May 22 gala honors Poitier, Dee, others

The Gala honorees, with Woodie King, Jr. (back row, third from right). Photo by Gerry Goodstein

By Jerry Tallmer | You’d be surprised how many people are still disturbed by a 1955 motion picture called “The Blackboard Jungle,” written and directed by brash Richard Brooks. They probably most vividly recall — at least I do — the rotten bastard overage New York City high school punk (terrific Vic Morrow), who, one by one, smashes the beloved vintage 78s brought into the classroom by Glenn Ford (as a soft-spoken teacher who cares).

Less sharp in many memories would be the tall, noncommittal cool spade — to use the cynical label of that era — who sits in the back row of the same classroom, taking in the scene, saying very little.

This was a then almost unknown actor named Sidney Poitier, three years before he would shake up the movie-going country as a fugitive young black man handcuffed to fugitive white man Tony Curtis in Stanley Kramer’s 1958 “The Defiant Ones.”

Nobody in America could have been more shook up by that film than a young black Alabama-born Detroiter named Woodie King, Jr. (who came upon “The Defiant Ones” by chance two days after graduating from high school).

“I’d never seen anything like it,” says King, all these years — more than half a century — later. “I went back again, and again, and again. I sent him [Poitier] a letter care of Columbia Pictures” — and of course never got a reply.

Aspiring actor King then wrote to the American Negro Theater in Harlem where he’d read that Poitier and Ruby Dee had gone. This time he received a reply: “You’d do better to stay in Detroit.”

So says the King whose intercultural, interracial, interethnic, inter-everything New Federal Theatre (NFT) set forth in 1970 — with a scarifying production of “Suddenly Last Summer” by Tennessee Williams (directed in a Lower East Side church basement — St. Augustine’s — by King himself).

Tennessee Williams came to see it.

Suddenly in this (oncoming) summer of birth certificates and ignominy, it occurs to the person you are reading that we are not just talking here about a white playwright of some genius handcuffed to a stubborn, inspired black theatrical pioneer whose father drove a grocery truck (“huge sacks of beans”) in Mobile, Alabama — but, yes, dear Donald Trump and all you other maniacal race-baiting creeps everywhere, this story also bears on the very fabric and muscle of our home of the brave and land of the free.

Barack Obama got to Columbia University, Harvard Law School and the Oval Office. Woodie King, Jr., got to New York City. But he isn’t complaining. Nor are the several entire generations of playwrights, directors and actors — black, white, red, yellow, purple, whatever — who’ve followed him there over the years.

“Do you realize,” King had been saying, “that when Sidney Poitier came to New York from Nassau at the age of 16, he could not read. He slept on rooftops [and in the bus terminal toilets] and taught himself to read.

“By his 20s, he was already in two Hollywood movies. For ‘The Defiant Ones’ he was nominated for an Academy Award. From not being able to read, he had come all the way to being nominated for an Oscar.”

If I can read, young King asked himself, why can’t I do that?

Poitier is at the top of the list of those receiving special tributes at the New Federal Theatre’s 40th Reunion Gala Benefit on May 22. But wear and tear at age 84 are expected to keep him from attending. If I can read….

Indeed, 18-year-old King could read — and from 1958 to 1960, he spent all day every day in a Detroit public library (open 10am to 8pm) soaking up all he could of plays, playwriting, stagecraft, fiction, non-fiction, poetry, history, art, literature, everything.

In Detroit in those years, “A high school diploma might get you a job in a factory,” but it wouldn’t get you what, for King, was “seething beneath” — music, theater, poetry, art.

Looking into catalogues and school ads, he found the Will-O-Way Apprentice Theater in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — a community rich in sculpture, architecture, the arts. And there “a lady in a wheelchair” took him in hand, treated him to breakfast, kept him all day. She was Will-O-Way founder Theresa Way Merrill, and her daughter Celia ran the school. They took King in, gave him a scholarship.

The stagestruck black kid had another encourager: the Reverend Malcolm Boyd (author, poet, playwright, gay crusader, Episcopal priest). They toured all over Michigan with Boyd’s “Study in Color.” It was Boyd who sent King off to New York in 1964, and whose “Study in Color” was done that same year at the fledgling Theatre Genesis at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, just before an unknown playwright, named Sam Shepherd, showed up there. Boyd, now in his late 80s, is among those to be honored at the gala.

As for King, he would latch on in 1965 as an understudy for the satirical all-black Douglas Turner Ward double-bill of “Day of Absence” and “Happy Ending” that would flower into the seminal, multitudinous Negro Ensemble Company, upstairs over a movie house on Second Avenue, in parallel with what King himself was soon to start at the Henry Street Settlement at 466 Grand Street.

He’d got there by way of Mobilization for Youth, an East 2nd Street trouble-shooting drama and dance training ground run by Bertram Beck (“who was tall and Jewish and handsome”) and Val Coleman (who was radical and not so tall and a playwright and feisty and Irish).

One of the advisers of the MFY trainees was the equally feisty movie director/producer Otto Preminger.

King remembers: “Val was Otto’s son-in-law. Otto wanted to get Martin Luther King, Jr., to be in a movie he, Otto, was making. Val told Martin Luther King not to do it.”

Fireworks. Explosions. Maybe not for that reason, when Beck went off to Grand Street, Woodie King Jr. went with him. And yes, in later years the NFT would do two plays by Coleman and one or more by Coleman’s wife and Preminger’s daughter, the gifted novelist Ann Borowik, who died just a year ago.

[Hello, Val. Where are you and how are you?]

The New Federal Theatre — where did that come from? Why, from the old Federal Theater Project that King had learned about from books, newspapers and masterful teachers who were there from the beginning in the 1930s, like the Group Theater’s Harold (“The Fervent Years”) Clurman.

The New Deal’s Federal Theater that kept so many actors, directors, playwrights, et al from starving to death during the Depression — until the witch-hunting know-nothings in Congress pole-axed its tough, insightful, courageous administrator Hallie Flanagan, and the Fed Theater itself of course — in 1939.

“I was into the WPA and Hallie Flanagan and all that,” says the King whose NFT would one day revisit the 1930s Orson Welles’s “Macbeth” of those adventurous years. Perhaps some day King’s New Federal Theatre will also resurrect Welles’s powerfully anti-Fascist “Julius Caesar” that was so exciting to this high schooler that he can never stop writing about it.

When King hit New York in 1964, the city was still full of “BIRD LIVES” proclamations of the immortality of the Charlie Parker who had left us back in 1955. I can visualize to this day the “BIRD LIVES” whitewashed on the concrete entrance to the subway at Sheridan Square — and so can King, whose NFT just this 2011 season has had a successful staging of “Cool Blues,” a play by Bill Harris about, yes, the death of Charlie Parker.

It was not quite as great a success, however, as J.E. Franklin’s “Black Girl,” the play that, directed by brown and beautiful Shauneille Perry, headlined NFT’s second (1971-1972) season with a smash-hit eight-month run.

And it was not as broad in reach, particularly for women, as Ntozake Shange’s poetic “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf.”

New Federal’s dramatic menu over the years — a feast with something more than 200 courses — has been wide-ranging indeed: all the way from black baseball’s Josh Gibson and Satchel Page to the one single drama that had made all the rest of this possible, the late 29-year-old Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun.”

The person who lifted Lorraine over the footlights and up to the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre opening night of that show, March 11, 1959, fifty-two years ago, was the play’s angry young man, Walter Lee Younger, better known as Sidney Poitier.

Dee played his worn, weary and heroic wife. Forty years later (1998) she graced the New Federal Theatre with her autobiographical “My One Good Nerve.” If Poitier doesn’t make it to the Edison, I hope she does.

Sunday, May 22
At the Edison Hotel Ballroom (240 W. 47th St., btw. 8th Ave. and Broadway)
For tickets ($400), call 212-838-2660, ext. 17
Visit newfederaltheatre.org