By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Now it can be told: As a kid in Oklahoma City, I was in every play and Christmas pageant in both my school and church. At Douglas Sr. High, I played Beneatha Younger in Raisin in the Sun. In fact, I was a card carrying member of the National Thespian Society, and proudly wore my gold Janus pin. I loved acting and performing, and, though I never pursued the field professionally, have always had a deep admiration and respect for those who do it so well. And somehow or other, I have always tried to in some small way, be in contact or involved with those in the field who have kept us entertained.
So it is with a great deal of pleasure that I write this piece in reference to a friend, Woodie King Jr, a brother whom I consider the tops in his field. He has always set the bar high when it comes to the theatre, and has consistently done so for 40 years. He is to be congratulated, revered, emulated, respected and celebrated for his accomplishments.
And that is why on Sunday, May 22, the luminaries of stage, screen and television will turn out in grand style as Woodie King celebrates the New Federal Theatre’s 40th Anniversary at a gala awards ceremony to be held at the Edison Ballroom.
Woodie King Jr - legendary dynamic director, producer, actor, writer that he is - founded the New Federal Theatre in 1970 at the Henry Street Settlement’s Arts for Living Center in the Abron Arts Theatre, located in the multicultural Lower East Side. Just a little historical note: The New Federal Theatre was named after the African American branch of the Federal Theatre Project in the 1930s. It is dedicated to works by African American, women and minority artists. The group often collaborates with the Public Theatre.
Many a career has been launched on the stage under the direction of Woodie, including, but not limited to, Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Robert Downey, Jr., Garrett Morris, Ruby Dee, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, the ever glamorous Lynn Whitfield, among a great many others. Many Black writers likewise were featured first at New Federal Theatre, including E Bullins, Amiri Baraka, Samm-Art Williams, Richard Abrons, Ntozake Shange, and a host of others.
And while we will be celebrating this wonderful milestone, Woodie has chosen his own pantheon of honorees, to share the limelight with him: including Ruby Dee, Sidney Portier, Ntozake Shange, Alicia Keys, Imhotep Gary Byrd, Amiri Baraka, George Faison, The Rev. Malcolm Boyd, Elizabeth I. McCann, Carla Pinza, Terrie Williams, former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, and Sylvia Spinkle Hamlin, Executive Producer of the National Black Theatre Festival.
Actress Lynn Whitfield and CBS News Anchor, Randall Pinkston will serve as co-hosts. Co-Chairs are Laurence Fishburne, Susan Taylor and John Morning. The great Maya Angelou serves as Honorary Chair. This gives you some idea of the momentousness of this occasion.
Forty years of continuous existence is indeed something to celebrate, in an era where most marriages don’t last that long. It is a tribute to Woodie King Jr., a man who has never strayed from his mission to integrate Black actors, writers and talent into the mainstream American theatre by training artists for the profession and by presenting plays by Blacks, minorities and women into integrated, multicultural audiences. American Visions has called Woodie King, Jr., the "king of black theater producers,” and rightly so, considering that he has either produced and/or directed at least 200 plays; not to mention his vast body of written work for stage, screen and television.
At a recently held press conference, which was catered by none other than Norma Jean Darden of SpoonBread, I had an opportunity to interview Woodie, as well as Ms. Ruby Dee (my heroine), Gary Byrd (GBE), Ntozake Shange, and Lamman Rucker, who was there on behalf of the National Black Theatre Festival. Also present at the press conference were Lynn Whitfield, George Faison, Amiri Baraka, Terrie Williams, Carla Pinza, and Cliff Frazier. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was in a privileged space. In the South they would have called it walking in high cotton.
Gary Byrd, host, producer, creator of the GBE (Global has the distinction of having the longest running Black radio broadcast in the history of New York. I asked him how it felt to be recognized for his work accomplishments after having gone through so many challenges over the past few years. He responded, “I was thinking about it today; and two words came to me “Overjoyed!” and “overwhelmed”. I’m overjoyed by, I think first of all, Woodie and the New Federal Theatre in terms of the terrain they covered to get here.” He admitted that he had had aspirations for the stage, and had been discovered as an actor prior to going into radio. Byrd had emigrated from Buffalo to Manhattan, and had the privilege of being mentored by Hal Jackson. His accomplishments as a spoken word artist, on air personality, songwriter are legendary, and include a body of work he co-wrote and co-produced with Stevie Wonder under the Wonder-Byrd title, including Village Ghetto Land and Black Man, which were featured on Stevie Wonder’s “Songs In the Key of Life.”
Going forward, Gary plans to write and produce stage productions based on the lyrics and themes of these songs. “Interestingly enough, I’m going to use my own personal catalogue first. Songs that I’ve written; some of the things I’ve done with Stevie (Wonder); some of my original things, like Every Brother Ain’t a Brother.” On Stevie’s side, “You Wear the Crown,” “Village Ghettoland.” I’m really literally going to write plays on those themes,” he quipped enthusiastically.
Ntozake Shange, whose “choreo poem” For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf was produced at the New Federal Theatre in the 70’s stated: “When I first met Woodie, he was amazing to me. It was stunning to me when I first came to New York. And it’s an amazing honor to be included as an awardee.”
Ms. Ruby Dee, the Grand Diva of them all, gave me a few minutes of her time to relate her feelings about Woodie King, Jr., the New Federal Theatre, and being selected as an honoree:
“I can’t tell you how pleased I am at this forty years! What Woodie has done - he has established what I call one of the womb places; where people like me got started, from the street corners and the church basements, the living rooms and libraries; and sometimes in schools, and then working out on street corners when the City let us. People don’t remember what a sacrifice it was! And that those of us who had jobs got paid. When you got spaces like in the library, we’d shovel the snow and cleaned up the basements - I mean, whatever it took - and the sacrifices. People like Woodie … The womb people, but for these people, wed still be creeping down the steps of the library - they let us have that little space with 6 cents in the treasury. All those people who made those kinds of sacrifices. We called the New Federal Theatre the womb place; it was full of all of those kinds of people, and it had a kind of - meaning in the lives of so many people.”
When I asked her what she saw as the future of Black Theatre, she responded: “I see an explosion of new Black writers, actors and new ideas, and the confidence to try things - and I’m one of them. If it hadn’t been for Woodie and Joe Papp, they did my first musical - I did three musicals with them because I could come to places like the New Federal Theatre.”
Lamman Rucker, of Meet the Browns and Angels Over Tuskeegee, an enthusiastic fan of Woodie’s spoke eloquently of his interaction with him: “I come from the tradition and the standards - the high standards - that was established by Mr. King. So I stand here as one of the younger - I say - examples of what this work and what this sacrifice breeds. What this work and this sacrifice, and these tireless towers of creation and creativity, and the festivals, and rewrites and endless work; and they all know it because we live it.”
He continued, “I was always that kid that wanted to be Ossie Davis and have a beautiful woman like Ruby Dee by my side. I wanted to be Sidney Portier, I wanted to be Paul Robeson and Harry Belafonte, a father figure like you know Canada Lee -the people that lived in me, and lived through me. I wanted to dance like George (Faison). And no mistake, I can dance. We had to be able to do it all - act sing dance- be a triple threat - and bring it!” And that was just his statement for openers. Representing the upcoming National Black Theatre Festival, which will take place this summer in North Carolina, Rucker stated that he had met Woodie while in college honing his dramatic skills.
I, of course, had to ask him about what it was like working with Tyler Perry, who has featured him in several of his movies, as well as the current TV comedy hit, Meet the Browns: "It’s great working with Tyler, and in a way, I’m almost a representative of his too. I mean I don’t do the stage play work, but, the way Tyler has established himself, and established his work, is again an example of what’s been learned, what’s been taught by these same people. How to be self produced; how to create your own opportunity; create opportunity for other people.
So I’m happy for him; and I’m happy for Mr. Woodie King Jr. Woodie’s like my theatre Godfather you know."
This blog input would not be complete without some words from Woodie King Jr.:
When asked how does it feels to celebrate 40 years, he responded, “It feels great, you know to have been around for 40 years; and starting that theatre when it was kind of barren out here. A year after we started the Black exploitation movies and all that stuff just flooded the market. Just inundated everything. And so we thought that this was the end. That this was where it was going to go. But fortunately we had a hit play every year from 1971 through 1982. And that just gave New Federal Theatre and unbelievable amount of visibility to our artists and writers across America. So we think our contribution to the American Theatre has been exceptional."
For those of us who recall the days of Blaxploitation movies, we can be grateful that Woodie persevered. Not only were they stereotypical, they were, in the main, a diversion from so many Black movies that were of merit; and appealed to the lowest common denominator in the community. Woodie, on the other hand, gave voice and visibility to some of the great talent of the day that were either ignored or overlooked by that genre.
1982, according to Woodie, was the beginning of a period when whites began to produce Black plays, cutting in to the New Federal Theatre and other Black theatre Black production company’s role in providing access to Black audiences, as well as their funding.
According to Woodie, “A hit play can take care of that company and artist for five years. And after 82 the system in New York Changed in the way that things are produced. White people began to produce Black plays, suddenly. And white people began to get the funding that we had gotten up until then to do these plays. Because before then, they weren’t interested.”
His thoughtful response to the question, in addition to this 40 milestone; of what are you most proud:“Well for having just existed for 40 years; for having been around; Most theatres close after five or ten years; most Black organizations; in that regard, for New Federal Theatre, Black Spectrum Theatre; Billie Holliday Theatre, The Hadley Players, New Heritage Repertory Theatre; National Black Theatre - these theatres have been around. They are doing it! “
What do you see as the future of Black Theatre? “Whatever the future of Black people are in America, it’s tied in to the future of Black Theatre. Black Aesthetics. However way Black go is the way Black Theatre will go.”
That said, I know you will definitely want to go and be among those who salute the greatness that is Woodie King Jr., and the monumental contributions that he and the New Federal have made specifically to the Black community, and to the world at large.
So break out your most elegant attire and be there, front and center at the Edison Ballroom, Sunday, May 22 at the Edison Theatre, 240 W. 47th Street, in the heart of the Theatre District. You can make reservations by calling (212) 838-2660 x 14.
Beyond that, of course, is to continue to be the supportive audience, responsive and appreciative of the valiant efforts on the part of our Black actors, actresses, musicians, producers, directors - who keep giving us their creative and soulful best.
STAY BLESSED &