New Federal Theatre holds gala benefit

Linda Armstrong | 7/7/2016, 11:26 a.m.
Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre recently held a festive gala benefit at Trump Place, 220 Riverside Blvd., honoring Novella ...
Cliff Frazier and Elizabeth Van Dyke Contributed

Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre recently held a festive gala benefit at Trump Place, 220 Riverside Blvd., honoring Novella Nelson and Melvin Van Peebles, two of many actors and directors who have worked at NFT over the theater’s 46-year history. Van Peebles was introduced by Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons. Nelson was introduced by former Mayor David Dinkins.

Co-chairs were Carmen de Lavallade, Barbara Montgomery and Phylicia Rashad. Honorary chairperson of the event was Susan Taylor. Co-hosts were Art McFarland and Darla Miles.

Proceeds from the benefit will fund upcoming works of New Federal Theatre and ensure continuation of its acting and playwriting workshops.

NFT honored Van Peebles and Nelson because of their exceptional commitment to African-American theater and film. Van Peebles’ memorable plays include Broadway’s “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and “Don’t Play Us Cheap” and NFT’s “Champeen” and “Waltz of the Stork Boogie,” along with many films, especially the award winning “Story of a Three Day Pass.” His American film directorial debut was “Watermelon Man,” starring Godfrey Cambridge and Estelle Parsons.

Nelson was honored for her years as artist-in-residence with impresario Joseph Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival and for her work with NFT directing “Runners” by Ivey McCray and starring in the play “Gilbeau” by Clayton Riley. She notably appeared in Denzel Washington’s directorial debut, “Antwone Fisher.” Nelson also starred in Woodie King Jr.’s productions of “The Torture of Mother” and “Women of the Regent Hotel.”

NFT, founded by Woodie King Jr. in 1970, grew out of a theater program at Mobilization for Youth. This neighborhood-based professional theater was originally funded by the Henry Street Settlement, along with a small grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. The theater’s first season was launched in the basement of St. Augustine’s Church on Henry Street. In 1974, the construction of the Henry Street Settlement’s Louis Abrons Arts Center located at 466 Grand St. was completed. The physical plan included three theaters, rehearsal studios and modern stage equipment, all of which were made available to NFT. In March 1996, New Federal Theatre’s administrative offices returned to St. Augustine’s Church, but its production and training programs remained at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center.

Specializing in minority drama, NFT has brought the joy of the living stage to many minorities who live in the surrounding Lower East Side community and the greater Metropolitan area. NFT has provided emerging playwrights with the opportunity to have their works produced. It has brought minority actors, directors and designers to national attention and sponsored a variety of ethnic theater groups and events. The vocational training workshops prepare minority people for employment in theater and theater-related fields. Most importantly, NFT provides the multiethnic Lower East Side as well as New York metropolitan area audiences with first-rate theater relating to the interest of different cultural groups.

Forty-six years later, it is almost impossible to turn on a television and not see a former student from NFT. Writers first presented at NFT are now part of the literary mainstream of American playwrights. Many plays have reached national significance and much wider audiences through having been showcased at NFT. Because of the work of NFT, such playwrights as J.E. Franklin, Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Joseph Lazardi, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Damien Leake, Genny Lim, Laurence Holder, Alexis DeVeaux and others have been brought to national attention. Many actors are starring in television series as well as motion pictures: Jackée Harry, Morgan Freeman, Washington, Debbie Allen, Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Garrett Morris, Robert Downey Jr., Sam MacMurray, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald VelJohnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Ella Joyce and so many more. New Federal Theatre provides educational workshops in playwriting and drama workshops for adults and teens.

New Federal Theatre’s Mission is to integrate minorities and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession, and by presenting plays by minorities and women to integrated, multicultural audiences, plays that evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re-creations of ourselves.