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Douglas Turner Ward (1930–2021), pioneer of Black theater

by Linnea Crowther

Douglas Turner Ward was an actor, playwright, and director who co-founded New York’s Negro Ensemble Company.

Creating opportunities for Black actors

Ward began his acting career in the 1950s, appearing in stage productions including “A Raisin in the Sun” on Broadway. But he was frustrated by the lack of opportunities for Black actors, and he spelled out his frustrations in a 1966 opinion piece for the New York Times, “American Theater: For Whites Only?” His words caught the eye of the Ford Foundation, which provided a grant for Ward to establish the Negro Ensemble Company. Still operating today, the company has produced critically-acclaimed and award-winning shows, as well as helping establish the careers of actors including Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and Angela Bassett. Ward became the company’s artistic director, as well as acting in and directing plays.

Ward won Drama Desk Awards for Best New Playwright for “Happy Ending/Day of Absence” and for his performance in “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men.” He was Tony-nominated for his performance in “The River Niger” in 1972, and he was honored with the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award and inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.

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Notable quote

“What I said in the Times article, what I said could happen, we did it. We created a body of work that I’m proud of. …The other thing I’m proud of is the personnel that we trained and the fact that they’re still active in every field of theatre, TV and film.  …To this day they are all over American show business working. And some creating their own theaters.  I’m very proud of them and the body of work we all created.” —from a 2020 interview for the Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series

Tributes to Douglas Turner Ward

Full obituary: The New York Times

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