The Influence and Impact of the Negro Ensemble Company
Leticia Ridley: Welcome to Daughters of Lorraine, a podcast from your friendly neighborhood Black feminists exploring the legacies, present, and futures of Black theatre. We are your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan Ealey: And Jordan Ealey. On this podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, we discuss Black theatre history; conduct interviews with local and national Black theatre artists, scholars, and practitioners; and discuss plays by Black playwrights that have our minds buzzing.
Leticia: In 1966, playwright, director, and actor Douglas Turner Ward’s op-ed, “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” led to the funding and founding of the Negro Ensemble Theatre Company [NEC]. Since 1968, the NEC has been a home for Black theatre artists yielding such successes as Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, Samuel Jackson, and many more.
Jordan: Today we delve into the history and development of this incredible Black theatre company with the instability of today’s theatre industry and the tragic underfunding of Black theatres everywhere. We hope to illuminate the need for institutional spaces where Black theatre and performance can thrive.
Leticia: Welcome back to Daughters of Lorraine. We are here with episode three. How are you doing today, Jordan?
Jordan: Can’t complain. It’s a beautiful day here. What about you?
Leticia: It is a nice day in Toronto as well, and I’m excited to be chatting with you about a theatre company, a very famous theatre company that we’ve been in dialogue with each other for a bit now since graduate school.
Jordan: Yep. We have to shout out, as we do often on these podcasts, our mentor Faedra Chatard Carpenter and her class that we both took together on contemporary Black drama. Actually, a lot of the research put into this episode really comes from something you wrote in that class, Leticia. So tell us what we’re talking about today.
Leticia: Yes, we are going to be talking about Negro Ensemble Company, also known as the NEC. Still in existence today, not in the sort of same capacity it was when it first began, but still well-respected within Black theatre circles. And the legacy of the NEC is still very much something that is worth revisiting and looking after. And I will say that the research that I did in that class with Faedra was actually trying to uncover the women of the NEC because when we were taking that class, we were reading a lot of plays from the NEC, but I was like, “Man, why are none of these plays written by women, or at least the award-winning plays not written by women? What’s going on here?” And it really took me down a rabbit hole of the NEC. Did you hear about the NEC before this class? Were you familiar with them?
Jordan: I was familiar with the NEC. It was a name that I had heard just from taking an African American theatre class as an undergraduate, but definitely not a theatre company I really had looked into any further than that. Just from our conversations when you are doing this research, and just from that class we took, and just generally being Black theatre scholars and enthusiasts as we are, I’m very shocked at how little research is made available on the NEC—the fact that it produced such a cohort of actors and writers and Black theatre artists. But to my knowledge, there’s no full manuscript even about the history of this company.
Leticia: Yeah. I think someone wrote a dissertation about it some years ago, but it never came to fruition into a dedicated manuscript. I’m not familiar with other folks that are working on it, even though I’m sure they are.
Jordan: No, literally: if you’re working on this, can you tell us, please?
Leticia: Yeah, please. Please do. Please do. Because I do think that the NEC deserves the dedicated manuscript about what the theatre company was doing because it’s actually quite a fascinating history of how it came into fruition. A lot of people may be familiar that Douglas Turner Ward wrote a New York Times op-ed article called, “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” We mentioned it on the podcast before, but if you actually go to the NEC’s sort of curated history on their website, they actually placed the inception of the NEC actually in a production, a 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun where Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks were both actors on that particular production. And they begin to sort of talk and share their ideas and desires about creating a Black theatre company ran by four Black people and why their creative juices were running about what this theatre could look like.
They kind of went their separate ways. Douglas Turner Ward really was interested in focusing on his writing. Robert Hooks started [the] Group Theatre Workshop with Barbara Ann Teer in 1963 where they would train and create jobs for Black performers who were interested in theatre. I believe they did the productions of the musical We Real Cool by Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, and this is where we get Douglas Turner Ward’s two one-act plays: Happy Ending and Day of Absence at the St. Mark’s Playhouse. So that’s really the really beginning inceptions of the NEC.
But I think what’s really important, Jordan, and I know you’ve read the New York Times article, that you’ve taught about it. What is so compelling to you about that? Because that then becomes the driving force for the Ford Foundation to give Douglas Turner Ward the money to make the NEC a reality.
It wasn't just about putting Black plays on the stage and getting people to come see those plays, but also creating an avenue for both new talent, folks who wanted to be a part of the theatre to be trained.
Jordan: Yeah, I mean, his op-ed “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” is, yes, an op-ed that I have taught in my Black theatre class. I know you’ve taught it in your class, and we have mentioned it several times on this podcast. I think what’s really interesting about this particular article with it being the sort of catalyst for this company and gaining the funding that they need, Douglas Turner Ward—and rest in peace to Douglas Turner Ward who passed on a couple of years ago at this point—but if you are familiar with just his general being, one of the clips where I actually encountered him speaking is from our personal favorite collective documentary Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement. And in that documentary, he’s talking about his leftist views, being a radical, coming across someone like Lorraine Hansberry, and their connection and the connection of Black theatre to the larger Civil Rights and Black Power movements.
He is an extremely outspoken, very self-assured man who is... This is someone who you would... You know he ain’t scared, right? He’s going to say what he has to say. I get that sense from this op-ed in the New York Times where he talks about the need for Black theatre and the fact that Black theatre remains not supported and underfunded and it exists, but it really doesn’t have the support that it needs to be able to exist in its full capacity. One of the things he writes in this article is, and I quote,
“If any hope outside of chance individual fortune exists for Negro playwrights as a group or for that matter, Negro actors or other theatre craftsmen, the most immediate pressing, practical, absolutely minimally essential active first step is development of a permanent Negro company of at least off Broadway size and dimension not in the future but now.”
Actually, just the “now” really reminds me of we’re going to have our future guest talking about the nowness and the present of Black life through the lens of Black theatre, which we’re really excited about. But Douglas Turner Ward saying that we have to... It’s not just about individual people succeeding, but we need institutional support that’s going to funnel us into a pipeline for actually creating sustainable Black art. When you look at the successes of these productions in place of the NEC, they definitely accomplished a lot with the funding and artistic experiences that they created. So let’s delve in a little bit more about the NEC. So Douglas Turner Ward was one of the founders. Who were the other two?
Leticia: The other two were—Douglas Turner Ward served as the artistic director—Robert Hooks was the executive director, and Gerald Krone, a white man, was the administrative director. I say that was a white man because I think that’s critically important to some of the critiques that later come in when we’re talking about the NEC. These three men, with the support of the Ford Foundation in the tune of $434,000 given to them over a three year period, decided to create, “A Black repertory company to present works on social themes, expand opportunities for experienced Black theatre artists, and offer professional training to potential new talent with materials that emphasized Black identity.”
What I think was actually critically important to the NEC was not only... It wasn’t just about putting Black plays on the stage and getting people to come see those plays, but also creating an avenue for both new talent, folks who wanted to be a part of the theatre to be trained, and this is where Robert Hooks plays a critical importance to the development of the NEC and what the NEC is doing, but we also have this sort of pipeline for these actors that then be on stage at NEC production. Then it was also continued to hone talent who might be more experienced in the theatre as well that I think is actually quite compelling for a Black theatre to do. Right? It wasn’t just about having plays on stage, but also developing talent, which I don’t know if we have something like that now still within Black theatre. We may have, and I just may not be aware of it, but I think that that model at this time was actually quite unique in their approach.
Jordan: Exactly. I think it’s less common. I think what you’re picking up on is it may exist, but it’s not as common. I know that there are certain residencies—for example, the I AM SOUL Playwrights Residency and directing residencies through the National Black Theatre—but it’s very rare to have a place where Black theatre artists are being fostered in this kind of pipeline, as you said, for both the development of new works and new talent funneled straight into, you know, you’re also getting credits for your resume. You’re getting professional experience. You’re having a pipeline to where your plays are produced.
I’ve heard a lot of playwrights, Black playwrights in particular, talk about being stuck in what is known as “development hell.” They get a bunch of readings, maybe even a workshop, but very rarely are they resulting in full productions, like seasons being programmed or what have you. So to have something like that exist with the Negro Ensemble Company, especially 1969, the late sixties, to have this place where Black theatre artists can not just get produced or get in productions, but can also be developed. I think that that’s really, really important. And there’s, again, not a lot of spaces where that happens even today.
Leticia: Right, right. I also want to sort of put a caveat here that earlier I mentioned that Barbara Ann Teer and Robert Hooks worked really closely with each other on the Group Theatre Workshop, which was exactly one component of the Negro Ensemble Company, which was training Black theatre artists. At this point, Barbara Ann Teer decided not to continue with the Negro Ensemble Company. From the research that I’ve done, she really cited, one, the naming and claiming of “Negro.” So the fact that it was named the Negro Ensemble Company she was not really fond of, but also this idea that the theatre would be located in Greenwich Village. And this was one of the reasons for not proceeding with the NEC because she felt like it did not align with her philosophy. She said, “My philosophy was that we should not be called Negroes and we should not be located in Greenwich Village. I didn’t want to prove to white people that I could do their Western art form as good as they could.”
And this becomes the impetus for Dr. Barbara Ann Teer to create her own theatre, the National Black theatre in Harlem, where she was really interested in building a cultural center where she said, “We can enjoy being free, open, and Black.” And then she later on continues to say, quote, “Where we can find out how talented we really are, where we can be what we were born to be, and not what we are brainwashed to be, where we can literally blow our minds with Blackness.” I love that idea of blow your mind with Blackness. That would be a great title for an article, “Blow Your Mind with Blackness.”
Jordan: Also, I just commend the National Black Theatre also for being probably one of the few Black theatre companies in the United States to have a brick-and-mortar space and being able to continue on this legacy. Because as we know, the fate of Black theatres is not often one that allows them to continue on because of the lack of funding and support for Black theatres. They have a wonderful and beautiful space and all this amazing programming. They’ve made it to Broadway with productions like Fat Ham, for example. Not that Broadway and everything is the ultimate goal, and that makes you successful, but we know that institutional support is invaluable for minoritized artists. Even though this is about the Negro Ensemble Company, I just think it’s worth shouting out that it is always wonderful to see the sustainability of Black theatre spaces, of Black spaces in general.
Then I also wanted to say too, if you are not familiar with Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, you did hear of her if you heard Renaissance by Beyonce, specifically, the song “Alien Superstar.” Those lines at the end, “We walk a certain way, we talk a certain way. Everything is unique, specific...” That’s Dr. Barbara Ann Teer, right? I cannot tell you how excited I was when I heard this. Yeah. So I just wanted to say that, but then also just to your other points, I think it’s really important also to illuminate the contentious history too because that’s also something that followed the Negro Ensemble Company even into their first season. So, if I’m not mistaken, their first season included white playwrights.
Leticia: Yes. The inaugural season of the NEC, they decided to produce two plays and both of those plays were written by white men.
Jordan: Song of the Lusitanian Bogey by Peter Weiss and The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler. Now, everything else was held by Black people, but the plays themselves were written by two white men.
Leticia: Right. And Douglas Turner Ward specifically received a lot of criticism of this because they were telling everyone, “This is a theatre for us. We are invested in Black theatre artists at all different levels, Black theatre audiences.” In the first season in which they produce, they decide to do two plays by white men. His sort of response to this criticism, to your point, was, “Well, the cast is all Black. It’s directed by someone who’s Black. The technical staff is Black.” So all the other positions in this production are held by Black folks. The plays are not. I think this also sort of illuminates perhaps some of the earlier conversations with Barbara Ann Teer about the Group Theatre Workshop was evolving into the NEC of the vision and where there might’ve been some sort of divergence of their vision of what it could be. Because for me, on the surface, it looks like, wow, the first season of the NEC, you decide to do these two plays. That’s quite a statement to make with something called the Negro Ensemble Company that you have then told everyone is for Black people.
So in order to sustain itself, it quite literally needed to have the one play that they produce bring enough money to be able to at least capture some of what they were trying to still do.
Jordan: And I also think too, if I can bring back in one of our episodes from this season where we talk about what is Black theatre? I think that that is such a oppression question. When you look at the history of Black theatre, oftentimes it does include white people. It’s so interesting to kind of delve into that, about what makes something Black theatre, what makes something Black. And obviously this is an ontological question in Black studies and Black theatre and Black feminism, these different things about what makes something... Can you further a political goal of empowering or centering Black people when there are non-Black people involved? I think that the NEC, that first season in particular, is really an important case study in considering that.
And it’s a caution that I’ve come back to time and time again when I look at even my own work, and I’m sure you’re going to continue to think about that in your own work too. I mean, he’s right, right? To some extent, he’s right. A ton of Black people worked on this production. It was all Black people who worked on the production. But because it’s a text that is not generated by a Black person, that begs the question of its, I guess, authenticity to speaking to the Black experience.
Leticia: I will say with Mr. Douglas Turner Ward and company, he very much got the message after that first season and the criticism because never again did the NEC under his tutelage produce any other season that were not written by Black playwrights. So I think that pressure... We can apply that pressure.
Ari Lennox. As Ari Lennox once theorized, you put that pressure, some things might change, and they did change from Mr. Douglas Turner Ward for the next five seasons of the NEC. They ended up producing anywhere from three to five mainstage shows until 1972 where they only produced one play, and you may know this because it is an award-winning play that actually quite frankly saved the NEC. Joseph A. Walker’s The River Niger. That play I did not read prior to that class that we were talking about with Faedra.
I could see why it saved the NEC. It was a hit, and it came at a critical point where the three-year funding, remember the funding was only for three years, had just run out the year prior in 1971. The NEC was really kind of “put up or shut up” because the Ford Foundation, when they met with them again, was like, “Your three years are up. We’re not renewing this grant for you to support your theatre.” So in order to sustain itself, it quite literally needed to have the one play that they produce bring enough money to be able to at least capture some of what they were trying to still do, because the funding led to significant cuts in their training programs. Like I said, they could only produce one play that season.
And Douglas Turner Ward alluded to the impact that the role that public funding had on the mission and the goals of the NEC. He stated, “While its plans are designed to achieve and maintain financial independence in the future and thus safeguard the public against the unusual perennial appeals for funds for operation, the company is now frankly dependent for support upon these progressive men and women who are conscious of the need for developing the artists and culture of the Negro people.”
That actually then became a pressure point for the NEC because they were unable to become a financially independent organization. And this, Jordan, goes back to many conversations that we’ve had about funding and support and the importance of these institutions. But like you said, who’s going to put up the money to support them?
Jordan: Right, and theatre is already sort of economically risky, right? I mean, I’m talking as someone who is a writer who writes new plays and musicals, and even securing funding for something just generally, even if you have the right name attached or whatever, it’s still difficult because theatre is risky. You are going to lose more money than you’re going to gain in most times, right? Things like Hamilton are anomalies when it comes to funding theatre.
So if you’re familiar with The River Niger, we won’t go in super, super detail with the play, but this is a play that’s about a family who is in Harlem who faces social, political, personal unrest when their son comes home from being in war. And the play really aligns with themes of Black Power, the sort of Africanist aesthetic. We’re in the early seventies, so it’s coming right off the heels of the Black Arts Movement and a movement for which the folks at NEC were definitely both involved with and aware of.
So for me, I think that what’s so interesting about this play is that because it is so politically left, these Africanist aesthetics, that it is the play that really, like you said, allowed this organization to become financially independent is really interesting because the play is so... It’s just so radical.
Leticia: I just want to give our listeners some of the specs of how successful this play was. So it was the first NEC work to move to Broadway where it ran nine months, which is—
Jordan: A lot of time. Unheard of for a play. This is not a musical, right? For a play. To my knowledge, besides the extant music that can be a part of the production, it is not a play with music. It’s a play. Straight play.
Leticia: And then after it left Broadway, it went on a national tour. So there was also sort of energy around this particular play that allowed it to go on a national tour when very few plays actually do. We also have Douglas Turner Ward directing and playing the central role of Johnny Williams on and off Broadway. So Douglas Turner Ward said, “We going to Broadway? Me too.”
Jordan: I just want to say that’s something I want to talk to someone who has directed themselves. I can just imagine that that can be such a difficult thing to step in and out of those positions so quickly. I’m just curious about how people do it.
Leticia: So it also won the Tony, the Drama Desk, and the Obie and made enough money. Again, they were still scrapping pennies together because it wasn’t enough money to do everything they were doing with the support of the Ford Foundation. Allowed the work of the NEC to continue for the next ten years. That’s how big and monumental The River Niger was to the NEC.
Jordan: Right. And within that ten years, we get another one of the plays that was a success for them, right? 1981—
Leticia: They started making hits.
Jordan: Started getting hits. And one of those plays is a play that I’m sure a lot of our listeners will be familiar with, which is A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller, and rest in peace to Charles Fuller, who also recently passed. Man, we are losing our legends. We are losing our history. And I’m just like—
Leticia: That is very true.
And I also want to put this on the podcast. Who wants to give Jordan and I some funding to make a sequel to Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement? Because it’s been time, and I feel like with these Black theatre giants passing on that we just need to speak to them and talk to them and document their knowledge and experience.
Jordan: Right. And also preserve the work of people who... When we were at a big conference in our field, American Society for Theatre Research, also known as ASTR, a couple of years ago when it was in San Diego, Branden Jacobs Jenkins spoke at the... He had a conversation with Douglas A. Jones who’s a Black theatre historian, and Aleshea Harris, who y’all know we love. We love Aleshea Harris around here. And Branden Jacobs Jenkins was talking about all of the strides that have been made by Black theatre artists in recent decades.
There’s a lack of preservation around that work. I mean, we’re Black theatre scholars and we write about it, but there’s a way that academic knowledge also can be inaccessible to the wider public as well. So something like a documentary, something like what we try to do with this podcast is about documenting the work of contemporary Black theatre. But like Leticia said, we can never interview Douglas Turner Ward again. We can never interview Cicely Tyson again. So we need to... Like Leticia said, if anyone wants to give us lots and lots of money to do that, we’ll figure out how to get it done. But we just need the money to do it. Thanks.
But A Soldier’s Play, right? I mean, one, I think it’s really interesting that two of their really big hits are centered around the military and interrogating the military industrial complex. I just taught A Soldier’s Play. Masculinity, right? I just taught A Soldier’s Play a couple of weeks ago in my contemporary Black theatre class, and we talked a lot about the linkage between sports and the military that happens in that play. All of these folks are coming from the Negro baseball leagues. I know that’s something that you’re interested in, Leticia, around sports and Black theatre. But yeah, A Soldier’s Play, huge hit. If you don’t know, A Soldier’s Play is Pulitzer Prize-winning.
Charles Fuller was only the second Black person, not just Black man, Black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for A Soldier’s Play. But honestly, when I reread... Which I reread this play every single year because I teach it every single year, I can see why it was a hit. It’s a murder mystery. It is perfectly structured, but it also interrogates a lot of racial, and like you said, themes of masculinity that I think are really widely accessible to people who are wanting to see a play that’s going to entertain them, but also sneak in some education. Pearl Cleage is also really good at that, too.
Leticia: Exactly. And it was so successful that it was then adapted into a movie.
Jordan: Both River Niger and Soldier’s Play.
Leticia: Oh, yeah, yeah. River Niger too. A Soldier’s Play became A Soldier’s Story.
Jordan: Starring none other than Denzel Washington, who also was in the original production.
Leticia: He was in the original production of A Soldier’s Play. Samuel L. Jackson, I think was.
Jordan: I also think that this revival was directed by Kenny Leon, if I’m not mistaken, and also had Blair Underwood starring in it too, right? So we just have really... It just has this legacy of really big names starring in this production. And I’m pretty sure that A Soldier’s Play won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play there too. And David Alan Grier won for his work in the play.
Neither of us was able to see this production, which is probably one of the biggest tragedies of our... Okay. I can only speak for myself. It is one of the biggest tragedies of my life, but it’s such a wonderful play, and I think it really fits into a lot of the themes of the Negro Ensemble Company of supporting Black work, but also this kind of interrogation of social and political themes, but in a way that I think is really easy to be received.
As someone who is, I would say, not as familiar with the arts administration, financial side, business side of theatre, something I have learned from talking with my colleagues in the field who are theatre leaders around money and theatre is that sometimes these big productions, maybe some that are not necessarily advancing any kind of political work are the productions that are funding those productions that will probably not make a ton of money. For example, theatres that have these big Christmas Carol productions or any sort of really not politically challenging plays, but that are entertaining, that are comforting, that are fun; they get the money from that, and they’re able to fund other works that may not be as financially viable.
I say all that to say that these two works are not necessarily not politically challenging, but the money that they got from The River Niger and A Soldier’s Play was probably able to sustain them to be able to produce new works. We mentioned at the beginning of the episode that part of your interest, Leticia, in the NEC was looking at the presence of Black women within this organization. Maybe we can talk a little bit about what you found in terms of Black women that were produced that maybe weren’t making it to Broadway or Pulitzer Prizes or Tony Awards, but they were there, and they were, and they’re part of the organization’s history.
Leticia: Right. No, I appreciate you bringing that up because we are a Black feminist podcast. The woman question is always central to anything that we’re thinking about, specifically when we’re thinking about the podcast and what we’re talking about. One of the things that I was actually quite interested in with the NEC is like, okay, I could do a NEC history, sort of a historical examination, but for me, again, I’m always looking, where are the Black women? And I was curious why there’s these three Black men... Or sorry, three Black men. Gerald Krone is not a Black man. These two Black men and this one white man created this theatre company. Why was there not, or perhaps why wasn’t a voice of a Black woman included in that? And again, we know that Barbara Ann Teer was a part of its inception, and she decided to create her own theatre, which I think is actually kind of critically important that there was this Black woman there, but then there seemed to be some things that didn’t align. So then she decided to create her own.
I think that’s critically important to investigate and think about, which really led me to really trying to find out, okay, where are the women in the NEC record? What I found, I will say that I didn’t have the opportunity and the funding because I was in graduate school to go to the Schomburg Center in New York to look at the archive and the materials, and I hope to make that trip actually quite soon. But one of the things that I found was what plays were produced that was online with the NEC like, “Okay, well, this is the record and the history of the plays that we produced at the NEC.” So I was like, “Okay, this is the material that I have to work with, so I’m going to focus specifically on Black women playwrights. How many Black women’s works were produced during this time?”
I ended up focusing on a period of 1968 to 1984, which was a seventeen-year stretch of the NEC. We only see six plays written by five Black women playwrights. So one of them got two of their plays produced. And if you look at the list of names, which I’m about to tell you all, it’s not people you don’t know. We have the first Black woman, according to my research that I did that they produced was a one act play by Alice Childress called String. We have Livin’ Fat by Judi Ann Mason. Then we have Daughters of the Mock three years later, 1978, by Judi Ann Mason. We have A Season to Unravel by Alexis DeVeaux produced in 1978. We have Puppetplay by Pearl Cleage, 1983, and we have American Dreams by Velina Houston. So over this seventeen-year period, we have six plays written by Black women. Velina Houston is a mixed=race Black woman.
So I was just curious why there was just this absence. And then when I started to look at, “Okay, what people written about the NEC Black women weren’t necessarily critically important to those investigations.” There is one anthology called The Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company, which is just a volume created by NEC playwrights Paul Carter Harrison, and Gus Edwards, as well as the artistic director, Douglas Turner Ward. And notably, they ended up publishing ten plays. And there’s only one play by a Black woman that’s included in it. And it’s Judi Ann Mason’s Daughters of the Mock.
I mention that I think it’s important, but I also do recognize that they also did publish a lot of the award-winning plays in that anthology as well. But I do think that there could have been more consideration for the inclusion of what plays were included and allowing Black women a prominent role in space within this anthology. And James V. Hatch does a review of the anthology, and he agrees with the lack of inclusion. So I say all that to say—I know I’m sort of long-winded—the NEC might have a woman problem in its history.
We don’t really know the extent to what Black women were involved, but that needs to be widely available and widely public so we can celebrate the contributions of those Black women rather than always having to go look.
Jordan: I mean, yeah, I think... How do I say this delicately? But I think that is a larger issue within conversations of the Black community, of Black spaces, of Black theatre is the presence of Black women. I was thinking about this because you know when you surround yourself and curate your world so much so that when you encounter the opinions of the general public, it’s a genuine shock? For example, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, everyone’s not a feminist, or everyone’s not attuned to queer and trans issues.” Or what have you. Because you see online or your group of friends or people who are hopefully like-minded as you are. So when you encounter that people don’t know certain things or that they don’t care about certain things, then it is a shock to the senses.
But I think that the reality is that Black women have been marginalized within Black theatre organizations or within Black theatre history. I mean folks like Barbara Ann Teer being a Black woman who was a founder of a Black theatre company and one that was very successful and is still going today, that’s not common. That is not common at all. On this very podcast, we interviewed Hana Sharif, who was the first Black woman to lead a LORT theatre company in the United States. So it was shocking, or not shocking. It was disappointing or like... Yeah.
But it wasn’t necessarily that surprising that this would be the history, again, noting that the work of the NEC was incredibly important to Black theatre, the sustainability of Black theatre, of getting Black folks into these spaces. But which Black folks, right? Are Black women a part of that narrative? Or they’re a part of that narrative in very marginal ways. However, like you said, this list of Black women, these are not people that are gone unnoticed in history. Again, there had to be some sort of way that them getting produced through the NEC was probably critically important to the sustainability of their own careers of Black theatre artists. But at the same time, it still begs the question of how many more Black women went unnoticed in the making of this organization? Especially one that was performing at such a high level like the NEC. I can’t remember off the top of my head right now, but for example, The River Niger, how many roles in that play are for Black women? In A Soldier’s Play, there’s zero. There’s no Black women in A Soldier’s Play, right?
Leticia: Like a director, right? I actually didn’t do this research, but I’m actually curious in listening to you speak of what would it look like if we looked at who was directing these shows. The NEC had a training program. What if we got a list, again, I don’t know what’s in the archive, but a list of the records of who was enrolled in this training program and how many of the directors that were in their training program were Black women? I think those are questions that are critically important to ask. I, again, want to reiterate, this is from 1968 to 1984 with these numbers, but they produced forty-five plays over that seventeen-year period, and six were written by Black women. Given full productions, that’s actually quite a significant number.
But again, I say that all to say I’m not saying that perhaps in the other records that they have, that they don’t have more detailed notes of it. And if it’s also on some of us who raised the NEC up, rightly so, for their contributions, but then don’t interrogate some of these questions. I think back to our conversation last season with Pearl Cleage regarding... We see August Wilson rise, and there were these group of Black women theatre artists who were saying like, “Yes, go brother, but we also have a feminist critique of your work that also needs to be a part of this conversation.” I think about that as well in the history of the NEC.
Jordan: Exactly. And I think if anything has taught me with us doing this podcast with my ongoing study of Black feminism is that Black feminist critique is necessary. It’s a loving critique. It’s Combahee River Collective saying that, “We will not abandon Black men. We will struggle with them against patriarchy, but we are not separated from them.” So we say all this... The woman question, so it maybe is not one that is meant to be like, “We need to throw this away,” or whatever. But more so of saying that, “In what ways do we continue to push these conversations?” And also knowing that our research is limited for now until we go into those archives, until we get to talk to more folks around the history of this organization, and we don’t really know the extent to what Black women were involved, but that needs to be widely available and widely public so we can celebrate the contributions of those Black women rather than always having to go look. I have to go look. Got to go find, got to go find, right? Got to go dig through the papers. Right?
Instead of the accessibility of information that is not available oftentimes, but that’s a larger issue, large institutional issue. So yeah, that is really our stuff about the Negro Ensemble Company. I think it’s really important to delve into talking about Black theatre companies. I think oftentimes we kind of focus on individual playwrights and we don’t get to talk about the history of these institutions that are fostering Black voices in the American theatre. So I love talking about individual companies.
Leticia: Just to sort of close with my comments about the NEC is that I think what I love about the NEC and Black theatre institutions is that it’s so invested in collectivity, right? The structure itself is about a group of people coming together to make something happen that was not there before.
Jordan: As y’all know, y’all been here with us, rocking with us for a minute. You know that we are closing out. We wouldn’t leave you hanging, right? So we want to give you some recommendations to continue to look into the work produced by the NEC as well as your own research on the NEC and other Black theatre companies. So we have a few recommendations.
Leticia: The plays that we have on the docket for you is of course the award winning The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker and A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller. But we also want to recommend that you do read Judi Ann Mason’s Daughter of the Mock, which is in the anthology. Judi Ann Mason was also a television writer, quite successful television writer. A Different World, just to give you a taste. Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.
Jordan: And that’s the better one. Sorry. It’s the better one. Nothing wrong with the first movie, no shade. But Sister Act 2 is iconic.
Leticia: Yes. Yes, it is. It is. So make sure that you... Jordan’s doing the dance.
Jordan: And Lauryn Hill, if you’re listening to this, Lauryn Hill, which you’re not, act more! You were so good in Sister Act 2. I just need her to act more. I really thought she was really good.
Leticia: She was actually really good in that role. Look at us talking about random Black theatre things now. But we say that all to say to make sure you check out Judi Ann Mason’s work and specifically Daughters of the Mock, and then we always give it up to our Black feminist theatre legends. So we also want to recommend String by Alice Childress. For books and articles, Jordan, what do we got?
Jordan: The anthology that Leticia mentioned earlier, Classic Plays from the Negro Ensemble Company, which is edited by Paul Carter Harrison and Gus Edwards. And then we have an article called, “Do Black Theatre Companies Translate Integrate Drama?” by Donald M. Morales, which you can find in The African American Review. And finally, Woodie King Jr.’s Black Theatre: Present Condition. Woodie King Jr. is an absolute legend in Black theatre, so please read that book and see what he says generally about Black theatre. So yeah, that’s what we got for y’all. Thanks so much for spending time with us, talking about the Negro Ensemble Company, and we are so excited for both the future of this company and the future of other Black theatre companies.
Leticia: This has been another episode of Daughters of Lorraine. We’re your hosts, Leticia Ridley—
Jordan: And Jordan Ealey. On our next episode, we will interview Dr. Julius Fleming about the importance of theatre to the civil rights movement. We have so much in store for you this season that you definitely will not want to miss. In the meantime, if you’re looking to connect with us, please follow us on Twitter @DOLorrainePod, P-O-D. You can also email us at [email protected] for further contact.
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