I have covered Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre for over three decades. I actually refer to him as Mr. Theatre, so I was absolutely bursting the pride and joy when I heard that the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing are going to honor him at the 74th Tony Awards, being held on September 26 at the Winter Garden Theatre, with a Tony Award for Excellence In Theatre. There is no one more deserving than Woodie King Jr. Since he began New Federal Theatre 51 years ago has produced over 450 mainstage productions. With the mission to promote the works of minority and women playwright, New Federal Theatre has been a groundbreaker! The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing giving Woodie his Crown is so well-deserved! I recently had the opportunity to speak with King about receiving this upcoming honor and he was happy to share his joy, his appreciation and the accomplishments of his theatrical phenomenon, which is New Federal Theatre.
When asked what it feels like to receive this Crown from the American Theatre Wing and the Broadway League, King shared, “It felt very good. Good to see recognition for the work you’ve been doing for 51 years. When I started that work I had no idea there would be awards for a producer/director. Since that time I’ve won so many awards, TCG’s Peter Zeisler Award, AEA’s Paul Robeson Award, AEA’s Rosetta LeNoire Award. [To name just a few.] The American Theatre Wing found a way to honor me, so I felt very good. The Tony committee and the American Theatre Wing took on African Americans some years ago and they are sitting on those committees saying where’s Woodie?”
Reflecting on the accomplishments of New Federal Theatre, especially in the early years, King said, “The first 10 years of NFT we had a hit each year. And a hit means grants coming in. Henry St. asked me to come there and run NFT. They took care of our bookkeeping and I learned so much being with an organization that had been around since 1800. That was another significant part of the growth of NFT, I surrounded myself with major institutions–The Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, Black people at the New York State Council of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Robert Hooks was a major young artists who felt the need to train other and he helped me.
If you’re not familiar with the history of New Federal Theatre you should know that for 51 years New Federal Theatre has focused on giving voice to those who were voiceless, women and minority playwrights—it was the gamechanger. King humbly recalled, “We set out to integrate people of color and women into mainstream American Theatre. When we started NFT in 1970 you could count on 1 hand the major artists who were into that–myself, Negro Ensemble Company, Rosetta LeNoire, Fred O’Neill head of Actor’s Equity, agent—Ernestine McClendon (descendant of Rose McClendon who was with the American Negro Theatre and the Federal Theatre project). They were inspirations we could go and sit and talk to. Langston Hughes, you could go and sit and talk to and those were inspirations for me. I had come to New York in the mid-‘60s and Robert Hooks had helped me tremendous. I got a job with Mobilization for Youth, training youth 16-21 years old, we had huge budgets, we had all those kids making films. Out of that into New Federal Theatre at Henry St. Settlement was a major jump for me. I had met all those people in my studies and wanting to be an actor, director and producer.”
New Federal Theatre has been the nurturing soil, which grew many the great playwrights. It has been the first home to Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, J.e. Franklin, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Ron Milner, Joseph Lazardi, Damien Leake, Genny Lim, Laurence Holder and Alexis DeVeaux. When discussing the secret of nurturing new playwrights King said, “Listening to the rhythm in their writing and trying to give directives to hear that rhythm and manifest itself on stage. Ron Milner, J.E. Franklin, Ntozake Shange, all the playwright we worked with had a rhythm.”
The famous actors that cut their teeth at New Federal Theatre is quite an impressive list and includes: Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Chadwick Boseman, Robert Downey, Jr., Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Jackée Harry, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Garrett Morris, Sam MacMurray, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald Vel-Johnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ella Joyce, Starletta DuPois, Issa Rae, S. Epatha Merkson, Oz Scott, Trazana Beverley, and Anna Maria Horsford. Other artists have included Lloyd Richards, Charles Nelson Reilly, Melba Moore, Vinie Burrows, Art McFarland, Kathleen Chalfant, Earle Hyman, Roger Robinson, Ellen Holly, Giancarlo Esposito, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Max Roach, and Shauneille Perry.
Considering how New Federal Theatre launched the careers of countless, playwrights, actors, directors, costume designers, lighting designers and other types of creatives, King spoke about what he hopes these theatre professionals came away with that continues New Federal Theatre’s legacy. “A love of their work. A love of actually being able to design a set, design the lights—and say ‘this is how I see it Woodie.’”
Over these five decades King has so many wonderful memories. “Seeing Kenny Leon playing Walter Lee. We’ve done plays all over the world. To do an event where I actually got James Brown to come to Liberia. We took Zora Neale Hurston to Ghana. It is an amazing field,” King said.
Woodie King Jr. is no stranger to accolades, over the years he has been the recipient of Off-Broadway Alliance’s “Legend of Off Broadway,” recognizing sustained achievement in Off Broadway theater. He was the subject of biographical documentaries including “The King of Stage: the Woodie King, Jr. Story” directed by Juney Smith and TCG’s “Legacy Leaders of Color” video project. His numerous awards include 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 and Honorary Doctorates from Lehman College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In 2012 he was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame and received the Innovative Theatre Award’s Sustained Excellence in Theatre.
One of the most important aspects of receiving this Award from the Tony’s is that King can get his flowers now so to speak. Regarding this and other awards, he humbly shared, “I can walk down my hallway in my house and look at my walls and say when did I get this? And it’ all within my lifetime. I have a big mask on the wall from Ghana and Nigeria. I’ve been so many places and gotten so many awards.”
King who was raised by a single mother in Detroit, has a special connection to a picture of the two of them on his wall. He called that at the age of 7 he came from Alabama and moved to Detroit, there is mother raised him. His parents were divorced. As a single mother she gave him all she had. When he got older and came to New York, he would get jobs, go to Detroit and give his mother chunks of money, only keeping enough to get back to New York and do more work. He shared, “when there’s only one parent raising you and you look for ways to repay them. They didn’t do it for money, they did it because you were their son or daughter.” King shared that he always felt something was missing from his life. “That something that was missing, I found it in art,” he declared with great affection.
While the world will see King receive this honor on September 26, he confided, “I went into the Tony Suite on 34th street and they filmed me and my speech. It’s going to be on their website, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram. On September 26, I’m not going up on stage. When they put the Tony in my hand, they said say what you will. I talked about my arrival in New York in 1964, the people I’ve worked with on Broadway and Off Broadway. I saw careers blossom–Dustin Hoffman, Faye Dunaway. I was in plays with them. I sat and talked with Fred O’Neill, Langston Hughes. Chadwick Boseman, Starletta DuBois, W. Epatha Merkerson. It was amazing. I used a quote I had heard years ago. When you’re looking for something. When darkness begins to settle in around you, a friend can be detected by the light he carries. I don’t remember where I got it from. The American Theatre when there’s darkness around you and you come in as a young artists and the Tony’s come, that’s that light.”
Woodie King, Jr. deserves nothing less than the most illuminating light to shine on him!
Tune in to CBS on September 26 at 7pm and watch the 74th Annual Tony Awards.