The Negro Ensemble Company (1967- )

Courtesy Negro Ensemble Company
The Great MacDaddy with Phylicia Rashad and Victor Willis
Fair use image

The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) was founded in New York City, New York during the summer of 1967, under the direction of actor Robert Hooks, actor, playwright, director Douglas Turner Ward, and producer, director Gerald Krone. From its beginning, NEC was criticized for its integrated administration (Krone was white), its grant from the Ford Foundation, its location in Greenwich Village, and its first season’s bill.

The genesis of the NEC can be traced to 1965 with the production of two one-act plays by Douglas Turner Ward, Happy Ending and Day of Absence, both satires. The plays ran for 15 months Off-Broadway and both were popular and critical successes. Robert Hooks was the producer, Krone the producer/manager, and Philip Meister the director.

The success of the plays prompted the New York Times to ask Ward to write an article on the Afro-American in the theatre titled “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” In the article published on August 14, 1966, Ward stressed the need for an established black theatre by African American playwrights with an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision. He targeted blacks as the primary audience, but he also wanted to attract an informed white audience that shared common experiences to readily understand, and debate the playwrights’ explorations.  Ward’s Times article attracted the attention of W. McNeil Lowrey at the Ford Foundation which asked him to apply for a grant for such a theatre. The Ford Foundation awarded Ward a $434,000 grant to establish the NEC.  Teaming with Robert Hooks, who brought to the NEC his three-year-old Group Theater Workshop, they made the St. Marks’ Playhouse at 133 Second Avenue in Lower Manhattan, the permanent home of NEC since it had been the site of Ward’s successful playwriting debut. A clearly defined policy established the company as a black-oriented, black-controlled theatre of high professional standards with an extensive training program in all facets of theatre, from acting to backstage crafts.

The NEC’s inaugural season began in January 1968, with a production of Peter Weiss’s polemic on Portuguese colonialism, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey. The NEC’s second season, 1969-1970, saw the production of God Is a (Guess What?) by Ray McIver, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men by Lonnie Elder III, Paul Carter Harrison’s The Great MacDaddy and a series of one act plays that included String by Alice Childress, Contribution by Ted Shine, and Malcochon by Derek Walcott.  Man Better Man by Errol Hill completed the season.

Other notable productions included Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka‘s Kongi’s Harvest (1971). Joseph Walker’s The River Niger (1972), and Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer (1975). In one decade the NEC had compiled a stellar roster of playwrights that listed the names of Lonnie Elder, III, Joseph A. Walker, Paul Carter Harrison, Leslie Lee, Philip Hayes Dean, Derek Walcott, Wole Soyinka, Lennox Brown, John Scott, Silas Jones, Judi Ann Mason, Steve Carter, Charles Fuller, Gus Edwards, and Samm-Art Williams.

The NEC also launched or boosted the careers of numerous African American actors including Moses Gunn, Francis Foster, Adolph Caesar, Denise Nicholas, Roxie Roker, Esther Rolle, Rosalind Cash, David Downing, Judyann Elder, Arthur French, Hattie Winston, Clarice Taylor, Allie Woods, and Ron O’Neal. Others who performed with NEC included Stephanie Mills, Cleavon Little, Richard Roundtree, Lauren Jones, and Roscoe Lee Browne.

In July 1980, NEC moved to a larger theatre farther uptown at 424 West 55th Street. Its first major production in the new Theatre Four facility in October 1980 was Samm-Art Williams’s The Sixteenth Round.  The play received poor reviews from New York critics and was not a commercial success.  The company continued to stage plays and tried but failed to achieve self-sufficiency through box-office receipts and subscriptions.  Consequently it continued to rely on Ford Foundation support. The NEC did add an academy which provided acting, directing and theatre production training to Harlem youth.

Douglas Turner Ward left the Company in 2002.  His successors, O. L. Duke (2002-2004) and Charles Weldon (2004- ) expanded the theatre’s education component by offering courses in video production, commercial theatre management, producing, advertising, and a public school training component. With its popular playwright’s workshops, the NEC has become a major source of education for those interested in theatre, training thousands of people over the past four decades.

The NEC now produces only one play a year.  In 2006 it chose Jimmy Barden’s Offspring, a play that explores the insidious ways in which racial prejudice nearly always triumphs over racial solutions. In 2007, NEC welcomed back NEC alumnus Samm-Art Williams and his new play, The Waiting Room. The play is a comedy/drama set in a hospital waiting room, where strange things happen when friends and relatives gather around a loved one who appears to be at death’s door. With these productions the NEC continues the legacy established by its founders in 1967.