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Emory obtains archives of playwright Douglas Turner Ward

Emory's Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library is now home to the archives of Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company. Emory Photo/Video

Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library has obtained the archives of playwright Douglas Turner Ward, co-founder of the groundbreaking Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), which provided a platform and carved space for black actors and playwrights in American theater.

“Douglas Turner Ward played a tremendous role in developing the actors and directors that came through the Negro Ensemble Company,” says Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at the Rose Library. “We’re fortunate to have an extensive collection of his papers that includes scripts, correspondence, Negro Ensemble Company records, photographs and printed material.”

Ward will visit the Emory campus today as the Rose Library hosts the NEC’s “Legacy Leaders of Color,” currently celebrating 50 years of diversity in theater. The free event is open to the public and will take place in White Hall from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. The night will feature a screening of the Legacy Leaders video, appearances by NEC alumni and a panel discussion with Ward and producer, actor and NEC co-founder Robert Hooks.

Emory’s Douglas Turner Ward Collection includes manuscript materials, correspondence and drafts of Ward’s creative output. The archive most notably contains correspondence with the poet and writer Amiri Baraka; the ground-breaking educator Jeanne Noble, who wrote to Ward in a response to his 1966 New York Times article; and Ward’s copy of “A Raisin in the Sun,” dated June 16, 1960.

“It’s phenomenal to be able to have access to the material aspects of this enterprise that has had a tremendous impact on what we see on film and television,” says McDaniels.

The Rose Library also is collaborating with Emory’s Theater Studies Program on their collection. Brent Glenn, artistic director of Theater Emory, calls the collection “a gold mine in our backyard.”

“The African American collection has given us the tools and materials to build something, and we’re having conversations now about how to engage our faculty and the greater Atlanta community more deeply with these theater resources,” says Glenn.

NEC alumni scheduled to appear at today's event include Pearl Cleage and Carlton Molette, Atlanta-based playwrights who have been produced by the NEC; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a Tony winner who stars in "The Quad," which is shooting in Atlanta; Jefferson Byrd, a Tony winner for August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey's Black Bottom”; Oz Scott, currently directing a series in Atlanta; Wynn Thomas, production designer for “Hidden Figures,” “When Mars Attacks” and “A Beautiful Mind”; and Lisa Watson.

In 1967, Ward joined with Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone to create the NEC, a theater with the aim to bring the themes of black life to the stage. Until the 1960s, American theater didn’t make space for black actors and playwrights. If there were roles available, even the most successful actors were often cast as servants.

Ward and Hooks first met in 1959 on the road company production of Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun,” the long-running play that portrayed the most realistic version of black family life to date.

After recruiting theater manager Gerald Krone, the three men produced an evening of black-themed, satiric one act plays, including, “Day of Absence,” a reverse minstrel show where black actors perform in whiteface. The play takes place in a small Southern town on a day when all the blacks have mysteriously disappeared.

In 2015, Theater 80 St. Marks revived the play with cast members from the original, and Comedy Central’s award-winning comedy team Key & Peele reimagined it in reverse in sketch called “Negrotown.” The plays were performed at the St. Marks Play House in Greenwich Village and ran for 504 performances, winning Ward an Obie Award for acting and a Drama Desk Award for writing.

In 1966 on the heels of his success, Ward was asked by the New York Times to write an article on the condition of black artists in American theater. Ward’s profound piece, “American Theatre: For Whites Only?” went on to become a manifesto for the establishment of a resident black theater company. With money from the Ford Foundation and a home at the St. Marks Playhouse, the Negro Ensemble Company officially formed.

Since its founding, the NEC has produced more than 200 new plays and provided a theatrical home for more than 4,000 cast and crew members. Among its ranks have been some of the best black actors in television and film, including Denzel Washington, Louis Gossett Jr., Phylicia Rashad, David Allen Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett and Lawrence Fishburne.

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