King, Woodie Jr. 1937–
Woodie King, Jr. 1937–
Theatrical producer and director
To call Woodie King, Jr. the “king of black theater producers,” as American Visions did in its April of 2000 issue, is not much of an exaggeration. Through his thirty years as the executive director of the New Federal Theatre, and through his work as a writer, director and producer of a wide assortment of plays, essays, films and anthologies, King has contributed as much as perhaps any individual to the survival and growth of theater by, for, and about African Americans.
King was born in Mobile Alabama on July 27, 1937. At the age of five, he moved with his parents, Woodie Sr. and Ruby Johnson King, to Detroit, where he spent he rest of his youth. By the time he was 11 or 12 years old, King was supplementing his family’s income, which consisted primarily of Ruby’s housework wages, by modeling for church fans and calendars.
King became interested in acting while in his teens, influenced particularly by Sidney Poitier’s Oscarnominated 1958 performances in the film The Defiant Ones. During his last year at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, King was offered a scholarship to the Will-O-Way School of Theatre in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At Will-O-Way, King had the opportunity to study with such luminaries as Vincent Price and Helen Hayes, and students acted as apprentices with the stock theater affiliated with the school. Nevertheless, King was frustrated by the lack of parts well suited for black actors. With the support of one of his teachers, he undertook to educate himself in the history and state of black theater and literature. King graduated from Will-O-Way in 1961, but not before marrying casting agent Willie Mae Washington in 1959. King also began his career as a theater journalist during this period, contributing drama criticism pieces to the Detroit Tribune.
In addition to his work at Will-O-Way, King attended Wayne State University in Detroit for two years of postgraduate study in theater. Still aggravated by the problems black actors faced in finding roles in classic plays, he teamed up with several other black theater students at Wayne State to found a new community-based black theater company, called Concept-East, based in a Detroit bar that could fit 100 seats. King served as director and manager of Concept-East from 1960 to 1963. He also turned to writing short stories
At a Glance…
Born July 27, 1937 in Mobile, AL; son of Woodie and Ruby (Johnson) King; married Willie Mae Washington, 1959; children: Michelle, Woodie Geoffrey, Michael. Education: Attended Will-O-Way School of Theatre, 1958-62; post-grad, study at Wayne State Univ., 1961; attended Detroit School of Arts and Crafts; Brooklyn College, MFA.
Career: Drama critic, Detroit Tribune, 1959-62; founder, manager, Concept East Theatre, Detroit, 1960-63; cultural arts director, Mobilization for Youth, New York, 1965-70; founder and artistic director, New Federal Theatre, New York, 1970-; founded National Black Touring Circuit, 1980; producer, director of more than 160 plays; wrote, directed several films; visiting prof., Oberlin College, Florida State Univ., Ohio State Univ.; taught at Yale, Penn State, North Carolina AT&T, Columbia, NYU, Hunter College, and Brooklyn College School of Contemporary Studies.
Awards: John Hay Whitney fellowship, American Place Theatre, 1965-66; award from Venice Festival, for The Game, 1968; Oberhausen Award, for The Game, 1968; International Film Critics Award, for Right On!, 1970; A. Phillip Randolph Award, New York Film Festival, for Epitaph, 1971; Audelco Awards, for Appear and Show Cause, 1968, for Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, 1993; NAACP Image Award, for Checkmates, 1987-88; Obie Award for Sustained Achievement, 1996-97; honorary doctorate, Wayne State University, 2000.
Addresses: Office— National Black Touring Circuit, Inc., 292 Henry Street, New York, NY 10002.
during this period. His first story, “Ghetto,” was published in Negro Digest in 1962. The same journal published another King story, “Beautiful Light and Black Our Dreams,” the following year.
One of the plays produced by Concept-East was Study in Color, by Reverend Malcolm Boyd, a white chaplain at Wayne State. Study in Color received widespread praise, enough so that King brought a touring production of the show to New York in 1964, where it played at Union Theological Seminary and the American Place Theatre. Rather than return to Detroit, King chose to stay in New York, where he continued working at the American Place, staging five plays there. In 1965 he won a fellowship to study directing and theater administration. Later that year, King was named cultural arts director of Mobilization for Youth, an antipoverty program aimed at providing arts training for minority children.
During the second half of the 1960s, King established a reputation as a leading authority on black theater. He wrote frequently for a number of periodicals on the need for more theaters serving black communities. In 1966 he produced The Weary Blues, an adaptation of Langston Hughes’s poetry for the stage. Black Quartet, which he produced in 1969, was a series of four one-act plays by dramatists of the Black Arts movement.
In 1970, King founded a new company, the New Federal Theatre, based at the Henry Street Settlement. The New Federal Theatre (NFT), named after the Harlem-based, government-funded troupe of the 1930s, remained King’s base of operations for the next thirty years. King envisioned the NFT as a community-based theater that promoted the work of writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds and offered it to the community for free admission. The no-admission policy had to be abandoned in the late 1970s, but the organization has remained committed to seeking out the work of minority playwrights, particularly new black writers, whenever possible. Among the playwrights whose work King produced were Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange.
Besides his work with the NFT, King produced a number of plays written by African American writers commercially over the next several years, including J.E. Franklin’s Black Girl (1971) and Prodigal Sister (1974) and Tome Cole’s Medal of Honor Rag (1976). Other 1970s plays King either directed or produced, either at the NFT or elsewhere, included Milner’s What the Winesellers Buy (1973), Athol Fugard’s Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1976), and Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1978). In 1980 King was the executive producer of Reggae, a Broadway musical that ran at the Biltmore Theatre.
King also became more active in film during the 1970s. In 1975 he wrote, produced and directed The Long Night, based on the novel by Julian Mayfield about a Harlem boy whose father has vanished. He also wrote and directed The Black Theatre Movement: “A Raisin in the Sun” to the Present, which aired on public television in 1979, and scripted teleplays for the series Sanford and Son. In addition to his stage and screen work, King edited or co-edited a number of important anthologies, including Black Drama Anthology, Black Short Story Anthology, and Black Poets and Prophets: The Theory, Practice and Esthetics of the Pan-Africanist Revolution. King’s collection of essays, Black Theater: Present Condition, was published in 1981.
In 1980 King founded the National Black Theatre Touring Circuit, with funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation and other investors. Starting with its first production, Ntozake Shange’s Boogie Woogie Landscapes, the group presented shows in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington. Over the course of the 1980s, King was honored by a variety of organizations for a number of his productions. He won the 1986 Audelco Award for his direction of Stephen Taylor’s Appear and Show Cause. His Broadway production of Milner’s Checkmates earned King the NAACP’s 1987-88 Image Award for Best Director. King remained just as active through the 1990s. In 1993 he won Audelco Awards for Best Director and Best Play of the Year for Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. Other productions of note during the decade included Mudtracks by Regina Taylor at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 1994, A Raisin in the Sun at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta the same year, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Brooklyn College during the 1996-97 season. In 1997 King received and Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.
In early 2000, King was saluted with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Wayne State University in his hometown of Detroit. By that time, he had produced some 160 plays, become a grandfather of three, and been immortalized with the creation of a drama award in St. Louis called the Woodie.
Unfortunately, the same economic forces that led King to start his own theater company to begin with— namely, the difficulty in getting deserving works by black playwrights produced in mainstream theaters— are still in place. King believes the solution today is the same as it was at the beginning of his career. “If I were to start a theater now,” he was quoted by TheaterMania.com, “it would be for the same reason: to produce plays that I don’t see being done. Aside from that, there’s no reason for doing it other than ego satisfaction.”
(Editor with Ron Milner) Black Drama Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1971.
(Editor) A Black Quartet: Four One-Act Plays, New American Library, 1971.
(Editor) Black Spirits: A Festival of New Black Poets in America, Random House, 1972.
(Editor with Earl Anthony, and contributor) Black Poets and Prophets: The Theory, Practice, and Esthetics of the Pan-Africanist Revolution, New American Library, 1972.
(Editor and contributor) Black Short Story Anthology, Columbia University Press, 1972.
(Editor) The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975. Black Theatre, Present Condition, Publishing Center for Cultural Resources, 1981.
(Editor) New Plays for the Black Theatre, Third World Press, 1989.
The Weary Blues, 1966.
The Black Theatre Movement, “A Raisin in the Sun” to the Present, 1978.
The Torture of Mothers, 1980.
Death of a Prophet, 1982.
Episodes of Sanford and Son and Hot I Baltimore.
Oxford Companion to African American Literature, 1997.
African American Review, Winter 1997, p. 647.
American Visions, April 2000, p. 38.
Back Stage, July 23, 1999, p. 3.
Jet, February 7, 2000, p. 36.
Additional information was obtained on-line at TheaterMania.com, April 6, 2000.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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