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Sun, 05.14.1967

The Negro Ensemble Company Begins

*On this date in 1967, The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) started.  This was a New York City-based theater company and workshop established by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer-actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald S. Krone, with funding from the Ford Foundation.  The company's focus on original works with themes based on the Black experience with an international perspective created a canon of theatrical works and an audience for writers who came later, such as August WilsonSuzan-Lori Parks, and others.  

The Negro Ensemble Company was conceived in 1964 when Hooks created a tuition-free acting workshop for urban youth which he named the Group Theatre Workshop (GTW).  The group became a refuge for young nonwhite actors, with a focus on Black theatre. He and his associate Barbara Ann Teer produced in a one-night showcase for friends and family of the actors. The plays chosen were Gwendolyn Brooks' We Real Cool and Douglas Turner Ward's Happy Ending.  Jerry Tallmer, the reviewer for the New York Post, attended this showcase and gave it a glowing review.  Ward was invited by the New York Times to write an opinion piece for its Sunday edition on the state of black theatre. His piece, "American Theatre: For Whites Only?", published in August 1966, was a scathing indictment of America's theatre establishment and posited the need for a unique black theatre institution.  

This article caused McNeil Lowery of the Ford Foundation to contact Ward to set up a meeting with Ward, Hooks, and Krone.  They were invited to present a proposal that was accepted, and they were awarded a three-year, $1.5 million grant to establish the company.  The first repertory season, 1967-1968, was not without controversy. The company presented Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Australian playwright Ray Lawler; Kongi's Harvest by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, Daddy Goodness by Richard Wright, and as their first play, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey by Swedish-German playwright Peter Weiss.

The Weiss play addresses the oppression of black people from an international perspective, set in colonized Angola. Some black activists protested, accusing NEC of taking "white money" and producing the work of a white playwright. On one occasion, activists attempted to storm the theatre during a performance of the Weiss play. Soon afterward, the NEC production of Song of the Lusitanian Bogey in London created further controversy. The company was heckled by right-wing protesters who resented the play's anti-imperialist message.  

Many of the plays produced by the Negro Ensemble Company dealt with complex, sometimes disturbing, and often ignored aspects of the Black experience and the American experience.  While the company often received glowing reviews, had sold-out audiences, and produced some of the critically acclaimed theatres of the era, the early 1970s found the Negro Ensemble Company in financial trouble. The 145-seat theatre had become too small to generate the revenue for its ambitious projects. In 1980, the NEC relocated to a new 299-seat home at Theatre Four at 424 West 55th Street, which would remain until 1991.  

In 1981, the NEC presented what would be its most successful production. A Soldier's Play by Charles Fuller.  It won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play awards. The original cast included Adolph CaesarDenzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Brent Jennings, Charles Brown, Larry Riley, Peter Friedman, Cotter Smith, James Pickens Jr., Eugene Lee, and Stephen Zettler. In 1984, it was made into a movie featuring several original cast members and NEC alumni. The film of A Soldier's Story was nominated for three Academy Awards.  

The Negro Ensemble Company of Los Angeles (NEC-LA) (1994-1997) was created because so many New York members and original members had relocated to the west coast. Hooks, as founder and executive director, enlisted alumni from his New York Negro Ensemble Company to serve as board members: Denise Nicholas, Denzel Washington, James Earl JonesLaurence Fishburne, Richard Roundtree, Samuel L. Jackson.

NEC-LA's goal was to be a new and innovative multi-ethnic cultural project that strived to achieve its parent organization's community effectiveness and professional success.  In 2005, the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc., a restructured incarnation of the original Negro Ensemble Company, was formed, with NEC alumna Charles Weldon as Artistic Director. It was among 406 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by (then) New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  

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