Transcript: Douglas Turner Ward's #LegacyLeaders Video


DOUGLAS WARD: Definitive. Profound and satirical, yes. Artistic. Generous. Humane, as an artist and as a committed human being to better the human condition.  


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: I was born on a plantation in Burnside, Louisiana which is about 55 miles, uhh, on the River Road area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans and my first six years were spent there until my parents moved to New Orleans. I was uhh, uhh, precocious. You know when I was taught,  the ABCs by my parents at a few years old, I fell in-in love wit-with words and ultimately language. My parents used to joke that I couldn’t walk out of the house without a paperback in my back pocket, and I would forget what I was supposed to buy at the grocery store, because I was so involved in terms of what I was reading.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: I knew in high school - that I was not equipped to do anything other than something involved with athletics and my love of reading. So I wanted to go to the University of Michigan to become an all American football player. And right away, I-I played on the freshmen team and found out that I wasn’t any good. At Michigan, I wound up going to the library more than I went to class. There I discovered politics and I became radicalized.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: When I left Detroit the Wallace campaign was already full force. In fact I think that was the first time I heard Paul Robeson speak in person was at a big rally in Detroit.  All of us who wound up, me and Lorraine ‘cause Lorraine and I came at the same time, Lorraine Hansberry, immediately we both got involved with youthful rallies. We were dueling, dueling on street corners, a- all the different factions, you know the Nationalists, Muslims and, and the Radicals, and the Left wingers and so forth. And, and the ferment of that period was wonderful, and, and it was a great training.   


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: I tried to spice up the meetings by beginning to write scripts. And that ultimately led me to decide that uhh, writing for a live public was my, was gonna be my, my, my, my future interest. But by this time I was also interested in developing my playwriting so I was studying acting at the same time. I had been in A Raisin In The Sun.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: At no time, had there been an audience that was more than ten percent black. I needed an audience of other blacks.


ROBERT HOOKS: I was a young thriving actor, wannabe actor in Philadelphia when A Raisin in the Sun came through and uhh, I had never seen a play with so many black actors. Uhh, blew me away, uhh sitting at the Walnut Street Theater, I had to go backstage went backstage, met a lot of the actors- this one (pointing to DTW sitting next to him), and uhh, another one of my friends who, who’s not with us anymore Lonnie Elder the III. The two of them were very supportive. I came to New York and as fate would have it, the first professional play that I got was in the Raisin in The Sun, which allowed me to be together with my, my dear friends. That’s how we met.    


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: My play Day of Absence was inspired by my visit to Montgomery during the day of the bus boycott. And the absurdity that I observed of the buses still running. Blacks were not riding the buses but they were still running through the regular stops as if somebody was gonna get on. That image, that said to me, eventually translated into a satirical play called, Day of Absence where all of the blacks vanished. Theatrically, Brechtian style the play is done in white face. The play was too short at that time, so I had to have a companion piece, and I used a real life experience to write a shorter piece called Happy Ending which was also satirical, but it’s styled a little more accessible. I decided that I wasn’t interested in, in addressing my plays to a general public. I was interested in addressing my plays to a black audience. That impact remains successful and throughout our whole history. It turned out that our primary audience was eighty percent black.   


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: I came up with an article that was titled American Theater? For Whites Only? And in that article, I, uh,  analyzed the position of blacks at the time. That article came to the attention of McNeil Lowery at the Ford Foundation. I then went back to my then colleagues, Robert Hooks and Gerald Krones and ultimately came up with, with a proposal and umm,  the rest is history.    


ROBERT HOOKS: The Denzel Washingtons, the Samuel L. Jacksons, all of the great, great talent that came through there. I was out there with my chest bulging, because we did it, and we created that opportunity, that platform for them.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: The Negro Ensemble Company was unmatchable--for theater, period, there was no other theater in America that some time in the world that was on the same level of consistency. The thing that really distinguished the NEC was that it was an excellent theater with high standards.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: Now I learned my lesson artistically from music from the jazz musicians. Charlie Parker and Miles and, and  Sonny Rollins and, and the whole host of Monk and everybody else. They were exquisite musicians.




DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: is our dominant art form. By paying attention to its development…


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: And in love with it’s creativity, it became the foundation of my aesthetic.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: The decline of the Negro Ensemble Company was not because of its own efforts but because of the circumstance – economic circumstance,  political circumstances came, Ronald Reagan came and didn’t want to support non-profit theater, period. And suddenly, our budget went from uhh, $225,000 a year to $40 ($40,000). And it caused our vulnerability was that we were dependent on State and National money.


GUS EDWARDS: I even said to him at one point, I said, “You know with all of this struggle how can you continue to keep doing this?”, and I’ll give you what he said to me, he said, “Gus he said if this wasn’t a lot of fun too- I wouldn’t of started in the first place.”


ROBERT HOOKS: Excellence has to really be a consistent thing and you have to really select the right plays, you have to select the right people, and bring all of those elements together, then you have yourself a theater company and that’s what’s been missing.  

DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: And independence.

ROBERT HOOK: Independence indeed.

DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: See, uhhmm, Bob and I, we were independent. Our decisions were the last word.

ROBERT HOOK: That’s Right

DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: And there was nobody above us. So, the, the, the, so, the, as I said, everybody shared in the success, but we at the top had to take responsibility for everybody’s failures.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD: To be a playwright today really means a commitment to expressing yourself in not a dying art form but an art form that uhh, is, is, is more difficult to be in-in, considered mainstream.


ROBERT HOOKS: It pleases me to no end and I’m so happy that I was able to, come down here and be with you guys to share this award with my dear friend, my brother, and the Artistic Director of the Negro Ensemble Company, Douglas Turner Ward.


DOUGLAS TURNER WARD:  I uhh, would like to accept this honor, uhh in the name of our dearly departed, uh, colleagues and fellow artists who are no longer with us. Starting with the original company of actors. Moses Gunn, Frances Foster, Esther Rolle, Rosalind Cash, Graham Brown, Adolph Caesar, Edmund Cambridge. The playwrights: Lonnie Elder, Judi Ann Mason. Our loyal supporters: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, and Paul Robeson Junior. So it is not just me, who deserves to be here. It is all of those people who made it work and as I always tell them and I’ll tell you is that the proudest thing is that, we did it. 

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