: Woodie King Jr. (bottom center) surrounded with love and admiration by director Kenny Leon, documentary filmmaker Juney Smith, back row: actor Ron Hines; playwright, actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson; and actor Tommy Hicks. Credit: Linda Armstrong photos

A tribute fit for our “King” happened on October 2 at the Edison Ballroom (W. 47th Street) as the New Federal Theatre celebrated its 53rd anniversary and honored founder Woodie King Jr. 

For decades, King has demonstrated his passion, love, and dedication to theater. He created an organization that has continuously given a voice to playwrights of color, a mission he has taken very seriously. 

King is someone I personally feel a great deal of love and admiration for, because this is a man who has theater in his heart and whose hearty laughter is a signature at productions, whether he’s producing them or supporting Black actors on a Broadway stage. His laughter is deep and loud, and lets the actors know they have a great friend and theater father in the audience. 

King is wise and down-to-earth, and has walked with our kings and queens, like Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ntozake Shange, Ed Bullins, Ron Milner, August Wilson, and Amiri Baraka, to name only a few. He has given career beginnings to actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Chadwick Boseman, Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Lynn Whitfield, Count Stovall, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson. 

King has worked with all the greats and continues to do so, and many were at the Edison Ballroom to salute the King, along with fellow honorees Gabrielle Kurlander of the All Stars Project and Sade Lythcott of the National Black Theatre. King was praised on and off stage, and I’m so glad to share it with everyone. 

Kenny Leon, one of the evening’s hosts, said, “When I think about the career I’ve been blessed to have, I think about three folks: Lloyd Richards, Douglas Turner Ward, and the King, Woodie King Jr., because when I was running those theaters, I didn’t know anybody who looked like me that I could trust. But I went to the feet of Woodie King.” 

Leon recalled that when he was going to be given a $15-million theater to run, he turned to Woodie because he knew how to direct and how to reach the people, but didn’t know how to run a theater. “Woodie King gave me confidence to run the theater, as did Lloyd Richards and Douglas Turner Ward. I know that my success is our success. I know that I could not do anything—anytime there’s a Tony Award or any award, I know that I could not do anything. Every time I [go] to the podium, I’m taking Woodie King Jr. with me. Woodie, you are the inspiration for my career. The stage, the television, the film work is because of you! And I thank you for it. I love you for it!Before there was True Colors Theater Company, there was New Federal. Before I had a chance to do ‘A Soldier’s Play’ on Broadway, there was the work that you and Doug were doing. Woodie, I love you and it’s an honor to stand here and host your gala.”

Co-host Lynn Whitfield echoed those sentiments as she said, “This is absolutely stunning, this evening is stunning, this place is stunning, my co-host is stunning. I want to start my comments with the word love. We are all here to honor a place and institution and a man who has walked every day with an enthusiastic love of storytelling and theater. I think it’s palpable. Woodie’s laugh is full of love and full of celebration. He loves the theater and through his love of the theater, he has brought generations of people who love the theater. At this time in our world, when people are trying to erase our stories, it’s the Woodie Kings of the world who are keeping our truths alive, because if they’re going to take the books, we have our oral history and we have our plays and we have our stages, and Woodie has always wanted to tell our stories for us and people who wanted to partake of us and our culture.” 

Whitfield shared a story about when she was at Howard University and King was doing “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” “That’s where it started,” she said. “I got to do the show and travel the country and see what it was like to be on the road. I got to go to Australia and see that part of the world. I got to go to London and do that play there. We were there with Alfre Woodard, Trezana Beverly, and Mary Alice. 

“Woodie King gave me an opportunity to work on all the things that I had been studying. The work was full of love, and Woodie has the greatest respect for artists and love for artists that I have ever seen. I love you, Woodie.” 

Whitfield added a call for action. “Woodie has kept us connected in his own personal way to theater and this must be sustained,” she said. “We can figure out how we can help to sustain it. 

“I thank you for all the love you’ve given all of us and for Ron Milner and all the playwrights, all the directors, all the choreographers, all the costumers—he gave us this playground to learn to be wonderful and to learn to entertain you, so it all starts with love. Let’s enjoy this evening in love and figure out how we will sustain our theater and Woodie King’s love of our people and love of our stories.”

Leon encouraged everyone to give what they could to support the institution. “The institutions are the homes for the artists. When they have no place to go, they can come home.”

The New Federal Theater has been a home for women playwrights and playwrights of color, including Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, J.e. Franklin, Ruby Dee, PJ Gibson, Lawrence Holder, Ntozake Shange, Charles White, Shanielle Perry…the list goes on. Actors who have come from New Federal have included Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Laurence Fishburne, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Debbie Morgan, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Ella Joyce, Leslie Uggams, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Chadwick Boseman, and so many more. 

The theater has presented more than 400 productions.

Another honoree that evening was actor and theater director Kurlander, founder of the All Stars Project (ASP), who has taken the organization from a small nonprofit to the national level over 30 years. The works of the All-Star Projects strive to combat racial injustice and encourage diversity. 

Kurlander created ASP’s Council of Grassroots Organizers to look at issues including racism, identity, poverty, and justice. ASP has always embraced LGBTQIA youth and given them a place to be themselves and thrive. 

Actress Daphne Rubin-Vega sent a video message thanking Kurlander for providing a place for her to feel comfortable and grow. Elizabeth Van Dyke, producer and artistic director of NFT, and John Rankin presented Kurlander with the Humanitarian and Social Justice Advocacy Award. 

“Gabrielle is a woman of great courage, stature and I so admire her,” said Van Dyke. “She is devoting her life to social justice, to correcting inequities, correcting injustices, inequalities for Black, BIPOC underserved communities, and sometimes she does that to a great sacrifice to her art because she is a brilliant director…This award is in recognition of her social justice work and advocacy to make the lives of poor, underprivileged, and Black and brown youth better, through engagement in the performing arts, through internships with major corporations, through special projects created to promote healing and trust, by expanding the All Stars organization to several states, impacting communities in major ways, by your generous support of other like-minded organizations and devoting your life to changing the world with so much grace.”

In thanking New Federal for the award, Kurlander talked about the choices that people make as artists, the impact they want to have on social justice, and the need for more humanitarian ways of life: “NFT has been making its choices for 53 years. Woodie and Elizabeth make choices every day to make the world better, inclusive, and more socially conscious. As an artist, I continue to be inspired by NFT.” 

Kurlander said that as a young actress in the 1970s she had success on Broadway, but was frustrated that young people had to grow up in poverty and angry that race hatred was an underlying feature of American life. “I became political and when I came to the Castillo Theater, I knew I had found my theater home, because I chose to do political theater, because that’s where most of the transformation work is done. I was able to bring young people to it through the All Stars Project…I am honored to receive this award tonight.”

The final honoree was Sade Lythcott, CEO of the National Black Theatre (NBT), the first national revenue-generating Black Arts complex and one of the longest running theaters by a woman of color. It was founded by Lythcott’s mother, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. 

Lythcott is chair of the Coalition of Theaters of Color, on the BAM board of directors, and on the advisory board of the Black Genius Foundation, Art in a Changing America, and the HueArts NYC Project. 

Actress Kara Young, currently starring on Broadway in “Purlie Victorious,” presented the honor to Lythcott. “Sade, you are a spirit worker, a leader, you are a heartbeat of Harlem, you are a string of the off-Broadway that’s happening,” Young said. She called Lythcott a Tony-nominated producer and said that what “is moving everything forward is her activism for social justice in the arts. She is working with a developer to create a new complex at 125th and 5th Avenue that will provide theater, affordable housing for artists, and a hub for the people and small-business owners of Harlem. She has a passion for the arts. 

“All this and more distinguishes you…You are the seed of one of the great spirit workers, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer. I am honored to be asked to present this award to you.”

Lythcott said that Woodie King Jr. got her to come to New York to star in a play he was doing. She didn’t want to be in theater because theater robbed her of her mother’s time, but King told her he had a role, Gail in Ron Milner’s “Urban Transitions,” and he wanted her to come to New York from Italy and do the role. She did because it was a starring role with Woodie King Jr. 

“This play starred Jerome Preston Bates and would have her with an unknown named Chadwick Boseman,” Lythcott recalled. “I showed up…I was terrible, but it is a testament to Woodie’s vision, it is a testament to someone who sees something in us before we can see it and then he works tirelessly to advocate for that. Woodie is a truth-sayer, a truth-seeker, especially for women of color. New Federal Theater is built on the truth of our lives.” 

Lythcott said King was the first chair of the Coalition of Theaters of Color and passed that role to her 10 years ago. He shocked her by making her the chair. She also said that Elizabeth Van Dyke was one of her godmothers and “was the most divine of all. She has always been fearless.”

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who presented King with the National Treasure Award, recalled the first time he met King. “I was in Michigan touring with the play ‘Home.’ I was playing Cephas Miles and in the middle of the play, I heard this laughter that threw me off just a little bit. When I went to my dressing room, Ron Milner comes in with this gentleman with that same laugh. He said, ‘This is Woodie King Jr.’ I said, ‘Hello, Mr. King, I heard about you, you’re a legend.’ He said, ‘Do you want to come to New York?’ I said, ‘If you have a job for me.’ He said, ‘I have a job for you with the touring company of ‘Home.’” So Woodie King is the reason that Ruben Santiago-Hudson is in New York!” 

Santiago-Hudson said that when he came to New York, he got a role in “Boogie Woogie and Booker T” instead of “Home.” 

“But every time I do something, I hear that laugh out there and I realize that Woodie is here. When I hear that laugh, I know I’m safe, I’m loved, and my path was led here through God, through my Mama and Woodie King. We are all links in a chain. That link adds to another link and that link is power. We are all here because of that one master lock and that’s Woodie. Don’t forget that. Remember where you’re from…People talk about Broadway, Woodie it’s  your way!” 

King was greeted by a standing ovation and cheers. King thanked everyone for being there, the NFT board of directors and Van Dyke, and Leon for being co-chair of NFT’s Gala. 

King talked about Leon’s stunning performance in “A Raisin In the Sun.” “I said, this guy is going to go into theater acting and he’s going to be very successful at it and to my surprise, that knowledge overtook him and he went beyond and into directing. I find a way to get to all of his stuff: ‘A Raisin In The Sun,’ ‘Purlie Victorious,’ ‘Top Dog/Underdog,’ and many others.” King also discussed the evolution of Rome Neal from actor to a man who creates his own style with Banana Puddin’ Jazz. He praised Carl Clay and other Black theater creatives, such as Lloyd Richards, Glynn Turman, Ed Bullins, Elaine Jackson, Charles Fuller, Trezana Beverly, Baraka, Shange.” 

King gave a history of NFT and its mission. “New Federal Theatre is valuable to our people, to the world,” he said. 

Many people off-stage at this event also shared why they had to be there. 

“It was important because Woodie means so much to all of us, but in particular for me. Before I came to New York, I knew Woodie King—I picked up an edition of ‘Black Fire’ and I read it from page to page, and the foreword was by Woodie King Jr.,” said Jerome Preston Bates, currently on Broadway in “The Refuge Plays.” “I got my first play with Woodie King Jr., ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,’ then with Chadwick Boseman and ‘Urban Transitions,’ written by Ron Milner, and so many other plays. I’ve done seven productions with Woodie King. I admire him and I know he is a blessing for our community. Anytime I can come to something honoring Woodie King, I’m there.”

Roscoe Orman called King the premier producer of Black theater for 53 years. “He has just maintained his focus and his love of the arts, and this room has proven that he has done the right thing for so many years,” Orman said. “There’s no one else like him…I’ve done many shows with NFT. He was such an incredible producer, [a] thoughtful, deeply felt artist. He’s still here with us. We are blessed to have him.”

Stovall said that “Woodie is the ‘King’ of stage and a foundation of American theater and if you’re part of American theater, you want to honor and celebrate one of its founders.”

According to Neal, “Woodie King is an icon. I wouldn’t be who I am and have done what I’ve done if I didn’t have someone like Woodie King to look at and say, ‘I’d like to do the type of theater that he does and be that type of environment.’ I started my own theater company back in the ’70s because I went to the New Federal Theatre.”

Lizan Mitchell, currently on Broadway in “The Refuge Plays,” said, “I have to always celebrate No. 1 the shoulders on which I stand. A lot of times with me, it’s actors [who] have influenced me and broken down doors, but Woodie King has established an institution and that is the way that we really proceed from generation to generation. And he is such a wonderful human being. That smile, that laugh. And this man’s intellect is stunning. How could I not be here.”

The entertainment featured Nora Cole and Horace Rogers, who sang beautifully. 

“Support New Federal Theatre, protect New Federal Theatre,” Van Dyke proclaimed. She named many of the actors, theater companies, and creatives in the audience and ended by declaring her love for King.

To support NFT or find out more about what it does, visit www.newfederaltheatre.com.

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