Douglas Turner Ward, who died at 90 on Saturday, left a legacy of extraordinary significance.
By the time he founded the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967 with Robert Hooks and Gerald Krone, he was already on Broadway in the original 1959 cast of “A Raisin in the Sun”, playing a small role while dubbing Sidney Poitier.
In the mid-1960s, Ward caused a stir with his short satire “Day of Absence” – in which black, white-faced actors played white characters – and a New York Times essay titled “American Theater: For Whites. Only? “He dedicated his career to making sure the answer was no.
Nurturing the talents of black artists through his company, he saw a remarkable number rise to fame – most notably those in his acclaimed original 1981 production of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Soldier’s Play,” whose cast included Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and David Alan Grier.
This week, company alumni and other colleagues spoke about Ward and how he shaped the estate. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Richardson Jackson
Elders of the Negro Ensemble Company; in a joint interview
LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON He wanted the work of great African American and black artists to be as important to the world and to the artists themselves as the mainstream culture. And his love for this original Negro Ensemble company has always been foremost in his conversation about art, as he respected all of these actors so much and felt that they represented the best of the best in the business, period.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON He was carrying, like, four newspapers with him. Everyday. And when we rehearsed, he would sit at the back of the theater to read the newspaper. He’d be in the back left corner reading the newspaper, and then, you know, you would look up, and by the time you finished the first act, he’d be in the middle of the theater reading the newspaper, then he’d be. would be in another corner reading the newspaper, or on the balcony reading the newspaper. And at the end of the rehearsal, he would come and give you notes! And we’d be like, “You read the newspaper!” And then we started to find out that he only looked up when reading the newspaper when there was a bad line reading or something was ringing.
LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON We have stayed in touch with Doug. When I was doing “Raisin” he was one of the first people I saw when we walked off the stage.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON I remember when I was doing “Shaft” he entered my trailer one evening.
LATANYA RICHARDSON JACKSON Yeah, he’s followed his people now. He would find you.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON Sometimes when people go by you can actually feel the hole in the universe. This is one of those.
A founder of the Negro Ensemble Company
We bonded on the road with “A Raisin in the Sun”. Douglas played the role of Sidney Poitier, Walter Lee [Younger], a role he had under-studied from the very beginning.
He was a highly intellectual man. Read about everything all the time. I was not in politics at all. But by the time we closed Raisin in the Sun, I was a politician. We were talking about politics all the time. We talked about black art.
His whole sense of humor about his writing was classic. He proves it, of course, in “Day of Absence”, when all the blacks disappear from this southern city. It’s just hilarious. But the white people laughing, their heads rolling down the aisle because that’s the kind of humor Douglas wrote: scathing and scathing stuff.
Of all the men I have met in my life, he has been the most influential. My father died when I was 2 years old. But when I met Douglas Turner Ward, I had a father and a brother.
Alum from the Negro Ensemble Company; in a written statement
Douglas Turner Ward was a “salt of the earth” who brought these sensibilities to the art of theater. He was daring. He was daring. He was honest. He was nice. It gave way to many theater artists. He even created space.
Woodie King Jr.
Production manager and founder of New Federal Theater
He was on tour in “A Raisin in the Sun,” and they came to the Cass Theater in Detroit, and I went down to see the play and waited. Then I took them back to the hotel and we had a chat. I arrived the following night and the following night. Finally, they said, “When you get to New York, man, we can talk all the time.” I said, “Well, while you’re in Detroit for these two weeks, can I come back tomorrow?” So this was my first meeting with Douglas Turner Ward.
Two weeks later, I saw Sidney Poitier in “The Defiant Ones”. These two dark-skinned actors have somehow put a stamp on the acting profession. This is what I wanted to be. It seemed possible. Absolutely possible.
Managing Director of Black National Theater, founded by her mother, Barbara Ann Teer
Douglas and my mom grew up artistically together. It was such an important moment in our country, the mid-sixties. It was the birth of black consciousness. And “Day of Absence” was such an important work. My mother was in it. And that was such a metaphor for a lot of their relationship: the support on stage and behind the stage to do something that felt groundbreaking and felt precise in telling our stories, and that it could be the revolution – black stories of the way Douglas wrote that. From our point of view, the questions the country was not asking.
David alan grier
Alum by Negro Ensemble Company
Growing up in Detroit, I read about the Negro Ensemble. My parents took me to see a “Niger River” road company. They were artistic heroes to me, and especially Douglas Turner Ward. When I walked in with “A Soldier’s Play” [in the original production], I auditioned for him. I was really nervous, and he directed and directed me.
I was in town doing “Race” in 2009, and I ran into Doug at a restaurant we were hanging out at. He came and he said, “I really want to congratulate you on all of your success on TV and in film. But please you guys ”- that is, me, Denzel, Sam Jackson, not to put myself on their level, but we were all in the room together, that was our connection – he said, ‘Don’t forget the theater, man. Always come back. We need you here, and the theater needs you here.
Sometimes those words, those mentoring moments, mean and resonate so much and deeply.
Broadway Production Manager of “A soldier’s game, “In 2020
The greatest experience for me as an American director was when the curtain fell that opening night, for me to call Douglas Turner Ward and Charles Fuller on that stage. So that Doug would come over there and make him smile like that.
Founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company
Douglas Turner Ward is responsible – and I say this without hesitation – for the careers of not only Sam and LaTanya and Denzel and myself, but also Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, Charles Weldon, Adolph Caesar have gone through this. Not just actors, but costume designers, scenographers, directors.
Michael Schultz directed our very first production in the company, a play called “The Song of the Lusitanian Bogey” which was written by Peter Weiss, who was a German playwright who was a friend of Doug’s. It was all about colonialism in Africa. With this play, NEC was chosen to represent the United States of America at the London International Theater Festival. It was monumental.
So Douglas Turner Ward, he’s in my heart, and he’ll always be in my heart. He is responsible that I am who I am. It all came from Doug. We are his children.