Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Woodie King, Jr. and Douglas Turner Ward to Be Honored in Sidewalk Ceremony at Theatre 80 St. Marks

Woodie King Jr. (Photo by Lia Chang)

Woodie King Jr. (Photo by Lia Chang)

On Wednesday, November 16 at 4:30 PM, a Sidewalk Signing and Honors Ceremony will be held onstage at Theater 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Marks Place. Douglas Turner Ward, founder of The Negro Ensemble Company(NEC) and Woodie King, Jr., founding director of New Federal Theatre (NFT), will add their signatures and hand prints to Theatre 80’s Sidewalk of Stars, which currently includes Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Alan Cumming and many other lights of theater.

The event slightly precedes the 50th Anniversary production of “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward, which will be presented by NEC December 4 to 11 at Theatre 80 St. Marks as the kick-off event of the company’s 50th season. The ceremony coincides with the run of NFT’s production of “Zora Neale Hurston” by Laurence Holder, which is running through November 20 at Castillo Theatre, 543 West 42nd Street, directed by Mr. King.

Brandon J. Dirden

Brandon J. Dirden

The ceremony will be co-hosted by actor/director Charles Weldon, Artistic Director of NEC, and actor Brandon Dirden, who appeared in Signature Theatre’s season of classic plays of NEC in 2009 and has been a firm supporter of the Company ever since. In 2012, Brandon Dirden was awarded an OBIE Award, AUDELCO VIV Award and a Theater World Award and was nominated for The Drama League and Lucille Lortell awards for his portrayal of Boy Willie in the Signature Theatre’s revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Charles Weldon is known for his memorable roles in “Stir Crazy,” “The River Niger,” “A Soldier’s Play” and “New York Undercover,” among many others. Charles Weldon joined NEC as an actor in 1970 and became Artistic Director in 2005. He says, “I am deeply committed to the preservation of the art, culture and voice from the African American experience as an actor and director. The Negro Ensemble Company has been a major force in theater since 1967. We must continue to deliver the brilliance of our expression. I am very proud to be part of the company’s history and present and will continually work to ensure NEC’s place in the future of American theater.”

Next month, to launch its 50th anniversary season, The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) is presenting an eight-performance run of its very first production, “Day of Absence” by Douglas Turner Ward, from December 4 to 11 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Mark’s Place. The piece is one of the most famous contributions of Black playwrights to the Off-Broadway movement in the 1960’s. It jokes wildly about a Southern town on a day when all its Negroes mysteriously vanish. This play, presented with Mr. Ward’s “Happy Ending” in 1965, pushed the door of theater wide open for black American actors, directors, playwrights, designers everywhere and created the audience for the cohort of treasured Black playwrights who came after.

NEC’s upcoming 50th season will include three more productions at Theatre 80 St. Marks and one at La MaMa. The Signing Ceremony will bring attention to an IndieGoGo campaign that will benefit NEC’s entire season.

The ceremony will also celebrate the neighborhood of St. Mark’s Place for being a wellspring of Black Theater in the USA. The double-bill of “Day of Absence” and “Happy Ending” opened in November 1965 at the St. Mark’s Playhouse, which was one flight up over a the old movie house at Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, a stone’s throw from Theatre 80 St. Marks. Today the old St. Marks Playhouse building at 133 Second Avenue has shops and restaurants on the ground floor and condominiums on the upper levels. Lorcan Otway, owner of Theater 80, beams that he is “proud and honored to host and welcome back the Negro Ensemble Company to the street upon which they changed the face of New York Theater.”

Otway adds, “Growing up in theater on Saint Mark’s Place, I was aware that a cultural and political renaissance was happening just up the block, on the corner where my father’s friends and colleagues in theater were putting important and brilliantly constructed work on the boards. I recall how my father would speak about his friendship with Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks, pioneers in bringing, more than Black faces to American theater, but Black issues, Black culture and Black lives to the mainstream. For younger folks, I may have to remind that these were times when America was still struggling to knock down the walls of de jure apartheid in the United States. What was happening on the corner was brave and revolutionary theater. The Otway family was proud to support the NEC as audience and neighbors then, and to help bring the historic play “Day of Absence” to our stage now.”

Otway continues, “My father often said to me that to be progressive, one had to understand that progress is not a one-way march, that there would be setbacks. And that in order not to give up, burn out, a young progressive must never believe that positive change is permanent. We are living in times which cry out for the light shed on the vital issues of the day. The Negro Ensemble Company defines the role of activist and responsible theater. Today, I know that bringing the work of the NEC back to the neighborhood will be a stepping stone to progress as we prepare a place at Theatre 80 for young cultural revolutionaries who have now become the treasured elders and mentors to a new generation of audience seeking meaningful art on stage.”

Theater journalist Beate Hein Bennett remembers, “While I did not see the original ‘Day of Absence’ (I was not in NYC then), I knew the original St. Marks Playhouse upstairs on 2nd Avenue between 8th and 9th Street because my first NYC ‘radical theatre’ experience happened there in January 1965 with ‘The Toilet’ and ‘The Slave’ by (then) LeRoi Jones. The owner/producers of that theatre space were Lynne Michaels and Harry Baum (The Open Space Theatre Experiment), who gave that space to NEC in the company’s early existence. Thanks to the NEC, Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, and the Free Southern Theatre in New Orleans, Black theatre artists could finally emerge in the 60s and be accepted as serious artists and flourish. It’s great that the founding institutions and their originators finally are acknowledged and find space.”

Producer and theater journalist Retta Blaney brings a different perspective to memories of the street, writing “I have been hoping for years that his play [“Day of Absence”] would be revived. I had been thinking it would be a good commentary on the anti-immigrant thinking — try to imagine a day in NYC without immigrants. The city would fall apart just as the town in the play does without its black workers. It’s a brilliant satire. Did you know this is the play that Charles S. Dutton read while in solitary confinement that changed his life? He performed the mayor’s monologue for the prison talent show and felt his power. He decided to stop fighting, got his GED and associates degree, was released, got his college degree in acting and won a scholarship to Yale — going from jail to Yale in two years. After Yale he was cast in an August Wilson play on Broadway, making what the New York Times called the most remarkable Broadway debut in history.” She adds, “Douglas Turner Ward is important to me because he was the first Willy Loman I ever saw in the first-ever all black production of ‘Death of a Salesman’ at CenterStage in Baltimore.”

NEC’s awards include a Pulitzer Price (1982, “A Soldier’s Play”), two Tony Awards, eleven Obies and many more. Its legacy reads like a Who’s Who of America’s Black theater artists. One NEC show alone, Charles Fuller’s 1981 Pulitzer-winning “A Soldier’s Play,” gave birth, so to speak, to film and television’s Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Pickens, Jr. In 2009, Signature Theatre presented a season of readings of various plays from the NEC canon, with Douglas Turner Ward as curator and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as associated artist.

Prior to the 1960s, there were virtually no outlets for the wealth of black theatrical talent in America. In 1965, Playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone founded The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (NEC). The River Niger by Joe Walker, originally produced at, St. Marks Playhouse (NEC’s home theatre), moved to Broadway and was awarded 1973 Obie Awards for Distinguished Performance by Douglas Turner Ward; Best American Play, Joseph A. Walker, and Distinguished Performance by Roxie Roker. Other works include Peter Weiss’ Song of the Lucitanian Bogey (1967), Lonnie Elder’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (1969) and Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign (1980). In 1981, NEC mounted A Soldier’s Play, by Charles Fuller. The play won both the Critics Circle Best Play Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The film version, A Soldier’s Story, was released in 1984 and nominated for three Academy Awards. NEC has produced more than two hundred new plays and provided a theatrical home for more than four thousand cast and crew members. Among its ranks have been some of the best black actors in television and film, including Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Denise Nichols, Esther Rolle, Adolph Caesar Laurence Fishnurne, Glynn Turman, Reuben Santiago-Hudson, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Phylicia Rashad; playwrights include Steve Carter (intentionally lower case), Samm-Art Williams, Leslie Lee. NEC continues to be a constant source and sustenance for black actors, directors, and writers as they have worked to break down walls of racial prejudice.

Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre shares with NEC the inspiration that started on St. Marks Place. The two organizations have been entwined, so to speak, since the 60’s. Woodie had met Ward and NEC co-founder Robert Hooks when they were in Detroit with The Road Company of “Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry. Later in New York, Woodie was hired as a replacement understudy in the “Day of Absence”/”Happy Ending” double-bill that started the NEC. King founded NFT in 1970 to be in residence at The Henry Street Settlement. NEC was founded in 1967 at St. Mark’s Playhouse. So both companies took root on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Woodie King, Jr. and NEC Co-Founders Ward, Hooks and Krone are now collectively regarded as “pioneers” in discovering, developing and presenting superior quality African American productions and supporting, employing and training African American Playwrights, directors and theater professionals.

Ironically, while NEC is shifting downtown, presenting its upcoming productions at Theatre 80 and La MaMa, NFT is shifting uptown. NFT will relocate its historic Theatre Training Workshops uptown next month to Dwyer Cultural Center at 258 St. Nicholas Ave. (at 123rd Street). These workshops, a fertile training ground for leading African-American Playwrights and actors, were previously held in spaces adjoining the theater’s offices at 292 Henry Street. Last week, The Castillo Theatre and the non-profit All Stars Project announced that NFT will have a permanent performance home in the All Stars performing arts and development center at 543 West 42nd Street. NFT has had a producing partnership with Castillo since 2007.

NFT and its workshops have helped bring to national attention such playwrights as Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, J.e Franklin, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Ron Milner, Joseph Lazardi, Damien Leake, Genny Lim, Laurence Holder, Alexis DeVeaux, and others. Actor veterans include Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Downey, Jr., Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Jackée Harry, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Garrett Morris, Sam MacMurray, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald Vel-Johnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ella Joyce and many more.

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