The first season of the New Federal Theatre (NFT) was done in the converted parish hall of St. Augustine's Church on Henry Street. Now their shows are mounted in the well-equipped theaters at the Henry Street Settlement on nearby Grand Street, or in rented spaces throughout the city. NFT also hosts workshops in playwriting and drama for teens and adults, taught by working professionals in the theater. As NFTs founder, executive and artistic director, King has become a fixture on the Lower East Side.
"I started NFT," he says, "because works by black playwrights that I thought should be done were not being produced. There were two other black theater companies--The Negro Ensemble and, in Harlem, the National Black Theatre--but I didn't think that they best represented actors, directors and technicians who wanted to thrust their talent into the world."
With time, NFT began to receive funding from the Henry Street Settlement, the New York State Council on the Arts, and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, coupled with enthusiastic support from its neighborhood.
King admits, on reflection, that times have changed. "Thirty years ago black artists were about a certain kind of statement and pride," he says. "It was about getting our message across, and we had unbelievable energy that propelled us. Now most of theater is about funding, and reflecting, if you will, on "-isms" that nobody else believes in. If I were to start a theater now, it would be for the same reason: to produce plays that I don't see being done. Aside from that, there's no reason for doing it other than ego satisfaction."
King holds degrees in theater, the humanities, social work and directing. Raised in Detroit, he started his career there as a director and producer. He arrived in New York in 1964 to act, but quickly changed his plans when he saw the performances of colleagues. "They were thrilling," he says. "And beautiful. And committed. And I thought to myself, if I can't make that kind of commitment, I'd better get out of this business and find another path. There were very few black producers, and since I knew how to build a theater, I tried it and it worked."