A double bill of one-act plays by Douglas Turner Ward debuted Off Broadway in 1966, and The New York Times marked the occasion by printing his article “American Theatre: For Whites Only?”—a ringing call for a fully autonomous black theatre company wherein black artists could oversee their own creative destinies. The article captured the attention and subsequent support of the Ford Foundation, and led to the emergence the following year of the Negro Ensemble Company. Ward’s clear-eyed assessment of the state of black theatre art in America brings into sharp relief the myriad accomplishments—and the aspirations still unfulfilled—of the nation’s minority artists over the two decades between this essay’s original publication and its reprinting in American Theatre.
During the last decade—coinciding with the explosion of Negro civil rights movements into public consciousness—a number of Negro playwrights have gained considerable notice. Louis Peterson, Lorraine Hansberry, Ossie Davis, James Baldwin, LeRoi Jones, and others . . . collectors of awards and honors . . . a few catapulted into international fame and dramatic prominence . . . critical barometers and Geiger counters whipped out to gauge possible winds, trends and resulting fallout.
However, this flurry of attention has tended to misrepresent the real status of Negro playwrights. Despite an eminent handful, Negro dramatists remain sparse in number, productions sporadic at most, and scripts too few to indicate discernible trends. Moreover, even when deemed successful—the critical and financial rewards reaped by A Raisin in the Sun excepted, and on a smaller scale, LeRoi Jones’s Dutchman—few productions have managed to recoup capitalization. No, the millennium has not been reached.
Many factors contribute to this situation, but, surveying the total landscape of American theatre, results could hardly be otherwise. The legitimate theatre, that fabulous invalid which, compared to its electronic bedpartner, is still dreamed of as the repository of high culture and artistic achievement in America, hardly qualifies when examined from a Negro viewpoint.
Tirelessly, predictably, almost repetitiously on cue, theatre critics and other Jeremiahs deplore rampant commercialism, the monopoly of escapist musicals, the dominance of brittle, frothy comedies and the inadequacy of experimental ventures. They also leave the impression that a little minor surgery would work wonders, that palliatives could restore health. But the patient is sicker than even the most pessimistic diagnosis suggests. No matter how severe their prognosis, pundits seldom question the basic structures or assumptions of their theatre.
With rare exceptions—an occasional native play of quality, or intermittent foreign infusions—American legit theatre, even at its most ambitious seriousness, is essentially a theatre of the Bourgeois, by the Bourgeois, about the Bourgeois, and for the Bourgeois. A pretentious theatre elevating the narrow preoccupations of restricted class interests to inflated universal significance, tacitly assuming that its middle-class, affluent-oriented absorptions are central to the dominant human condition. A theatre rarely embracing broader frames of reference or more inclusive concerns. A theatre—even if it tried—incapable of engaging the attention of anyone not so fortunate as to possess a college diploma or five-figure salary.
More specifically, a theatre in its lofty-modern niche—Broadway, Off Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, Happenings-land, wherever—overwhelmingly riddled with works of in-group concerns, belles-lettres pomposity, instant despair, stultifying boredom, humorless humor, hasty-pudding hijinks and pseudo-absurdity.
A Theatre of Diversion—a diversionary theatre, whose main problem is not that it’s too safe, but that it is surpassingly irrelevant.
Occasional productions of stature and significance must usually display a cachet of foreign authorship and reputation to justify presentation.
Maybe this is all as it should be: Computer consensus—as yet—doesn’t spawn meaningful plays; the most powerful country in the Western world doesn’t necessarily usher in a golden age of drama. It is not surprising that the Negro playwright and the power of his potential fit only peripherally into this spectrum. By his mere historical placement in American society, the Negro exists as a disturbing presence, an embarrassment to majority comfort, an actuality deflating pretenses, an implicit witness and cogent critic too immediate for attention.
Also, just as in real life, a black playwright—sight unseen, play unheard—is soothsaid as too bothersome, a prod to the sleeping conscience of numerical superiors. The stage establishment, like Hollywood, consigns even the most innocuous Negro subject matter to an ogre-category of problem drama. Even sympathetic advisers constantly bug the dark craftsman to shun racial themes and aspire to that pantheon of Olympian universality which all white playwrights, ironically enough, can enter by merely getting themselves born. As one naïve, well-meaning, but frighteningly boorish scribe put it—“No longer Negro playwright, just playwright.” Whoever heard of batting an eyelash of lower-caste condescension when Sean O’Casey is mentioned as an Irish playwright?
That the Negro playwright is more or less excluded from legit boulevards is not a revelation for concern. More important is the fact that, even when produced within this environment, the very essence of his creative function is jeopardized. His plays stand to be witnessed and assessed by a majority least equipped to understand his intentions, woefully apathetic or anesthetized to his experience, often prone to distort his purpose. Spectators who, though afflicted with self-imposed ignorance, demand to be taught ABCs at the very moment when the writer is impatient to explore the algebra of his thematic equations. Observers, even when most sympathetic, whose attitudes have been repeatedly shaped by preconceptions and misconceptions, warped by superficial clichés and platitudes—liberal, conservative or radical though they may be. Catering to such insistence presages barren results. With imagination short-circuited, valuable time is wasted clueing in, exposition is demanded when action should be unfolding, the obvious must be overillustrated, and fantasy literalized.
Finally, when the curtain descends, whether the writer has pampered illusions, lectured ignorance, comforted fears, shouted for attention or flagellated consciences, probability dictates his defeat and the victory of customers—triumphantly intact in their limitations. With tears dried, the shouting quieted or the aches of the cat-o’-nine-tails subsided, the writer has been neatly appropriated, usurped, his creativity subverted. For those Negro playwrights eager to volunteer for this function, there’s no advice to offer. They know the rules, they play the game and take their chances.
But for a Negro playwright committed to examining the contours, contexts and depths of his experiences from an unfettered, imaginative Negro angle of vision, the screaming need is for a sufficient audience of other Negroes, better informed through commonly shared experience to readily understand, debate, confirm or reject the truth or falsity of his creative explorations. Not necessarily an all-black audience to the exclusion of whites but, for the playwright, certainly his primary audience, the first persons of his address, potentially the most advanced, the most responsive or most critical. Only through their initial and continuous participation can his intent and purpose be best perceived by others.
The validity of this premise has been borne out previously in other productions and, most recently, during the current run of my own plays, Happy Ending and Day of Absence, two works of satirical content written from an unapologetic Negro viewpoint. Throughout the run, Negro attendance has averaged close to 50 percent—hundreds witnessing a professional play for the first time. Besides contributing immeasurably to the longevity of the run, the freshness of their response, immediacy of involvement, and spontaneity of participation have significantly underscored the essence of the works themselves and provided crucial illuminations for others. With Negroes responding all around, white spectators, congenitally uneasy in the presence of Negro satire, at least can’t fail to get the message.
Any future hope for the Negro playwright depends upon whether or not this minuscule, singular, all-too-infrequent experience can be extended, multiplied and made permanent. As long as the Negro playwright remains totally dependent on existing outlets, he stands to continue as a pauper begging sustenance, never knowing from day to day, year to year, whether a few scraps will be tossed his way. Even burgeoning, tax-supported, privately endowed repertory companies are beyond the reach of his ambition (imagine rushing to present Day of Absence or any other work which would require jobbing in 15 Negro actors when your roster only allows for two or three at most—often tokens at that).
Eventually, an all-embracing, all-encompassing theatre of Negro identity, organized as an adjunct of some Negro community, might ideally solve the Negro dramatists’ dilemma, but such a development—to me—must arise as part of a massive effort to reconstruct the urban ghetto. Small-scale cultural islands in the midst of the ghettos, separate and apart from a committed program of social and economic revitalization of slums, are doomed to exotic isolation.
Meanwhile, potential talent ready for exercise cannot wait. Without engagement, it lies dormant, stillborn. Time passes, aging proceeds. The talent withers and eventually dies of nonuse. If any hope, outside of chance individual fortune, exists for Negro playwrights as a group—or, for that matter, Negro actors and other theatre craftsmen—the most immediate, pressing, practical, absolutely minimally essential active first step is the development of a permanent Negro repertory company of at least Off-Broadway size and dimension. Not in the future, but now.
A theatre evolving not out of negative need, but positive potential; better equipped to employ existing talents and spur the development of future ones. A theatre whose justification is not the gap it fills, but the achievement it aspires toward—no less high than any other comparable theatre company of present or past world fame.
A theatre concentrating primarily on themes of Negro life, but also resilient enough to incorporate and interpret the best of world drama—whatever the source. A theatre of permanence, continuity and consistency, providing the necessary home base for the Negro artist to launch a campaign to win his ignored brothers and sisters as constant witnesses to his endeavors.
This is not a plea for either.
This is not a plea for either a segregated theatre or a separatist one. Negroes constitute a numerical minority, but Negro experience from slavery to civil rights has always been of crucial importance to America’s existence. There’s no reason why whites could not participate in a theatre dedicated to exploring and illuminating that experience if they found inspiration in the purpose.
Also, just as the intrusion of lower-middle-class and working-class voices reinvigorated polite, effete English drama, so might the Negro, a most potential agent of vitality, infuse life into the moribund corpus of American theatre.
Douglas Turner Ward began his career as a journalist. He studied playwriting at the Paul Mann Workshop in New York City and, in 1956, acted in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He went on to perform and understudy in A Raisin in the Sun. In 1965, Ward, Robert Hooks and Gerald Krone formed the Negro Ensemble Company. Ward made his playwriting debut that same year with Happy Ending and Day of Absence. In 1967, the Negro Ensemble Company was officially opened with Ward serving as artistic director.
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