Ward, Douglas Turner 1930–
Douglas Turner Ward 1930–
Playwright, actor, director, producer
As the writer, director, and star of plays that examine the situation of black Americans in the mid-twentieth century—and as co-founder and director of the seminal Negro Ensemble Company of New York—Douglas Turner Ward has been instrumental in setting the direction of modern black theater. “Ward,” stated Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Stephen M. Vallillo, “was one of the first writers to approach theater from a modern black perspective using humor. Comic, not militant or angry, his plays tend to be extended jokes, ironic situations that he develops into short dramatic pieces. Underneath the humor, however, is a biting satire that examines the relations and interdependence between blacks and whites.” The playwright’s “work, and that of his theater,” Vallillo continued, “explores the wide range of black experience—its politics, its home life, its humor, and its drama.” “Ward’s contribution to black theater,” the Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor concluded, “is immense.”
Ward began life on May 5, 1930, as the son of plantation workers near the town of Burnside, Louisiana. His parents moved to New Orleans when he was only eight years old, where his father, Roosevelt Ward, took a position as foreman on the docks during World War II. When the war ended and white workers returned to civilian life, Roosevelt Ward went into the tailoring business with his wife, Dorothy Short Ward, a talented seamstress. Douglas Turner Ward showed an emerging talent for sports, becoming a member of the track and football teams at Wilberforce College in Ohio, and later at the University of Michigan. When a knee injury knocked him off the teams, he began reading widely and became interested in communism and left-wing organizations. By 1948 he was living in New York City, writing for the leftist newspaper the Daily Worker.
“Ward worked as a journalist from 1948 to 1951,” explained a contributor to Notable Black American Men. It was during this period that he wrote the first of his humorous pieces for the theater—penned to relieve the tension that characterized the radical political meetings. He also wrote a cantata based on the life of Nat Turner, leader of a slave revolt in nineteenth century Virginia. After three years, however, his radical position
At a Glance…
Born on May 5, 1930, in Burnside, LA; son of Roosevelt and Dorothy (Short) Ward; married Diana Powell, 1966; children: two. Education: Attended Wilberforce University, 1946-47; attended University of Michigan, 1947-48; completed Paul Mann’s Actors’ Workshop, 1955-58.
Career: Journalist, 1948-51; playwright, 1956-; actor, 1956-; producer, 1956-; director, 1956-; Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), New York City, co-founder, 1965, artistic director, 1967-.
Awards: Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award, 1966, Obie Award, 1966, special Tony award, League of American Theatres and Producers, 1969, all for “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence”; Obie Award, Village Voice, 1970, for role in “The Reckoning”; Margo Jones Award, 1973, to Ward and NEC for producing new plays; Tony award nomination, 1974, for best supporting actor; Boston Theatre Critics Circle award, 1986.
Addresses: Home —222 East 11th St., New York, NY 10003. Office —Negro Ensemble Co., 424 West 55th St., New York, NY 10019.
took a hit after a run-in with the authorities. “In 1951 he was arrested for draft evasion and jailed in Louisiana for three months,” continued the Notable Black American Men writer. “He was required to remain in Louisiana for two years; later the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. During the wait he spent his time around working-class blacks—in pool halls and backrooms—where he learned their dialogue.” Ward used the experience to begin his career in the professional theater.
Beginning in 1955 Ward began studying under Paul Mann at the Actors’ Workshop in New York. By 1959 he was working professionally on Broadway, understudying Sidney Poitier’s role in Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal work A Raisin in the Sun. The following year he completed his first two one-act plays, “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence.” It took him five years to find someone who was willing to produce them. Although Ward continued to act on stage and on television through the 1960s, the Off-Broadway presentation of the two works at St. Mark’s Playhouse in 1965 marked his emergence as a major writer for the American stage. His specialty was the depiction of the lives of common, working-class black people.
“Happy Ending” tells the story of two black women and their nephew. The two women work as servants in the household of a white couple. They are threatened with the loss of their jobs when the couple quarrel and begin divorce proceedings. Their nephew scolds them for their lack of pride until they reveal to him that his own lifestyle is dependent on the two keeping their jobs. Hearing this, their nephew breaks down and cries with his two aunts. However, explained a Contemporary Dramatists contributor, “as the nephew joins in their sorrows, they receive the happy news that the employers have become reconciled.” The situation is resolved and the status quo is maintained.
“Day of Absence” represents the inverse of the situation in “Happy Ending.” Instead of showing how black workers are dependent on white employers, the latter play demonstrates the degree to which whites in a Southern town rely on black labor for their own livelihoods. When all black workers disappear for a day, the town is entirely immobilized. “White couples begin to argue as they discover that they have no experience tending the house or caring for their children,” stated the Contemporary Dramatists contributor. “The Ku Klux Klan is bitter because, with the black people gone, it no longer has a pretext for existence or victims for its sadistic practices.” The mayor ends up requesting that Washington send in more black workers. “’Day of Absence’ is one of the most revolutionary plays written by an American black,” Gail Stewart declared in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “for Ward depicts the enormity of the contribution of blacks to American life and in the same stroke the enormity of the exploitation that blacks have historically suffered.”
“Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence” helped establish Ward’s reputation as a leading playwright confronting black issues. They also demonstrated two of Ward’s primary characteristics: his reliance on dark humor to make statements about the black experience, and his belief in the resiliency of black people in general. Later plays, such as “The Reckoning,” “Brotherhood,” and “The Redeemer,” expanded on these themes. “The Reckoning” detailed a confrontation between a pimp (black) and a governor (white), while “Brotherhood” told the story of a white couple’s unsuccessful attempt to conceal their racist opinions from their black guests. “I am a black playwright, of black sensibilities,” Ward explained in a statement published in Contemporary Dramatists, “primarily utilizing the devices of satire, exaggeration, and mordant humor to explore and express themes of contemporary life, particularly as they relate to black survival.”
Perhaps Ward’s most lasting contribution to the black theater, however, was his establishment (with actor and producer Robert Hooks, and Off-Broadway producer Gerald Krone) of the Negro Ensemble Company in 1965. The NEC, as the organization came to be known, was born from an article Ward composed for the New York Times in 1966. “The article”—entitled “American Theatre: For Whites Only?”—“came at a time when black talent in the theater was low,” stated Notable Black American Men. “In the article he stressed the need for a permanent black theater in America that would not be a segregated or separatist theater but a home-base for black artists. The theater, he added, would concentrate on black themes but would include and interpret good drama wherever it originated.” Ward’s article led to a Ford Foundation grant in the amount of $1,200,000 to found and fund the organization.
For the first twenty years of its existence, the NEC devoted its energy to bringing the plays of black Americans, Africans, and people from the Caribbean to the American public. Although it provided Ward with a vehicle for the staging of his own work, including new productions of “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence” as well as “The Reckoning,” Ward’s first full-length play, it also served to bring new playwrights to public notice. The NEC’s greatest successes include Lonne Elder III’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men,” Wole Soyinka’s “Kongi’s Harvest,” “Daddy Goodness,” by Richard Wright and Louis Sapin, and Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. In 1969 the NEC’s production of “The River Niger” by Joseph Walker won a special Tony Award. The company has produced works in London, and in 1982 it began working in conjunction with another theater organization, the Hartford Stage Company.
Funding problems led the NEC to cease production in 1992, but not before it had introduced new black actors to the modern theater, including Roscoe Lee Brown, Rosalind Cash, Frances Foster, Cleavon Little, Denise Nichols, Roxie Roker, Esther Rolle, and Richard Roundtree. It also “spawned many black theater groups nationwide,” stated the contributor to Notable Black American Men, “including the D.C. Black Repertory Company, the Urban Arts Corps of New York, the Kuumba Workshop of Chicago, and the Paul Robeson Players of Los Angeles.” Even if Ward had not earned a reputation as a prominent modern playwright, his role as a founder of the NEC could have won for him the title, reported by the Notable Black American Men contributor, of “father of the modern black theater.”
Happy Ending and Day of Absence: Two Plays (comedies; first produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark’s Playhouse, November 15, 1965), published with introduction by Sheila A. Rush, Dramatists Play Service, 1966, published as Two Plays, Third Press, 1971.
The Reckoning: A Surreal Southern Fable (first produced Off-Broadway at St. Mark’s Playhouse, September 2, 1969), Dramatists Play Service, 1970.
Brotherhood (first produced Off-Broadway with “Day of Absence” at St. Mark’s Playhouse, April 26, 1970), Dramatists Play Service, 1970.
“The Redeemer,” first produced in Louisville at Actors’ Theatre, January 26, 1979.
Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Gale, 1981.
Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 4, Gale, 1987.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 7: Twentieth-Century American Dramatists, 1981, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955, 1984.
Mitchell, Loften, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro Theatre, Hawthorn, 1967.
Notable Black American Men, Gale, 1998.
Who’s Who Among African Americans, 16th ed., Gale, 2003.
Who’s Who in the Theatre, 17th ed., Gale, 1981.
New York Times, August 14, 1966.
“Douglas Turner Ward,” Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC (November 6, 2003).
—Kenneth R. Shepherd
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