After 50 Years: Woodie King Jr. to retire from New Federal Theatre
Linda Armstrong | 5/20/2021, midnight
The King is retiring, long live the King! After founding New Federal Theatre in 1970 and serving as producing director for five decades, a man who I love to call Mr. Theatre, Woodie King Jr., is retiring. His reign will end on June 30, 2021. This trailblazer in Black Theatre in New York City, saw a need: for Black playwrights to have their stories told and performed. For Black actors to have shows to perform in about their own people and share our experiences on the stage. For Black designers to receive opportunities. This is a man who realized that Black directors needed the opportunity to show their prowess and especially made a way for female playwrights to have a voice and their dreams realized.
Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre has given birth to countless playwrights and worked with the best that theater has to offer including Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, J.E. Franklin, Ntozake Shange, Ron Milner, and Laurence Holder just to name a few. It has also been the training ground for actors including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, the late Chadwick Boseman, Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Jackee Harry, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Garrett Morris, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald Vel-Johnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ella Joyce, Starletta DuPois, S. Epatha Merkerson, Oz Scott, Trazana Beverly, Anna Marie Horsford, Vinie Burros, Melba Moore, Earle Hyman, Roger Robinson, Giancarlo Esposito, Shauneille Perry and directors including Lloyd Richards.
King has deservedly received numerous accolades, including the Off-Broadway Alliance “Legend of Off Broadway” Award in 2020. Juney Smith created a film documenting King’s life, “The King of Stage: The Woodie King Jr. Story.” King was featured in TCG’s the “Legacy Leaders of Color” video project. He has received an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement, TCG’s Peter Zeisler Award, AEA’s Paul Robeson Award, AEA’s Rosetta LeNoire Award, an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Wayne State University, a Doctorate of Fine Arts from the College of Wooster an Honorary Doctorate from Lehman College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 2012 and received the Innovative Theatre Award’s Sustained Excellence in Theatre.
With King at the helm, Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre has produced over 450 plays. When King steps down on June 30, he will then become a member of the board of directors of Woodie King Jr’s New Federal Theatre and pass the reins onto Elizabeth Van Dyke, the recently appointed artistic director. It was a great honor to have audience with the King and hear him reflect on his legacy. Please enjoy the Q&A that follows.
AmNews: After five decades being accomplished in 2020, why did you decide that June 30, 2021 is the time for you to retire from Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre as the producing director?
Woodie King: First of all, it’s age, that’s the primary reason, I’m wayyyy past retiring age. So many young actors, directors and writers are going into theater and motion pictures right from college. They don’t have the desire they had 30, 40, and 50 years ago. They don’t think that theater is the base like Chadwick Boseman and Denzel Washington did. The young people can integrate into the white theaters, but they can’t run them. They just go do the work, get a paycheck and go home. Back when we started, if I wanted a play up I had to put that play up myself, I had to act in the play, I had to read literature, meet the novelist. I had to go to where they were and let them know who I am. Ed Bullins was unbelievable, seasoned as a playwright and political activist. When I did a Black quartet in the ’60s—Bullins, Caldwell, Milner, Baraka—we could go to a restaurant, have coffee and talk. Now writers come out of college and they have agents and you have to go through them. And the agents are 99% white because the institutions they deal with are 99% white. If I come out of Yale, NYU, or Carnegie Melon, it is to work in theater and to go into movies, back then, if you came out of Yale, NYU or Carnegie Melon, no white theaters would take you. That’s why I learned how to do commercials. I came from Detroit and the only play that I could appear in at Wayne State University was “Green Pastures.” Me and Charles Turner, Beth Turner’s husband, we were the only Black guys there. Lloyd Richards and Walter Mason had already left. I went to Lloyd’s acting class in New York on 29th Street. He had all these wonderful artists in it taking classes and trying to get into white theaters to get work. I mopped floors at Lloyd because I didn’t have money to pay him and thank God he accepted me. But, he saw something in me. In 1967 I was able to convince the American Place Theatre to do “Whose Got His Own” by Ron Milner and have Lloyd Richards as the director. Glynn Turman, Barbara Ann Teer, Roger Robinson, Sam Laws were part of the cast. I didn’t get cast in the show. Me being around the theater and sitting next to Lloyd, though I wasn’t in the play, helped me to get roles. I appeared in three plays in the American Place Theatre after that and toured with “Whose Got His Own.”
AmNews: Over those five decades what were some of the biggest challenges you faced? What were some of the biggest accomplishments?
WK: The biggest challenges were always raising money to pay people and finding plays that were hits, something that had not been performed. You knew something would be a hit by knowing literature and knowing that this play would work. Back then you had to have white critical approval. “What the Winesellers Buy,” we went all over the United States and played Lincoln Center. “For Colored Girls,” we went to Australia and London. I was very pleased with winning the Drama Critic’s Circle award for “The Taking of Miss Janie.” Amiri Baraka’s “Slave Ship” won an Obie Award. We were able to get two Kennedy Center Production Awards for two plays by Damian Leak. On the down side, I couldn’t get anybody to do “Suddenly, Last Summer” by Tennessee Williams, “Suspenders” Umer Bin Hassan or “The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman” by Marcia Leslie. I couldn’t get anybody to move “The Connection” with Morgan Freeman, we did it at New Federal.
AmNews: New Federal was always a place that gave rise and voices to Black playwrights and women playwrights and it is a tradition that continues, why has this always been a paramount purpose for your Theatre?
WK: The primary purpose was always integrating minorities and women and we changed that in the early ’80s to people of color and women. The New Federal Theatre came out of my reading so much about the U.S. government supporting the old Federal Theatre 1935-39, they had a Negro Unit. Orson Welles directed the “Negro MacBeth” and “The Conjureman Dies,” books I had read that were turned into plays on Strivers Row and I said I would name this theater the New Federal Theatre. The old Federal Theatre was run by Haley Flanigan, John Housman and Orson Welles. I went to Fred O’Neill. I went to young people who were around when the Federal Theatre project was popular in ’35 and ’39 and the women said it was great, we could do parts in the Negro Unit, but there were not any roles. So I said about integrating people of color and women. If a white playwright or Hispanic playwright woman gave me a great play, I would try to do that play.
AmNews: Working with so many tremendous playwrights over the years, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange and countless others, you produced so many works that are classics, so many works that addressed important timely issues in the Black community, what did you learn from working with these countless numbers of legendary writers?
WK: I learned to listen. To find out if they were knowledgeable and the majority of them were extremely knowledgeable. They had read the cannon of Black literature, been in the political struggles of the times, the women struggles of the times and I said not only do they know about the political issue they can write about it.
AmNews: You have always used theater as a means to tell the stories of our people and address issues that some others may not have wanted to take on, what were some of the difficult issues you addressed through productions over the years?
WK: Identity. There are some African Americans who do not know their identity. They don’t want to talk about their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, their children who might be junkies. Until they can talk about it, they can’t face themselves and you can see it in their work. In “Black Girl” by J.E. Franklin. Louise Stubbs played the mother, immediately you can feel, where’s the dad in this and J.E. Franklin faces that head on. Some people don’t want the world to know that and they can’t put it on paper. If we put it on stage it’s a fight. If a writer gives me a story I can tell when there’s something missing because I know literature. When I got out of high school in Detroit I was in the library eight hours a day because there was nothing else to do. When I got to New York I could sit with these people I was reading. James Baldwin was alive, you could go to a lecture and hear him. Because he knew his identity, no white boy was going to ask him a question to put him down. He had come to terms with his homosexuality before “Go Tell It On The Mountain.” Young people now, like Dominique Morrisseau, are coming out of these universities and they know. Lynn Nottage, master playwright, she knows. Exploring the truth helps make good actors great actors, and makes good playwrights, great playwrights.
AmNews: You are writing a book on Black theater in New York, do you have a title and when will it be completed?
WK: I don’t have a title, but it will be completed in September. It’s about my role in Black theater, Black arts and films. Third World Press, a Black publishing company out of Chicago, is going to get a first look.
AmNews: You are also going into a different realm as associate producer of an animated film for Netflix, “Bud, not Buddy,” what attracted you to this project?
WK: What attracted me was a lawyer named Jay Kramer. I read the book, it’s winner of the Newberry Medal and the Coretta Scott King Award and it’s written by Christopher Paul Kurtis. It’s set during Hoover’s administration, a young boy 10 years old is on a search for his father and that attracted me.
AmNews: You have received so many accolades over these 5 decades, how have you felt all these times when your dedication, hard work and professionalism was recognized by the industry and your peers?
WK: To stand at the back of the theater and the audience recognizes what’s happening on the stage and stand up and cheer and people leave the theater and they hug you––that’s gratifying. Then you get an Audelco Award, Black Theatre Network Award, people applaud you––you get an award named after you, the Woodie Award in St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre. We also received two of The Giving Back Award in Los Angeles.
AmNews: Woodie, you are truly Mr. Theatre, as I love to refer to you, what advice do you have for young people coming up in theater and looking to get their foot in the door?
WK: Please, please, please, read, read, read. You have to read, you have to know what you’re talking about.
AmNews: What has been a constant support for Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre over the decades?
WK: The Amsterdam News has been a backbone, a frame for getting the word out to the Black community about what New Federal Theatre has been doing for 50 years. The articles are in the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library, so you are in history. That is invaluable.
AmNews: If you had to describe who Woodie King Jr. is what would you say?
WK: I am the sum of a lot of Black people who I love: Charles Chestnut, Owen Dotson, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Shauneille Perry, Gil Moses, Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks, it’s a sum of all the artists you respect, that’s who you are. Linda Armstrong, that makes the sum. If you don’t read them, you’re not whole.