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Douglas Turner Ward

Negro Ensemble Company co-founder, actor, director, and playwright Douglas Turner Ward was born Roosevelt Ward, Jr. on May 5, 1930, in Burnside, Louisiana. Ward was a descendant of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan; his great, great, great-grandmother, Elnora, owned as a slave by Forrest, bore a child with him. Ward’s parents, Roosevelt Ward and Dorothy Short Ward were field hands, but they owned their own tailoring business. Raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, and attending Xavier Prep High School, Ward graduated in 1946 at the age of sixteen. Ward entered Wilberforce University in 1946, where he performed in two plays, Thunder Rock and A Shot In The Dark, and discovered his ambition to be a sportswriter. When Wilberforce began to lose its accreditation in 1948, Ward transferred to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he played football in his freshman year; he would later quit the football team. In 1949, Ward decided that he wanted to leave college altogether; at the age of nineteen, he went to New York City.

In New York Ward became politically involved and worked as a journalist. Ward eventually decided to become a playwright and studied at the Paul Mann Workshop in New York City. In 1956, Ward began his off-Broadway career as an actor in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh; he went on to perform and understudy for a part in A Raisin In The Sun. In 1965, Ward, Robert Hooks, and Gerald Krone formed the Negro Ensemble Company; he made his playwriting debut that same year with the oft produced Happy Ending/Day of Absence. In 1967, the Negro Ensemble Company was officially opened with Ward serving as artistic director; some of the its notable productions include A Soldier’s Playand The River Niger, which became the company’s first play to go to Broadway. The River Niger eventually won a Tony Award for Best Play. Ward went on to write other plays, including The Reckoning and Brotherhood.

As a result of Ward and his colleagues’ hard work, the Negro Ensemble Company went on to produce more than two hundred plays, and to become a place for Black actors to gain experience and prominence in the theatre. Some notable actors who have worked with the Negro Ensemble Company include Louis Gossett, Jr., Phylicia Rashad, and Sherman Hemsley.

Douglas Turner Ward was interviewed by the HistoryMakers on April 28, 2010.

Accession Number

A2005.135

Sex

Male

Interview Date

6/10/2005 |and| 9/21/2006 |and| 11/29/2006 |and| 4/28/2010

4/28/2010

Last Name

Ward

Maker Category
Middle Name

Turner

Organizations
Schools

Xavier University Preparatory School

Wilberforce University

Central State University

University of Michigan

Search Occupation Category
First Name

Douglas

Birth City, State, Country

Burnside

HM ID

WAR08

Favorite Season

None

State

Louisiana

Favorite Vacation Destination

New Orleans, Louisiana, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

5/5/1930

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Beans (Red), Rice, Gumbo

Short Description

Playwright, stage actor, and stage director Douglas Turner Ward (1930 - ) was a Tony award-winning thespian and the founder of the Negro Ensemble Company.

Employment

'A Raisin in the Sun'

'The Daily Worker'

Negro Ensemble Company

Favorite Color

Red

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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Douglas Turner Ward's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his mother's family background, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his maternal great-grandfather, Isaac Short

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about his search for his family's history, pt. 1

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about his search for his family's history, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers asking about his family history

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the lack of educational opportunities in Burnside, Louisiana

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his father's grandparents

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes Louisiana history

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his reaction Mardi Gras traditions, pt. 1

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his reaction Mardi Gras traditions, pt. 2

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his father's parents

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his paternal grandmother

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his father's bootlegging

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his parents' meeting

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his extended family

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his family's ghost stories

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the sights, sounds and smells of his childhood

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his childhood personality

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Douglas Turner Ward recalls his interest in reading while growing up

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the impact of Richard Wright's 'Black Boy' and James T. Farrell's 'Studs Lonigan'

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward contrasts his experience with Richard Wright's in 'Black Boy'

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his mother's religious influence

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his questioning of the church

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his elementary schools in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes how he advanced through schools in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his maternal great-grandfather's influence

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers men he admired, including boxer Joe Louis

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his interest in African American athletes and sports

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his developing agnosticism

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes extracurricular activities at Xavier University Preparatory School in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward explains his decision to attend Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his surprise at the segregation in Ohio

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward recalls watching movies as a child

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his time at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers enjoying Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the schism at Wilberforce University in Wilberforce, Ohio

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers acting with the Wilberforce Players

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes transferring to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers becoming radicalized at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about moving to New York City

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Slating of Douglas Turner Ward's interview, session 2

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes developing an interest in politics at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers deciding to leave the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about reading Karl Marx

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his influences at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his decision to move to New York City

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes registering for the draft in New Orleans, Louisiana

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Douglas Turner Ward recalls arriving in New York City

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers working for Henry A. Wallace's 1948 presidential campaign

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes President Harry S. Truman's civil rights position

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the fall-out from the 1948 presidential election

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his experience as a Marxist youth leader in the 1950s

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes Harlem nightlife in the 1940s and 1950s

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the acceptance of radicalism in Harlem, New York City

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his arrest in 1951

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his arrest and conviction

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his exoneration

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers returning to New York City after his exoneration

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his path to becoming a playwright

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his early writing

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his decision to pursue playwriting

Tape: 9 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes developing as a writer

Tape: 10 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the conflict in the Communist Party after Joseph Stalin's death

Tape: 10 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his changing political views in the 1950s

Tape: 10 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes acting in 'The Iceman Cometh'

Tape: 10 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his early stage roles

Tape: 10 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers Lorraine Hansberry's invitation to audition for 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 10 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his role in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 10 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes audience perceptions of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 11 Story: 1 - Slating of Douglas Turner Ward's interview, session 3

Tape: 11 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the original cast of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 11 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the acting methods of the cast of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 11 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about the rehearsal process for 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 11 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers seeing his first plays in New York City

Tape: 11 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers touring with 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 11 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers giving Lorraine Hansberry advice, pt. 1

Tape: 11 Story: 8 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers giving Lorraine Hansberry advice, pt. 2

Tape: 11 Story: 9 - Douglas Turner Ward reflects upon the presence of African American actors in the 1940s and 1950s

Tape: 11 Story: 10 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers forming the Manhattan Arts Theater

Tape: 12 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes acting in the postwar period

Tape: 12 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes expectations for 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 12 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the Manhattan Arts Club disbanding

Tape: 12 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the positive reviews of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 12 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the Broadway run of 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 12 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes not getting the role of Walter Lee Younger in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 12 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes HistoryMaker Ossie Davis and Elwood Smith playing Walter Lee Younger in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 13 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands rejoining 'A Raisin in the Sun' on the road

Tape: 13 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers a lecture from HistoryMaker Lloyd Richards

Tape: 13 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes working with Elwood Smith in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 13 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his performance as Walter Lee Younger in 'A Raisin in the Sun'

Tape: 13 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes acting in 'The Blacks' in New York City

Tape: 13 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his acting roles after 'The Blacks'

Tape: 13 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers his first staged play, 'Happy Ending'

Tape: 14 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the early performances of 'Happy Ending' and 'Day of Absence'

Tape: 14 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward recalls the reception of 'Happy Ending' and 'Day of Absence'

Tape: 14 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his writing process for 'Day of Absence'

Tape: 14 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the inspiration for 'Happy Ending,' pt. 1

Tape: 14 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the inspiration for 'Happy Ending,' pt. 2

Tape: 14 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the genesis of the Negro Ensemble Company, pt. 1

Tape: 14 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the genesis of the Negro Ensemble Company, pt. 2

Tape: 15 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the process of writing 'Day of Absence'

Tape: 15 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the genesis of 'Happy Ending'

Tape: 15 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about audience responses to 'Happy Ending'

Tape: 15 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the opening of 'Day of Absence' and 'Happy Ending'

Tape: 15 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the legacy of 'Day of Absence' and 'Happy Ending'

Tape: 15 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward describes setting aside time for his family and writing

Tape: 15 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his Haitian trilogy

Tape: 16 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward describes selecting plays for the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 16 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers receiving scripts for the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 16 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes different playwrights' styles

Tape: 16 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about writing for African American audiences

Tape: 16 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the style of theater he cultivated

Tape: 16 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about HistoryMaker Paul Carter Harrison

Tape: 16 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward Douglas Turner Ward describes the Negro Ensemble Company's early plays

Tape: 17 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers deciding not to take 'Ceremonies in Dark Old Men' to Broadway

Tape: 17 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the vision of the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 17 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about the lack of a national arts policy

Tape: 17 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers taking 'The River Niger' to Broadway

Tape: 17 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the financial goals of the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 17 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about the success of 'Fences'

Tape: 17 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the role of AUDELCO in creating audiences for African American productions

Tape: 18 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about the purpose of the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 18 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the financial difficulties of the Negro Ensemble Company

Tape: 18 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the final years of the Negro Ensemble Company, pt. 1

Tape: 18 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward remembers the final years of the Negro Ensemble Company, pt. 2

Tape: 18 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his Haitian trilogy

Tape: 18 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about Jean-Jacques Dessalines

Tape: 19 Story: 1 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about the Haitian Revolution

Tape: 19 Story: 2 - Douglas Turner Ward describes the lost potential of Haiti

Tape: 19 Story: 3 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community, pt. 1

Tape: 19 Story: 4 - Douglas Turner Ward describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community, pt. 2

Tape: 19 Story: 5 - Douglas Turner Ward reflects upon his life and legacy

Tape: 19 Story: 6 - Douglas Turner Ward talks about his family

Tape: 19 Story: 7 - Douglas Turner Ward describes how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$3

DATape

6$14

DAStory

3$6

DATitle
Douglas Turner Ward remembers acting with the Wilberforce Players
Douglas Turner Ward describes the genesis of the Negro Ensemble Company, pt. 1
Transcript
The best thing that happened to me besides the, the things I've already talked about as far as education, two things: I became, my drama interest got sparked, once again, for the wrong, for, for, for, for wrong reasons. I really got involved with drama because, once again, I needed to find something to do because I couldn't play ball because I had gotten injured in, in running track in high school [Xavier University Preparatory School, New Orleans, Louisiana] and my knee hadn't heal, healed sufficiently enough to try out for the team. So I needed some extracurricular activity to do, especially I'm stuck out there in the cornfield, (laughter) you know, with, with not much to do. And I found out that the girls in the, in the drama group could stay out later than, than the curfew. At that time, the freshmen had to be in by 6:00. The, the, the, even the juniors and seniors had to be in by nine or ten or something. I said no, so me and a buddy of mine in, in my dormitory (laughter), we said man, like, let's find, you know, a place here. I said if we find out the girls in the drama group had, you know, could stay out long as they, they, they, they, they, they wanted to, and the drama group was very well situated at Wilberforce [University, Wilberforce, Ohio], interestingly enough, because the sponsor behind the drama group and a fanatic theater person was guess, was guess what, the head of the athletic department, Mack [M.] Greene. Mack Greene was I mean famous. It was, it, this odd thing that here was the, the head of the whole athletic department and, and everything else was a fanatic theater person. And he had been responsible for creating the Wilberforce Players. They didn't have a, you know, a, a formal theater program. So the Wilberforce Players was, was, was it as far as the theater activity, and Mack Greene was behind it. So I mean they, you know, and Mack Greene was very powerful figure there. And at that time when I was there, Leontyne Price was, was, was there. In fact, the year I was there, I was in two productions. In that year they didn't do any musicals, so I remember Lee- Leontyne to sew costumes 'cause there, there was nothing for her to do that particular year 'cause they weren't doing any musical ex--. She used to sing that in, in, in the, you know, the school assemblies and all of that, but there was nothing for the theater group there, 'cause we, we did two plays. And I was--and for some reason they, they, they, they cast me in both of the plays they were doing. And I'm there because of the women. I wasn't (laughter) going there for, for theater purposes.$$Now what plays did they do?$$One was--well, what was the, it was a play that originally had been done in, in, in England? What, what was, what was the, the name of it? Had a lighthouse, it took place in a lighthouse. It'll might, it'll occur to me before I, I finish. And the other one was, was some, a play that had, had originally been a thriller movie, '[A] Shot in the Dark' or something, something like that. I forgot the, the name of it. 'Thunder Rock,' 'Thunder Rock,' 'Thunder Rock Island,' [sic. 'Thunder Rock'] I think, was the name of the, the first play. And, and right away, I'm the youngest. No, nobody knew it, but I was the youngest member of the company. All of--let me see--yes, still, by the time I did that first play, yeah, I still, I'm still sixteen years old, 'cause I went, went to school when I was sixteen. And I'm playing the oldest character in the play, (laughter) I mean 'Thunder Rock Island.' And I'm playing the oldest man in the play. And the next play, the thriller, I, I played my, I play my own age, at least, but (laughter) the other I'm playing the father. I said well, didn't know it at the time that I set my course for being the, the resident old man of black theater (laughter) eventually, always playing characters older than myself. But that was, that was, that was one of the main benefits of being there. And, and, and you know, I loved performing in the plays. I still hadn't committed myself to any, any, any theater career. I still was following my original ambition, that I wanted to become a sportswriter, you know, basically.$So how did that, I mean the 1965 opening, St. Mark's Place [St. Mark's Playhouse, New York, New York], you said led, led to the, the NEC [Negro Ensemble Company]--$$Oh, the, the, the whole, the whole, all of the, the, the, the factors, all of the factors that went into 'Happy Ending' and 'Day of Absence' [Douglas Turner Ward]--$$Which were?$$--turned out to be the germs, the germ, the full-fledged germ of what became the NEC every, every element of it: a black-produced play, [HistoryMaker] Robert Hooks, a black producer, a black writer who's written about the black experience to say, addressed to a black audience, and a company, a 99 percent black company, which includes the veteran actors, 'cause I hired, you know, I had Frances Foster, you know, Moses Gunn, Robert, of course, was, was, was in it 'cause Robert played Junie in the orig- original production and also everybody was, of course, the four of us in, in, in, in 'Happy Ending' were all in, in, in 'Day of Absence,' 'cause 'Day of Absence' had about thirteen people I think, and, but Bobby's group, Bobby's workshop group [Group Theater Workshop], the kids who had trained, the ones I said that originally did 'Happy Ending' in that, in that graduation ceremony. They were also, so I got the generations, all of the, the veterans, the younger generation who were developing, who had also been, been part of a training program. So all of these things became the model. By putting together, in putting together NEC, eventually it didn't take--we, we sat down at the, at, at Orquidea [New York, New York], the, the bar right on the corner from the theater, at that time on 9th [Street] 9th and 2nd Avenue. When we found that we were, we were invited to make a proposal, a full-scale proposal, we sat down, and on a napkin (laughter), I mean on a, on a theater cloth, the white cloth in, over the, over the table, sat down and, and, and almost quickly outlined the ingredients for the NEC, the training program, the professional company, the, you know, the theater, the ambition for the productions, and as I said, the training program, which, which was, was thorough, or, and, and, and, and, and, and my insistence that all of this had to be free. See, all of, all of the NEC, all of the training that the NEC did was tuition-free. Nobody paid us a dime for, for, for the--it was a full-scale training because, hey, we, you know. I, I, just to show the training program, Paul Mann was, was, was--I brought Paul Mann in to train the theater company for, for a compressed intensive period of time before they, before they did the first production at a three-month paid, just like actors being paid, paid on a regular basis. Once I selected the company, they started a training program, and they were being paid full-scale salaries, you know, to come in every day. Paul trained them.