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Douglas Turner Ward, The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc.
Douglas Turner Ward is a driving force in the evolution of the Black Theater movement in America. Born May 5, 1930 at Burnside, Louisiana, he was the only son of parents Roosevelt and Dorothy Ward, who worked the rice and sugarcane fields of the plantation there. During his early childhood, Ward’s parents moved to New Orleans with him. In 1946, at the age of 16, he graduated from Xavier Prep High School. Determined to leave the South because he was a “natural rebel against segregation,” he enrolled at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. Joining a drama club, he performed in two plays, Thunder Rock and A Shot in the Dark. When Wilberforce lost its accreditation the next year, Ward transferred to the University of Michigan, hoping to realize an athletic ambition while playing on the freshman football team. Meanwhile, he discovered world literature at the campus library and also, during extracurricular activity, became politically radicalized. This twin exposure prompted him to drop out of college altogether.
Ward arrived in New York in 1948 and immediately became immersed in Harlem politics. Between his street corner orations and writing satirical skits to lighten up dreary political meetings, he was inspired to tackle drama. Still only 19 years old, Ward had his first script performed, called Star of Liberty, based on the life of Nat Turner. The enthusiastic audience response cemented Ward’s commitment to playwriting. To better understand the craft, he decided to take acting lessons. Over a three-year period, studying at Paul Mann’s renowned Actors Workshop equipped Ward to become a consummate actor. Coincidentally, during the same mid-50’s time period, Ward’s long-abandoned youthful journalism aim came to surprising fruition when he was hired as a reporter for New York’s left-wing tabloid, The Daily Worker.” When Lester Rodney, his brilliant sports editor/mentor moved to the West Coast, Ward succeeded him as editor of the Sports Page, a post he held until resigning around 1957. Concurrently, on the theatrical front, Ward was asked to understudy Robert Earle Jones as Joe Mott in Iceman Cometh at Circle in the Square. This led the famous director, Jose Quintero, to cast him in the opera, Lost in the Stars at City Center. Soon afterwards, Ward’s radical youth friend Lorraine Hansberry invited him to try out for her new play, A Raisin in the Sun. He wound up cast as Sidney Poitier’s understudy and assumed the play’s leading male role opposite Claudia McNeil during the ten-month national tour. It was during the run of Raisin that Ward first met and became friends with Robert Hooks.
On Broadway, during the early 60’s Ward was seen in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Kirk Douglas, and Jean Simmons and Raf Vallone in the pre-Broadway tour of Rich Little Rich Girl. Off-Broadway, he gained critical acclaim in The Blacks and Blood Knot, playing the latter in Washington and Chicago as well.
Ward appeared on television on numerous occasions as both a performer and guest artist in series like The Cosby Show and Law and Order. He was featured in The Women of Brewster Place; also Go Tell It On the Mountain. In movies he starred in Man and Boy.
Ward’s first produced plays, Happy Ending and Day of Absence were presented by Robert Hooks at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in 1965, with the two friends also acting major roles in the plays. The satiric double-bill won praise from the critics and audience alike, were the winners of the Vernon Rice Drama Desk and Obie awards, and had a run of well over a year and a half.
During the run of the double-bill, in August of 1966, Douglas Turner Ward wrote an article for the New York Times in which he called for the establishment of an autonomous Black theater in New York City. He envisioned it as combining professional performances by a resident company and an extensive training program for promising actors, playwrights, directors, managerial and technical personnel. It is that vision which was realized in the establishment of The Negro Ensemble Company, which, under Ward’s guidance, launched its first highly successful season in January 1968 with Song of the Lusitanian Bogey followed by The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Kongi’s Harvest, and Daddy Goodness, in which he acted and made his debut as a director.
During the classic period of the NEC, over some three decades, Ward has functioned as producer, director, actor, and playwright. Two more of his plays, The Reckoning and Brotherhood were produced during the 1968-70 seasons. Acting as Johnny Williams in Joseph A. Walker’s Tony Award winning The River Niger, in 1972, which he also directed, Ward received a nomination for a Tony Award as “best supporting actor.” Because he considered the “supporting actor” category to be inappropriate, he requested that his nomination be withdrawn. The award-winning play, The First Breeze of Summer, by Leslie Lee was another NEC production, which he both acted in and directed for stage and television (1975-76). He also created the character of Sgt. Mingo Saunders in the NEC 1976 production of The Brownsville Raid by Charles Fuller and directed by Israel Hicks.
Altogether, Ward has directed close to two-thirds of the productions for the NEC, eighteen of which were produced at the St. Mark’s Playhouse, first home of the company, his last work directed there being the Tony nominated production of Home by Samm-Art Williams in 1980.
At Theater Four, the NEC’s second home, amongst the many scripts which Ward directed include About Heaven and Earth; (three one-act plays by Gus Edwards) in which he also performed; Weep Not for Me, Manhattan Made Me, and Louie and Ophelia (in which he played the title male character); Zooman and the Sign, the Pulitzer prize-winning A Soldier’s Play, and WE, a monumental quartet of plays that are all by playwright Charles Fuller. Ward concluded his directing career and ended his association with the NEC in the late 1990’s, helming Little Tommy Parker and Last Night at Ace High, -- performing in both. During his spectacular theatrical career, Douglas Turner Ward has managed to create an enviable body of dramatic works. Added to his early classics Happy Ending, Day of Absence, The Reckoning, and Brotherhood, are a trio of scathing satires The Redeemer, The Tom-azz Plays (two connected one-actors), Billy Ebony (a musical adaptation), and finally a monumental, epic threesome, The Haitian Chronicles, whose achievement equals any writer’s life-time works alone. .