their curriculum or producing them. Frank Rich made August Wilson. He was his nigger, when he reviewed “Fences”. From then on August was legitimized and August got all the free publicity.” -end of interview-
The interview with Douglas Turner Ward was very telling. It left us with a huge repect for what he and NEC have accomplished, his huge commitment to theater and cultural identity and the work that still needs to be accomplished in giving artists a place to develop new expressions, learn their craft, while celebrating the works of all the many themes and points of view of so many facets of experience. NEC’s sustained presence on 42St in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district is proof positive that Douglas Turner Ward’s dream thrives today. more: www.necinc.org
At Negro Ensemble Company
NEC Repertory: Shaping The Actor’s Instrument
Instructor: Marie McKinney
Play Writing Workshop
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The Art of Being
Instructor: Erik Kilpatrick