Photo courtesy of Howard University
HOW IT ALL STARTED…
Dear Dale… Hopefully, because you have a ready-made historical platform, you having this ‘accurate’ information might move us forward, toward correcting the persistent, misinformation of the founding of The Negro Ensemble Company.
Robert Hooks, The Negro Ensemble Company
And the Actual Sequence of His Causes
That Led to The Birth of the NEC
While “Happy Ending” & “Day of Absence” were not produced by the NEC until the 1969-70 season, MY INDEPENDENT 1965 PRODUCTION OF THEM led to the creation of the NEC in 1967.
In 1964 I founded The Group Theatre Workshop for young artists. I was running the classes in my apartment, so I enlisting Barbara Ann Teer to assist me. This group of sincere teens also included Hattie Winston, Antonio Fargas, and Daphne Maxwell Reed.
To assuage the curiosity of parents and neighbors regarding the activity in my apartment. In the summer of 1964, I decided to mount a one-night Monday showcase (at The Cherry Lane Theatre where I was then appearing in “Dutchman”). The evening included Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” I wanted to end the evening with a play. I ask Douglas Turner could I present his short one-act “Happy Ending” featuring my students (rounding out the evening ).
To my eternal surprise somehow Jerry Tallmer, the head theatre reviewer for the NY Post had heard about this showcase and attended the evening. He wrote a glowing review of the young students! He was very impressed with the concept and writing of the play. This gave me the impetus to persuade Douglas to allow me to get the option rights from the White producer who had been unable to raise funds to produce the two incendiaries, excoriating one-acts “Happy Ending” & “Day of Absence”.
I raised the entire budget from just two individuals – Clarence Avant and Al Bell, the founders of Stax Records – making this production THE FIRST PRODUCTION BY A BLACK AUTHOR, BLACK PRODUCER, WITH BLACK MONEY, THAT WAS EVER PRODUCED ON THE NEW YORK STAGE! (It was Juanita Poitier, Sidney’s first wife, who set me up with them.)
Due to the blazing success of MY 1965 production of both Doug’s one-acts mounted at the St. Marks Playhouse (which in 2 years would become the home of the NEC), Doug then became the next anointed Black playwright, (as I was filming Otto Preminger’s “Hurry Sundown” and continued to run the New York production office from the film location). Doug was invited by the New York Times to write an editorial for their Sunday theatre section, the brilliant article “Theatre in America – For Whites Only” (1966). That, in turn, caught the attention of the Ford Foundation’s McNeil Lowry, which prompted him to approach ‘US’ inviting us to write a proposal for “an ideal Black theatre company.”
I am very proud that I presented that evening with my students in 1964, where I introduced Douglas’ Happy Ending because without the addition of his play there would have never been reviewed.
I then assumed the role of the producer, because of Mr. Tammer’s review, presenting both one-acts plays. that production turned the spotlight on The Negro Ensemble Company. My title was Executive Producer. Douglas Turner Ward was the Artistic Director. Gerald Krone was the Administrative Director.
And the three of us then produced ALL the plays from then on ‘together’ as a company.
* HISTORY *
On the passing of Douglas Turner Ward [February 22, 2021]
“This is LONG. But 1,000 pages wouldn’t be long enough to characterize the bond between Douglas and I. – Saturday, February 20th, 2021 was one of the saddest days in my life and is certainly a day I will never forget. It was the day I lost the best, longest, dearest friend and colleague any human could ever wish for in a lifetime. It was the day Douglas Turner Ward drew his final breath and passed on to an eternal next plane. What a long, fabulous, extraordinary, and productive friendship and cultural collaboration we enjoyed together for over 60 years.
The seeds of the lifelong friendship that would change my life and Doug’s forever began unpropitiously. I was 21, living in Philadelphia, and studying acting at the famed Bessie V. Hicks School of Drama, hungry to master the art of acting for the stage, and inhaling every creative aspect of stagecraft the school offered. The city of Philadelphia is a fabled Broadway “tryout” town, where producers open their shows in order to mold them to perfection before their actual opening on Broadway.
When the transformative play ended I was the first person to leap from my seat, applauding, bravo’ing, and yelling! I clapped so hard I broke the wrist strap on my watch and someone retrieved it from the floor for me. Couldn’t wait to go backstage. I was bursting with pride and energy! The lines outside the stars’ dressing rooms were too jammed for me to think about waiting to speak to Sidney or Ruby. Then I saw the men’s dressing room was accessible so I went in. I was able to speak with Ivan, Louis, Ed Hall, Lonne, and Douglas! It was a great conversation and they even invited me to their hotel for drinks and to just hang out and talk about acting and the play. They encouraged me to move up to New York and pursue my acting career. After seeing “Raisin” that night, meeting those amazing and generous actors, I was ready to close out my Philadelphia life and make the move to New York. A few months later and my first professional acting job in New York was in that same play that prompted my move. Yes! ”A Raisin in the Sun”! And then, on the road with the national tour, Doug and I and Lonne became inseparable.
Together, Douglas and I founded the Negro Ensemble Company, a 60-year artistic and cultural collaboration that made history in the arts and changed the face and voice of theatre in America and American Black culture at that time. We also profoundly changed, grew, and evolved each other. I LOVED …LOVE DOUGLAS TURNER WARD. And I always felt his love for me. My great and brilliant and profound friend.” – Robert Hooks