WOODIE KING, JR.: Black theatre is not - I’ll tell you what it is not. It is not written and directed by white people.
WOODIE KING, JR.: I had no idea that anything like theater even existed. Three or four days after I graduated high school I saw a movie with Sidney Poitier. Starring in a film called The Defiant Ones where he was the star, uh, with Tony Curtis. I said, “Who is this?”, and then the journey began.
WOODIE KING, JR.: But the journey was unbelievably difficult. The journey was like no journey I would ever subject a young African American to. From cleaning theaters, to stage managing, they having a walk-on parts, uh, when I knew, I felt, I have read almost every play in the library by the, within a year after seeing Sidney Poitier and discovering all of the contributions which he came through and that at seventeen, Sidney Poitier couldn’t read. And at twenty-four he was nominated for an ac-Academy Award for The Defiant Ones, so there was, there could not be an excuse for me, not to pursue what I wanted to pursue.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE (Actress, Director & Board member The New Federal Theatre): I began my early career as an actress and Woodie was always a champion of women, women artists. And so he allowed me, gave me my opportunity to direct shows.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: So Mr. King, tell me about the founding of New Federal Theatre.
WOODIE KING, JR.: I came from Detroit, touring in a play, which was a hit that I produced and co-directed and uh, we toured all over the United States in churches. It was done for the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity. And the money went for voter’s registration and all of that, in 1964. And uh, so, when I arrived in New York, uh, we did it at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery. It’s called Studying in Color, by the Reverend Malcolm Boyd.
Elizabeth Van Dyke: Wow.
WOODIE KING, JR: And he had an unbelievable influence, spiritually and as a religious person on me, who was also involved in the Civil Rights.
WOODIE KING, JR,: She said, “Well, how would you run this theater?” So I had the outline for the theater I had uh, studied at in Michigan, Willoway School of Theater. So, I, uh, almost copied it (laughs). Oh, man, two or three days later I went back with these eight pages and not only was she impressed, she says, “Wow. OK now. I gotta give this to some people”. One of the people she had to give it to who’s in control for the government money to run this program was Adam Clay Powell. And we get a grant from the office of Juvenile Delinquency for five-hundred thousand dollars, and so we had a training program. And that’s how that worked so well, that the head of that agency, Mobilization for Youth ask me to come in. Henry Street. And therefore New Federal.
WOODIE KING, JR: It did all begin here in Saint Augustin’s Church, because this is a historical landmark. Maybe 1810, 1820, 1867, ummm, rich white Americans would have the slaves paddle them over to Saint Augustine's Church, and the slaves could not sit downstairs with them. They would have to come up, and they built a slave's quarters up here.
WOODIE KING, JR.: In 1935 to 1939, under the Roosevelt Administration there was something called The Federal Theater Project and there was a special unit of it called the Negro Unit. And that Negro Unit did plays all across America and it was basically government funded. It was funded by the government. It took people off the welfare roll and put them to work as artists. And in 1939 through act of Congress, and I’m talking very fast because, uh, it really just pisses me off! Umm, they said it was so communist infiltrated and they cut off the money. But from 1935 to 1939 some of the most interesting work done in the American theater was done by the Federal Theater Project and two absolute geniuses was, were the founders of that. One was Orson Welles and the other was John Houseman. And one of the plays they did that changed, uh, how we look at theater, they did a voodoo version of Macbeth. And having knowledge of that and having knowledge of those people who still existed at that time, uh, I can pay homage in a sense to uh, their work, so I said, “Ah, The New Federal Theatre.”
WOODIE KING, JR.: We did five years of plays that was um absolutely free to the public and people just flocked in from those coming to see Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, to the plays about the Black Panther Party, Charlie Can’t Win No Wars On The Ground and uhh, historic play Black Girl which moved from New Federal to Off-Broadway and won a Drama Critic Circle Award. That had never happened in the American theater, that a community small theater had that kind of visibility and those kind of awards. From 1970 to maybe 1979 or ‘80, New Federal Theatre had a hit each year of its existence.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: What would you say your mission is?
WOODIE KING, JR.: To integrate women and minorities into the mainstream of American theater.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: Does that mission change...
WOODIE KING, JR.: No.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: As the years progress? The mission remains the same.
WOODIE KING, JR.: Exactly the same. Because the integration of minorities and women into the mainstream American theater has not changed. They need a pass through. They need a starting point. So, to walk into New York from uh, Carnegie Mellon or uh, University of Michigan and uh, uh, not have a place to work for African Americans is just ridiculous. And these other theaters might do a play, uh by an African American or with African American once every three or four years. They’re not going, that’s not gonna be a mission of theirs. Their mission is to perpetuate European theater.
WOODIE KING, JR.: I had this white friend who was just a brilliant playwright and he sent me his plays, they are really wonderful and his black characters...I said, well, you know, it’s an excellent play, but you use the black character to humanize the white character. That’s all it’s about and, but that’s who he is! He can’t write anything else. So now do I want--I don’t need to be humanized, I know I’m a human, I don’t need that, you know? And everybody said, aw man, Woodie, umm did you love--I remember when Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” came out. I read it I said,”Oh wow, this is nice”. Then they made it a play. The black guys is only in there to humanize Atticus. It’s not--It has nothing to do with the guy who is on trial. We don’t know his history. You know? (laughing) You don’t know anything about him. So if you go see the movie everybody said, oh man the movie is great. Yeah, but Gregory Peck is the one that’s humanized. He’s the human being. The little girls are the ones who everybody got sympathy for. Because, Ok, ‘cause we know right away the black guy is not guilty. We’ve been through it, we don’t need no road map to know. Oh, they’re using his guilt to make them human.
WOODIE KING, JR.: This black theater is whatever black people want to do--You can’t define it. You know? It’s like, what is white theater? Is it Shakespeare is it is, is it Gibson, is it Shaw? / Why does black theater have to be defined? I do black theater. Black Spectrum, they do black theater, and we do totally different--Billie Holiday do black theater. It’s totally different.
AMIRI BARAKA: And we’re saying that the theater has to serve, uh, to help transform society basically. And that’s still what we say. I think you know, just like Shakespeare for instance when he lay out his history, you know his history of England, all them kings. Richard did this, and Henry did this, and all of them plays, actually laying out history. That’s what we have to do. We have to lay out the history of this country. You know what I mean? How it got to be this way and what it’s going to take to change.
WOODIE KING, JR.: I’ve got, ten or twelve books out there. I’ve got eight or nine films out there. Documentaries and everything else and more African American plays by African American men and women than any other producer in the history of the American theater.
ELIZABETH VAN DYKE: What, how, how do you continue, how do you keep going? It doesn’t get any easier, does it?
WOODIE KING, JR.: Well, no it doesn’t get any easier but uhh, the times, demand, our re-examination, if we came through the 60s and there was a riot in Watts in ‘64 there was a riot in New York in ‘65, there’s a riot in Detroit in ‘67, there’s a riot in Newark in ‘68, you must deal with that in your art.
WOODIE KING, JR.: I had a film called, The Long Night. It was in the Moscow Film Festival and so it had its party and you know people were standing around after the film was shown and me and Saint Clair Borne, we looked across the room and we saw, uh, a black person. And eventually, Saint Claire said, “Eventually there will be no reason in the world for us not to go to him or him come to us. Ok? So we are going to communicate. There’s something in our DNA that makes that happen, right?” And so, you know, and dealing with theater for a while I said, “What is it in this DNA that makes us communicate?”. It’s, it’s unbelievably simple. We have the experience in our great, great, great, grandpeople of the slave ship. We got this experience. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Goree Island, a cape coast castle. If you go in cape coast castle and in those dungeons, you, you must break down and cry. There’s no way you can not. You look up at them holes, this was the holding pattern, where they held thousands of slaves. And they came through the middle passage on a ship chained for six months. Seven months. And they stood up and sold like cattle.
WOODIE KING, JR: So why the theater? Because that is the first, uhhh, medium that impressed me to move, to do something, to try and be like uhh, a communicator of images, and that led to producing, that led to directing. You can not, uh communicate an image unless you create that image. Over uhh, the 45 years, uhhh, we’ve produced over 350 plays by uhh, African American men, women and White Americans. We might have worked with two...twenty, twenty thousand actors over those years. From Denzel Washington to umm, Morgan Freeman, uhm, Felicia Rashad, Sandra Reiss Phillips, Tonya Pinkins, uhh Chad Bolesman, Ella Joyce, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, (laughter) you ...know? Playwrights like Ntozake Shange, Miss J.E. Franklin, Miss Mickey Grant, umm and certainly uhh the great Ed Boulin, and certainly uhh, Ron Milner and Dawn Evans. I produced, uhh, with Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte and umm, just uhh, an array of major American artists.
WOODIE KING, JR: One of the things I really always remember is umm, Lorraine Hansberry, uh, writing about, she was looking out the window, her and uhh Dubois and Paul Robeson out in Harlem and uhh, the editor of the paper was a guy named Forest Burman, and he said, “Look at them. My people. Aren’t they beautiful?”.