This whole week has highlighted the works of African-American Playwrights.
Douglas Turner Ward (b. 1930) is dramatist, actor, director, and producer. Since the 1960s, the African American dramatic literature and aesthetic philosophy of Douglas Turner Ward have been highly influential. Guided by a burning desire to continue the legacy of W. E. B. Du Bois, Ward was determined to create theater that was primarily written by, performed for, and representative of African American people. In his plays, Ward examines a mixed bag of attitudes and stereotypes that permeate the environment both within and outside the African American community. He uses various comic conventions such as satire, farce, absurdism, and irony to attack widely divergent cultural philosophies, politics, and ethics as well as social, moral, and racial biases.
Douglas Turner Ward was born on May 5, 1930 in Burnside, Louisiana, to Roosevelt Ward and Dorothy Short. Ward spent his formative years on a plantation in this rural town. He was later sent to live with relations in New Orleans in order to attend public school, from which he graduated at the age of fifteen. Dissatisfaction with prevailing racist attitudes among many Southerners influenced Ward’s decision to attend college in the North at Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. In 1947 he transferred to the University of Michigan, where he played football on the junior varsity squad. A knee injury at the age of eighteen abruptly ended his career, so he headed for New York City at the end of the school year.
Ward had been involved in left-wing political activities during his undergraduate days, which he continued to practice as a writer for the Daily Worker in New York. Interestingly, his association with various political entities provided the desire to write satirical sketches. His newfound avocation was put on hold while he spent three months in jail for draft evasion before being released on appeal; he was then forced to spend two years in Louisiana until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Ward returned to New York City resolved to write plays solely. In order to understand the craft better, he enrolled in acting classes at the prestigious Paul Mann’s Actor’s Workshop.
Mel Gussow, reviewer for the New York Times, wrote that Ward “… as actor, playwright, journalist, director, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company—is a man of great force, dedication, and verbosity.” Ward used these strong character traits to expound his sociocultural and political ideas, which he expressed in perhaps the most influential piece of writing of his career. In an article entitled “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” that appeared in the New York Times on August 14, 1966, Ward denounced the racist practices in professional theaters and called for the establishment of a permanent African American theater for playwrights, actors, technicians, and administrators. This article was instrumental in gaining the attention of the Ford Foundation, which ultimately funded the formation of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) in 1965 with a $434,000 grant. Ward was cofounder along with actor-director Robert Hooks and Off-Broadway producer Gerald A. Krone.
Throughout his theatrical career, and in the choice of plays and styles of production, Ward has created a repertory that presents world-class drama primarily focused on African American themes. Nonetheless he has never supported the concept of a separatist theater. The NEC has been criticized from the start by some African Americans for selecting plays by nonwhite playwrights, including Peter Weiss, Ray Lawler, and Jean Genet, and for the location of its first theater in lower Manhattan.
As a playwright, Ward is perhaps best known for his controversial one-act plays, Happy Ending and Day of Absence, both written in 1966. Both comedies examine black-white relations in dramatizing the interdependence between the races. White critics were generally in agreement that although the theme of racial interdependency was topical, the acting style and colloquial language were often exaggerated to the point of being difficult to understand. In spite of such occasional negative reactions and controversial dramatizations of topical subjects, the NEC continued to produce theatrical events of quality and substance with a list of Black artists that represented the elite of contemporary African American theater.
The right-wing shift in the American political climate during the 1980s severely curtailed the availability of government-sponsored arts program funds and private sector fellowships and grants. In order to address a deficit of $500,000, the NEC did not mount any productions during the 1991 and 1992 seasons. In April 1993, the NEC reopened its doors, this time at the La Guardia Performing Arts Center, with a production of Kenneth Franklin-Hoke Witherspoon’s Last Night at Ace High directed by Ward, who is also president of the company. Although the NEC remains in debt, Susan Watson Turner, producing director, stated in a profile that appeared in New York Newsday on May 11, 1993, that it continues to be “a company run by and for African-American artists.
***Information courtesy of Answers.com***