In the 1960s, New York’s theater world was still highly segregated. Only a handful of black actors, such as Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, and a few African-American playwrights, such as Lorraine Hansberry, had been able to see some mainstream success. Most were products of the short-lived American Negro Theater in Harlem, which marked the 75th anniversary of its creation in 2015.
So a few groundbreakers decided to start their own company to employ black artists and tell authentic stories. In 1965, playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone conceived The Negro Ensemble Company. The company officially opened in 1967.
The company brought seminal productions to the stage, including The River Niger in 1972 and A Soldier’s Play in 1981. In those early days, the company performed at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in Greenwich Village. There were few other outlets for black theater talent, so artists of many stripes and skill levels crossed paths there.
The Negro Ensemble Company celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, re-issuing some of its most famed plays, including Day of Absence and A Soldier’s Play.
“It’s astounding to look back at 50 years and realize what was accomplished,” Ward says. “The thing I take credit for is most of them (the actors) had not been discovered by commercial theater. I recognized their talent. I auditioned them and, if I had a play, I cast them.”
The Negro Ensemble Company’s list of alumni is a who’s who of Black America in the arts: Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Adolph Caesar, LaTanya Richardson-Jackson, Garrett Morris, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Billy Dee Williams and Lou Gossett Jr., to name just a few.
The company helped launch the careers of stars like Phylicia Rashad and Oscar winner Denzel Washington, who made a name for himself in A Soldier’s Play. The play was later adapted for film as A Soldier’s Story.
“I was ready to cast the role from the the people I had auditioned, but Denzel called and asked if I had cast the role,” Ward says. “I said, ‘If you can get here by 12 o’clock, I will still consider you,’ and he said, ‘I’ll be there,’ and the rest is history.”
Playwright Charles Fuller won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1982 for A Soldier’s Play. “The NEC was a place where you could test yourself, how effective what you wrote was to an audience and the actors who brought your work to life,” Fuller says.
“There is no way we could survive except by being excellent. ... Even our critics were shocked by how good we were.”
Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder, Negro Ensemble Company
Today hundreds of artifacts from the company’s five decades are housed at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan, a fitting place for the historic troupe. Included are photos of actors including Washington and Danny Glover on an opening night and others of actors on stage; there are playbills from notable theater performances.
“Schomburg is a great place for researchers to find out more about how these companies defined American theater in the 20th century and about the legacy these organizations have left behind,” says A.J. Muhammad, a librarian with the Schomburg Center.
Project1Voice founder Erich McMillan-McCall partners with groups like NEC to advance his group’s mission: ensuring that the black experience is represented in American theater. The nonprofit stages a reading series that revives and reintroduces forgotten and underappreciated plays.
“NEC has given the world over 200 new plays, has garnered over 40 major theater awards including Tony, Obie and Drama Desk awards,” McMillan-McCall says. “More than 4,000 artists from all aspects of the industry have passed through its doors, including many of the best known talents in theater, television and film.”
At the Schomburg Center recently, Negro Ensemble Company alumna Seret Scott examined a theater program for a play in which which she starred.
“These memories make me recall a time when the work we were doing was not only new but so necessary. Black theater about us, for us and with us was new and unique,” says Scott, who worked in the company 1980-86.
“The Negro Ensemble has always been the place where everything started, not just creatively, but people knew you in a family way,” Scott says.
Scott, a Washington, D.C., native, studied at New York University and built a successful career as a theater director. She credits her start to those years at the company.
“We had to throw it against a wall and see what would stick because there was nothing else, no imprint for us to follow,” she says. “They made it possible for people to be paid for that work, and they were doing brilliant work.”
Ward trained professionally as an actor to improve his play-writing craft. He created an atmosphere where both actors and writers were respected.
“There is no way we could survive except by being excellent,” he says. “Being good right from the beginning. Even our critics were shocked by how good we were. Suddenly, they had never heard of this company, but as soon as they saw this ensemble, they were shocked.”
Santiago-Hudson, of Selma and the Showtime series Billions, is another notable actor discovered and nurtured by the group.
“I count Douglas Turner Ward as a mentor and one of the most influential figures in my career as both actor and director,” he says. “Doug gave me my first off-Broadway job as Theo in Ceremonies in Dark Old Men. That play and performance established my place in the New York City theater scene. For that I am forever grateful.”
The company marked its golden anniversary with a three-city tour. Teaming with Project1Voice, founders Ward, Hooks and Krone appeared in New York City, Los Angeles and Atlanta for events that focused on their work and the company’s talented alumni.
“What I want everyone to know is how good we were,” Ward says. “What you see here is a lot of excellence.”