Reading between races

By Jerry Tallmer

Signature Theatre’s season of Negro Ensemble Company classics

Lorraine Hansberry, who at 29 broke through insurmountable barriers as the first black woman ever to write a play that reached — burst upon — Broadway, did more than even she knew with her 1959 “A Raisin in the Sun.”

It was in the road company of that seminal drama about black American existence in a white world that two up-and-coming black actors first met who would not long later push the door of theater wide open to all black American actors, directors, playwrights, designers everywhere.

The names of the two pioneers were and are Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks. Their creation was the Negro Ensemble Company, which for close to 30 years from its start in 1967 would provide a home, a seedbed, a training ground, a showcase, and a launching pad for some 200 plays, almost as many playwrights, and literally thousands of black actors of all ages.

“I was 35,” says the grizzle-mustached old lion that Doug Ward is today. “Bobby was five or six years younger, and Gerry” — Gerald Krone, the third (and white) founding father of NEC — “was about my age.”

Almost every black actor or actress who is now a bright star of the stage, the large screen, or the small screen came to it out of NEC. Just to give an idea, 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.

It is that historic Negro Ensemble Company to which James Houghton’s Signature Theatre Company is devoting an entire current season of readings of various plays from the NEC canon, with Douglas Turner Ward as curator and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as associated artist.

(Charles Fuller’s most terrifying play, the 1980 “Zooman and the Sign,” gets reprised at Signature, 555 West 42nd Street, March 3 to April 26. There will be a staged reading April 20 of “A Season to Unravel,” by Alexis De Vaux.)

The series started in mid-December with James A. Walker’s 1972 “The River Niger,” and continued just this past Sunday and Monday with readings of the very much off-off-Broadway 1965 comedy that actually sparked the whole business, Doug Ward’s own scathing ”Day of Absence,” in which a small sleepy town in this country’s Deep South wakes up one morning to find that its black people — the people who do the hard, dirty work — have entirely disappeared. Catastrophe!

Robert Hooks, young as he was, was in the middle 1960s conducting a workshop in Chelsea for even younger actors, teenage kids, most of them black, who wanted to become actors. He asked his friend Doug Ward if he could use another of Ward’s comedies, “Happy Ending,” in which two black old ladies go gabbing away, as a practice tool (two black old ladies played by 17-year-olds). And one fine day in 1965 this newspaperman came to see if there was a story in what Hooks was doing. And wrote it up.

“You gave me heart attack,” says the Doug Ward of today. “I’m on the Metroliner to Washington and I see this headline: ‘a hilarious play,’ and it’s my play. I had no intention of it ever being done. But it gave Bobby the courage to put the two plays together: — and the double-bill of ”Day of Absence” and “Happy Ending” opened in November 1965 at the St. Mark’s Playhouse, one flight up over a Second Avenue movie house, and would run there for 14 or 15 smash months.

The opening-night casts included Adolph Caesar, Lonne Elder, Frances Farmer, Moses Gunn. Barbara Ann Teer, Robert Hooks, Doug Ward — and Arthur French, who just this season, 43 years later, was so wonderful to behold on Broadway in Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate.”

The St. Marx double-bill — especially “Day of Absence” — “created a buzz, you know,” says Ward.

“This was in the days when we still had seven daily newspapers, and Howard Atlee as our [low-key but indefatigable] press agent.

Seymour Peck, the Arts & Leisure editor of The New York Times, who was alert to new trends and open to differing points of view, invited Ward to write an article saying anything he wished. It appeared on August 14, 1966, under the headline: “american theater; for whites only?” a long, thoughtful, angry piece — surprisingly angry even today in rereading it four decades later.

“Next thing I know,” says Ward, “I’m at a cocktail party and Ray Lamontagne, who’s now the president of City Center, says to me: ‘The grapevine has it that McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation wants to talk to you. Call him.’ ”

So Doug Ward did.

“When we met, Mac [Lowry] told me he had been interested in supporting a black, Negro, ethnic, whatever you want to call it, theater. What had impressed him was that we had done something ourselves, independently. Earlier he had given seed money to a group that had never come through with a concrete proposal — which made us all the more attractive to him.

“This was all new to me. I had never been in that world, the world of grants and foundations,” says the man whose only previous relationship with corporate America had been in articles he’d once upon a time written for the Daily Worker.

The triumvirate of Hooks, Ward, and Gerald Krone sat down one night in the Orchidia restaurant, Second Avenue and 9th Street — “later, one of the first victims of gentrification” — to formulate a concrete proposal.

And, to make a long story short, received from the Ford Foundation something over $400,000 up front, and around a million and a half over three years, to bring forth the Negro Ensemble Company.

“How did Gerry Krone get involved? Very simply,” says Ward. “When Bobby said he was going to produce both those plays together, I thought he was crazy. He didn’t have a dime. We needed a manager.

“Gerald Krone and Dorothy Olim — as Krone & Olim — managed 90 percent of all off-Broadway shows in those years. Gerry got hooked on my outline of what could be as a part of black theater. He got hooked. It became his own mission.

“Whereas I was the visionary, the artist, the creative force — all of that shit. But oh God, we got blasted on all sides. Before all this, I was considered the goodest guy. As soon as it was announced that we’d got the money, I became the chief villain.

“We got blasted for not being up in Harlem but down in the Village — well, okay, the East Village. For the third person being a white person. And for using the word Negro — you may remember this was during the sea change from Negro to black.

“Bobby and Gerry said: ‘Why don’t we change to black?’’ I said: ‘No, we’re not going to change, that would signal that we were vulnerable to outside pressure about the content of our work. Our work will define us. The moment we do good theater, all that stuff will go away.’ ”

Douglas Turner Ward is a tough old lion indeed. Born May 5, 1930, in Burnside, Louisiana, he grew up in New Orleans, where his plantation-worker parents became tailors “and my mother a brilliant seamstress.”

It was at Wilberforce University, in Xemia, Ohio, that he “got hooked on theater for all the wrong reasons.” Namely, girls.

Lucky for all of us, black or white — for all the right reasos.