Black theater icon Douglas Turner Ward dead at 90
Linda Armstrong | 3/4/2021, 2:40 p.m.
On February 20, 2021, Black theater Icon, Douglas Turner Ward made his transition, at the age of 90, at his Manhattan home. Ward, an actor, playwright and director was co-founder/Artistic Director of the legendary Negro Ensemble Company. He founded the company with actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone in 1967. Ward, who was recently honored at the 50th Anniversary of the New Federal Theatre, was a man who spent his entire life creating and working towards making opportunities for his people in theatre as playwrights, actors, directors and technicians.
Born May 5, 1930 in Burnside, Louisiana, Ward was the son of Roosevelt Ward and Dorothy Short Ward, who owned a tailor business and were field hands. Ward attended Xavier Prep School in Louisiana, where he graduated at the age of 16. Ward attended Wilberforce University, where he performed in two plays—“Thunder Rock” and “A Shot In The Dark.” He transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and at the age of 19 decided to leave college and go to New York City. In New York he became a playwright and studied at the Paul Mann Workshop. In 1965 Ward won a Drama Desk Award for outstanding new playwright for an off-Broadway run of a double-bill of his satirical one-act comedies. He began his off-Broadway career as an actor and performed in “The Iceman Cometh” and “A Raisin In The Sun.” Realizing that New York lacked Black Theatre Companies, Ward, after receiving a grant from The Ford Foundation, co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967, the Theatre Company was based at St. Mark’s Playhouse in the East Village and it was a mecca for drawing some of the most profound talent including Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Roxie Roker, Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Jackson, Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Helmsley, just to name a few. While Ward was there the company produced over 200 plays.
Ward made his playwright debut with “Happy Ending/Day of Abstinence” in 1967. He also wrote “The Reckoning” and “Brotherhood.” Groundbreaking productions produced by the Negro Ensemble Company included Charles Fuller’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize winner, “A Soldier’s Play.” “The River Niger”, which Ward produced, directed and starred in, won the Tony Award for best play in 1974. Ward also produced, directed and acted in other productions that made their mark on Broadway, including the Negro Ensemble Company’s production of “The First Breeze of Summer” in 1975 and “Home” in 1980.
When we lose someone as important as Douglas Turner Ward, there are a lot of feelings to be shared by those who knew him, loved him, were influenced profoundly by him.
Tony Award winning director, Kenny Leon shared, “It seems like I’ve known Doug all my life. He served as an inspiration for me. There were very few people out there who were Black doing what I wanted to do. I remember the last time I saw Doug was at the opening of A Soldier Play on Broadway. Jan. 21, to stand on that stage with him and Charles Fuller. I won’t forget his smile when we led him on stage. For me Douglas Turner Ward was the foundation that all of us theatre artists stand on. He started companies, and inspired me to start True Color Theatre Company now going into 18 years. Doug felt like a brother, a theatre father, the inspiration sent here to all of us. I got to know Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Jackson and Denzel Washington, to know he provided a place to nurture talent like that. He left a lot for us to build on. You think about his plays “Day of Absence” I read it in High School, not only was it a great play, but what would it be like if African American didn’t show up in this world?”
Talking about his directing abilities Leon stated, “I saw his direction in a play, it was immaculate, authentic, raw, in your face. When you look at the people who studied under him that’s what you see, they stand in truth. As an artist I’ll remember Doug as an actor, director and person who stood in truth. I think you can learn a lot about an artist from the artists they have trained, from Sam, LaTanya, Denzel, David Alan Grier.”
Considering Ward’s legacy Leon explained, “Doug teaches us once again that we’re only as strong as our institutions and we need to build and support our institutions. There are many Black theatre institutions across the country like the Billie Holiday Theatre. Create a home where artists can work often. And it takes a community to make that happen. I remember Doug’s tenacity and his staying in the game for so many years, not giving up on Black Theatre. It’s a well lived life. I want generations to come to know that they can do anything that they put their mind to. Sometimes you have to put it in your own hands. If you can think of it, imagine it and make it happen, just go do it. A tall, tall tree has fallen but he will forever be in our hearts and mind and he serves as an inspiration.”
Carl Clay, founder of Black Spectrum Theatre in Queens remarked, “I had my first conversation with Douglas Turner Ward in 1978 in the capacity of doing his play ‘Day of Abstinence’ and we wanted to do a special musical introduction before we led into the play. He said, ‘go for it.’ He came out to Black Spectrum Theatre for the first time in 2004-2005. He said it was very impressive. ‘This is really great what you guys are doing.’” As a director Clay recalled, “He was Masterful.” Ward was truly a pioneer according to Clay, “He started it all. He was really one of the first in the 60s, when they came out with Day of Abstinence, that ended up in the New York Times and it started the whole movement of Black folks in theater and the realization that there’s more to be investigated in this world of theatre by Blacks. There’s depth here. It started the movement for Black Theatres in New York and across the country.” Reflecting on Ward’s contribution to theatre, Clay said, “He bought quality African American stories to the American theatre audiences and community and to put Black actors and actresses to work and to tell our stories like only we can tell them.” Clay recalling Ward’s personality explained, “He had a bravado. He wasn’t a person who was easily swayed away from what he wanted to do. He was a Black theatre warrior he took out his sword and plowed forward and created an institution that changed the face of American Theatre.” Years from now Clay wants generations to think of Ward as, “A legendary Theatre craftsman who happened to be African American and who expanded the definition of theatre and just showed the wealth of the stories to be told from the standpoint of African Americans.”
Elizabeth Van Dyke, Artistic Director of New Federal Theatre, shared her thoughts on Douglas Turner Ward, a man who stood for what he believed in. “In the 80s I wrote a one person show on Lorraine Hansberry and I remember in the research coming across her friendship with Roosevelt Ward and that was Douglas Turner Ward. In the 50s he was writing plays, then he went to prison because he refused to serve in the Korean War. He was very radical left. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, they were members of the radical left. Yes, you were an artist, but you had a responsibility to change the world for the better and that’s why they were always on the front line of protests. Douglas Turner Ward, I admire tremendously, someone who has such conviction and integrity that they will go to jail. I don’t believe in that war, I’m not going to run, I’m not going to hide, do what you have to do. He lived his life on his own terms. He started the Negro Ensemble Company, writing plays, directing plays about us, for us. I think Douglas Turner Ward changed the world in which he lived and it will be forever influenced and I so hope that books are written and that he is in the actual history books and someone will write a story of the Negro Ensemble Company and study it. Preserve those plays and publish anthologies of the work. When I did the Hansberry play and I talked about Roosevelt Ward, at a talkback he was in the audience and we talked about it. We talked about the radical left and conviction. You don’t see that today. I remember him as a man of great integrity and consciousness. He was an artist, but he was working at changing the world in which we live.” As a director, “He was a wonderful actor and director. He was fully committed, he was a well-read man, he had vision and he was a visionary. There was a deep love for theatre for his people, knowledge of craft, a strength and a boldness, there was nothing timid about him. He would take his time to make a decision. He had a point of view. You want a director that has a vision, they can talk about it and share it. You have a leader. A good actor has a handle on their character, what does a character want and what is he willing to do to get it. New Federal Theatre wanted to honor Douglas Turner Ward for his amazing body of work. I had to gather photos of him acting and then he writes Day of Abstinence, Happy Ending, WOW. That’s as pivotal as ‘A Raisin In The Sun.’ That’s on our own terms, it’s a theatrical style and that is there forever. It’s a classic that will endear. Douglas Turner Ward was able to live a long time and recently was able to publish the ‘Haitian Chronicles’. He kept thriving, working and living every moment, it’s quite inspiring.”
Woodie King Jr., founder of New Federal Theatre speaking of his friend of 70 years, who he first saw in Detroit in the touring company of “A Raisin In The Sun,” talked about going to the stage door every evening after the show and hanging out with Ward and Robert Hooks. When they came to New York Robert Hooks recommended Woodie to run Mobilization for Youth, which trained young people in theatre and led to NFT. “Douglas would teach an acting class and a writing class,” King recalled. “He knew the theatre like he knew the palm of his hands. He made ways for so many people, just like the New Federal Theatre. Actors longed to work with NFT, NEC, we had equity contracts, we paid people and set designers. Because of the first major hits in ‘68, that burst on the scene, artists and actors rushed to go there. Actors who started at NFT, went to NEC. NEC had a company with Moses Gunn, Clarice Taylor, Allie Woods, Norman Bush, Arthur French, Hattie Winston, Barbara Ann Teer--wonderful, brilliant artists. Lonnie Elder III (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men—writer)--NEC performed it and it was a big hit. They really were a major part of changes and radicalizing images of the Black artists in the American theatre.”
“My memory of Doug is always the way he talked. The way he emphasized, the way he directed. I was a replacement in their production of ‘Day of Abstinence’ and just the way he directed me, when all these Black people had left the town and there was only White people. We wore White make up to play White people. He was a leading man, but the traditional vocal clarity of leading men in that day was White and he was very Black,” King shared. King wanted generations to know of Douglas Turner Ward, “He could see talent and he had an unbelievable knowledge of the theatre. I want them to read the works of Douglas Turner Ward, ‘Day of Abstinence’ and ‘The Haitian Chronicles’.”
Irene Gandy, press agent with Jeffrey Richards & Associates and a Broadway producer, got her start as the press person for the Negro Ensemble Company. Considering the legacy Ward leaves she shared, “I started there in 1968, I was one of the first Black press agents. The thing I remember about Doug. Doug was about the work and the art. He didn’t have an ego--he was a great writer, great director and great actor. Not only did he teach the discipline, but he shared it. Members of the Negro Ensemble Company had to go 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, it was a discipline. His actors were athletes of the craft. All those 70s show actors--Esther Rolle, Roxie Roker-- they came out of NEC. My personal memories of Doug, I was in the press agents office, I asked Doug, the Times and critics want to come, are you ready? ‘I’m not worrying about your critics, we’re going to play whether we get reviewed or not.’ Negro Ensemble Company had that name for a reason. I asked him why not Black, why Negro in the name and he said we fought for that word Negro, Ensemble because there’s no star. We were a family. We ate and drank together. He let someone else direct a play, it wasn’t working and I told him you have to do it and he said, no, they’ll figure it out. Doug was comfortable in his own skin and he was about his work. This is what I know about Doug. Doug had a vision. And he was so centered that he wanted everybody to succeed.”
Karen Brown, current Artistic Director of Negro Ensemble Company, speaking of Ward recalled, “I first met Doug in the early 2000s. At the time I was in a playwriting workshop at Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre. We met every Saturday at the Henry Street Settlement. I remember knowing from the beginning that I was in the presence of a master. Doug was amazing in his ability to communicate to the new playwrights what we had done wrong and what we had done right. But, it was the stories that I treasured most. I listened intently to the retelling of his experiences with Raisin and Lorraine Hansberry and subsequent stories leading into and regarding NEC. I knew what I was getting was an exclusive education that covered every aspect of the industry from a person who, along with Robert Hooks and Gerald Krone changed the entire face of American culture. He and they created a model that spread throughout the industry and generated the pathway affording current and future artists opportunities to explore cultural, Black, African American, art, performance, and artistry and most importantly value genuine voice as fundamental, extraordinarily powerful, painfully relevant and absolutely irretractable from the culture of this country. He would speak on what it was like negotiating with white producers who were more inclined to disregard and diminish the import of both the art and the artist of African Americans. He would tell of situations and incidents involving theatre greats whom I had admired since childhood. I can say I was truly a fan and felt blessed to be where I was when I was there.” Brown continued, “Having spent nearly 10 years at NEC, I have witnessed the absolute joy that younger artists express when they are asked to participate in whatever capacity with the company of Douglas Turner Ward. Most, if not all, feel they are becoming, in some small way, a part of his history. It is my opinion that we all who have come after owe Douglas Turner a tremendous debt. His genius and drive, tenacity, and his sense of purposeful and innovative vision created an avenue for us all to walk, though we are well aware we will decidedly, most likely not fill his footsteps. Doug was a unique artist. He was very self-directed, outspoken, and had an insight into the craft through writing, acting, directing, and producing that was unparalleled. I most remember and cherish the advice he gave me confidentially, and specifically as a playwright. Those words have guided me since that time and will forever be with me. He was a gift to us all.”
Douglas Turner Ward is survived by his wife Diana Ward, their children, Elizabeth and Douglas, and three grandchildren.