The Nation’s Largest African American Video Oral History Collection Mobile search icon Mobile close search icon

Search Results

Advanced Biography Search
Mobile navigation icon Close mobile navigation icon

Val Gray Ward

Val Gray Ward, actress, producer, cultural activist and internationally known theatre personality, was born Q. Valeria Ward on August 21, 1932 in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, America's oldest all black town. As the daughter of a successful minister, Ward showed an interest early on in performance. She eagerly read poems and did readings for her father's congregation and eventually won various oratorical competitions in school. Above all, she was keenly interested in African American literature.

After graduating from Mound Bayou High School in 1950, Ward dreamed of going to college. Instead, she moved to Chicago in 1951, got married and became Val Gray and a mother to five children. When the marriage failed, Ward went back to school and became active in Chicago's African American cultural activities. She was a regular at the South Side Community Arts Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History as she developed friendships with Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks, Don L. Lee, Haki R. Madhubuti and Abena Joan Brown.

In 1965 Val Gray met and married journalist, Francis Ward as she continued to make a name for herself as an actress, television host and cultural consultant. Now known as Val Gray Ward, Ward was recognized as part of Chicago's activist Black Arts Movement. In this context Ward founded the nonprofit Kuumba Theatre in 1968. Kuumba is Kiswahili for clean up, create, and build and was dedicated to the revitalization of the black community through the arts.

With Kuumba, Ward has produced and directed such plays as The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, Welcome To Black River by Samm Art Williams, and Five On The Black Hand Side by Charles Fuller. Touring has also been important. Ward took the cast and crew of Useni Eugene Perkins' play, The Image Makers to Lagos Nigeria as part of the FESTAC '77, an international African arts festival. Ward brought Kuumba's musical production, The Little Dreamer: The Life of Bessie Smith to Japan in 1981 and produced Buddy Butler's In The House of The Blues in Montreal, Canada. Ward and the company received Emmy Awards for the PBS television production of Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street in 1988.

When she is not producing, Val Ward performs one woman shows in the United States and abroad. Performances include Harriet Tubman by Francis Ward, Sister Sonji by Sonia Sanchez and I Am A Black Woman which includes the poetry of Mari Evans.

Over the years, Ward has provided opportunities in the arts for hundreds of inner city youth and adults. All five of her children were or still are active in theatre. Ward currently lives in Syracuse, New York.

Accession Number

A2002.077

Sex

Female

Interview Date

6/2/2002

Last Name

Ward

Maker Category
Organizations
Schools

Mound Bayou High School

John F. Kennedy Memorial High School

Search Occupation Category
Speakers Bureau

Yes

Speakers Bureau Availability

Any

First Name

Val Gray

Birth City, State, Country

Mound Bayou

HM ID

WAR02

Speakers Bureau Preferred Audience

No Preference

Speakers Bureau Honorarium

Yes - $500 - $1,000

Favorite Season

All Seasons

Speaker Bureau Notes

Honorarium Specifics: plus travel and lodging expenses

Preferred Audience: No Preference

State

Mississippi

Favorite Quote

As We Go Into Ourselves, We Come To Ourselves Naturally.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

Illinois

Interview Description
Birth Date

8/21/1932

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Chicago

Country

USA

Favorite Food

Fish, Greens

Short Description

Artistic director, stage actress, stage director, and stage producer Val Gray Ward (1932 - ) is the founder of the nonprofit Kuumba Theatre, and was dedicated to the revitalization of the black community through the arts. Over the years, Ward has provided opportunities in the arts for hundreds of inner-city youth and adults.

Employment

Kuumba Theatre

Favorite Color

Black, Earth Tones

Timing Pairs
0,0:6690,116:7140,124:7440,129:8790,158:11415,204:11940,212:23378,342:27162,412:34600,485:36420,534:42140,628:78440,1062:78740,1067:86240,1234:86765,1267:93400,1304:103004,1477:121970,1717:129929,1822:130237,1860:144760,2087:148680,2189:153762,2234:154294,2243:160374,2343:166060,2398:169580,2453$0,0:5508,114:6012,122:8532,177:13310,210:24059,352:27191,388:27626,397:28061,403:32324,577:63180,929:63796,938:69546,1048:93486,1279:116790,1540:119062,1584:124574,1620:129694,1765:130206,1779:134302,1918:134558,1923:135454,1939:135710,1944:136094,1951:144222,2063:156580,2178
DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Val Gray Ward's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward describes her father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward talks about her father's upbringing in Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward talks about her father's family's origins in Port Gibson, Mississippi

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward describes her maternal family background

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Val Gray Ward talks about her maternal grandmother, Anna Mae Moten

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Val Gray Ward talks about how her maternal family ended up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Val Gray Ward describes her siblings

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Val Gray Ward describes her earliest memory

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward describes the sights, smells, and sounds of growing up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward describes the sights, smells, and sounds of growing up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward talks about the history of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward talks about the history of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward describes herself as a youth

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward talks about attending the private Alice Morris preschool and B.O. Felder elementary school, and the public Mound Bayou High School

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Val Gray Ward talks about the encouragement she received growing up in Mound Bayou, Mississippi

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Val Gray Ward describes her role in her family growing up

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward describes growing up as a minister's daughter

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward describes herself as a strong-willed child

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward talks about the uniqueness of Mound Bayou, Mississippi as an all-black Southern town

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward describes her move to Chicago, Illinois, where she was molested and became pregnant in 1950

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward talks about her first marriage to John Gray from 1951 to 1957

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward describes meeting her now husband, HistoryMaker Francis Ward

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Val Gray Ward describes her Civil Rights activism in the 1950s and 1960s in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Val Gray Ward talks about her early performances in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward talks about the people involved the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward describes founding Kuumba Theater in 1968, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward describes founding Kuumba Theater in 1968, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward describes the Black Arts Movement in Chicago in the 1960s, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward describes the Black Arts Movement in Chicago in the 1960s, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward talks about creating Kummba Theatre to address issues in the black community

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Val Gray Ward describes Kuumba Theater's Twelve Principles

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Val Gray Ward talks about creating The Ritual at Kuumba Theater

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward describes early performances of The Ritual at Kuumba Theater

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward talks about developing The Ritual at Kuumba Theater

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward describes a performance of The Ritual at Kuumba Theater in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward talks about the influence of Kuumba Theater performances to the Black Arts Movement

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward talks about the various places that housed Kuumba Theater in Chicago, Illinois

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward describes the significance of Kuumba Theater, including attending the FESTAC World Festival of Black Arts in Nigeria in 1977

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Val Gray Ward talks about the support that African American business leaders provided Kuumba Theater

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward talks about the support Kuumba Theater received from publisher and HistoryMaker John H. Johnson

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward describes the launch of 'The Amen Corner' at Kuumba Theater in 1989

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward talks about producing 'Precious Memories' at Kuumba Theater and on PBS in 1988

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward talks about the financial support that Kuumba Theater recieved

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward talks about Kuumba Theater's role in black theater

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward talks about her friendship with Hoyt Fuller

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward talks about losing her friend, Hoyt Fuller, when he passed away in 1981

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward talks about losing her friend, Gwendolyn Brooks, when she passed away in 2000

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward describes her friendships with HistoryMakers Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward talks about the status of Kuumba Theater and black theater

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward reflects on the significance of black theater

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward reflects upon her legacy

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Val Gray Ward reflects on the significance of Kuumba Theater and its ritual

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Val Gray Ward describes the beauty of black people

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Val Gray Ward narrates her photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Val Gray Ward narrates her photographs, pt. 2

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Val Gray Ward narrates her photographs, pt. 3

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Val Gray Ward narrates her photographs, pt. 4

DASession

1$1

DATape

4$5

DAStory

7$2

DATitle
Val Gray Ward describes Kuumba Theater's Twelve Principles
Val Gray Ward talks about developing The Ritual at Kuumba Theater
Transcript
So what were Kuumba's twelve principles?$$Oh, now you would ask me. One is not to--enough to show a black reality, that we must tell why our art exists, its effect or offer some necessary alternatives. Meaning that, for instance, during black exploitation films, lot of people say, oh, '[Sweet] Sweetback' is revolutionary and we say yeah, really, what is revolution and what is revolutionary about it? Let's look at it. Kuumba had a newspaper. We had forums and we would analyze what made--how was it revolutionary and somebody running from here to Mexico or wherever and having a young boy exposed to older women, how is that revolutionary? What do you mean by revolutionary? So those are the serious things we did. And we brought in--we had panels, up to the time of Colored Girls with the sociologists and psychologists. We'd bring people from Lake Forest [College, Illinois], Northwestern [University, Illinois], [HM] Vernon Jarrett and oooh, I'm sure that you've--Herbert Martin, who's also from Mound Bayou [Mississippi]. You know, and we would talk about it and analyze it and then bring in the playwrights and bring in the people, you know, and that's why we had discussions. But we did, you know, plays that were like [Useni Eugene Perkins] 'The Image Makers'. Their reviews--I was just looking over some reviews at the [Chicago] Tribune did twelve pages, way back when and that was about black exploitation films. So it was not enough to talk about 'em because people would say, oh, these militants--or these troublemakers and I--my house was fire bombed. Oh Jesus, there's all kind of stuff and because of this art, right? And Chicago [Illinois] had a red squad and [HM] Margaret Burroughs said, will you and [HM] Francis [Ward] sign this thing with me 'cause I'm getting dossiers--you getting' what? Dossiers, so she got 'em. And what would it have? I was at the Packing House [Chicago, Illinois] and Stokely [Carmichael, Kwame Ture] would say, I said, for instance, "What shall I tell my children who's black," and I was wearing whatever a description of that on there, and if the three of us, Paul, you and Paul--I mean other people were there--they would just cross out, and you tryin' to think, who else was there and that's all you were doing, creating art. And there were as many whites involved as there were blacks in terms of, you know, the struggle of our people coming, you know, getting involved and so forth.$Let's talk about how The Ritual--how did The Ritual develop and what was The Ritual?$$The Ritual developed out of exactly what I do in the one woman show today. I was doing it prior to the founding of Kuumba, starting off with, you taking my blues notes on commercial theater, with the blues and the spiritual and then the things that I'm tellin' you about either prose and/or poetry or just the story that had taken place in the news--out of the newspaper. You had to--I mean in workshop, I mean we'd work on it and create that. So that you could hold the people while you were telling it--they didn't know you were tellin' a story--and then you give credit to the or whomever had the by-line.$$But The Ritual--was it broken down into a certain number of parts?$$Yeah, it was always--it was 'Destruction or Unity,' that was the name of it. But under 'Destruction and Unity,' we would do church. We would do current events, what was happening. And when I say church, the old church and some of the songs like, we used to take songs like, and this is how we got a lot of the church people involved in it. "Were You There", I don't know if you ever heard (singing)-"were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Well, we would change it, (singing)-"were you there when they shot poor Malcolm [X] down," and Fred Hampton or whatever and we would do all the (singing)-"oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble"--people would just be crying and we'd, you know. You know, we would sing well and we would put it together and so we would take what people already knew and then you could always bring anybody, young or old, black or white, and you didn't have to worry about all that cursing. Because a lot of people wouldn't go to--they say I don't want to go to this black theater because first thing they're doing is shooting their momma and their daddy and they're putting down the church and everybody. No, we would just take the forums that people already knew and create from that and so originally when it's time to change it, somebody change it, you know. Change it, if you're the changer, you're the thing from--I mean to blues and gospel or whatever. It was wonderful.