A New Federal Party
Woodie King, Jr.'s New Federal Theatre celebrates its 30th anniversary with a star-studded gala benefit.
Thirty years ago, King founded the New Federal Theatre, relinquishing a promising career as an actor to focus on producing. "I was inspired by the old Federal Theatre of the WPA that Hallie Flanagan put together," says King, explaining his choice of name for the company. "They had a Negro unit and produced innovative work that was free to the public or very inexpensive." In its first few years of existence, New Federal's shows were also free; today, the theater charges less for tickets than most Off-Broadway theaters.
The gala benefit comes at a higher price: $150-$250 for individual seats, $500-$1,000 for the show followed by a dinner at Sardi's, and $5,000-$50,000 for sponsorships. But it involves some of the most prominent African-American theater artists in the world, all of whom are lending a hand to help New Federal raise funds for a projected $1,000,000 endowment. Sidney Poitier is serving as advisor for the event; Debbie Allen and Avery Brooks will host; and Denzel Washington, Ruby Dee, Phylicia Rashad, Jackee Harry, Samuel L. Jackson, and Laurence Fishburne are some of the illustrious alums who'll pay tribute to New Federal with special performances and presentations.
Other New Federal graduates, unable to make it to the gala, are doing all they can to help spread the word. André De Shields, currently featured in The Full Monty on Broadway, describes what The New Federal has meant to him: "When I arrived in New York in 1973, the icons and pantheons of black theater had already been established," he says. Although De Shields originated the title role in The Wiz and was in the original company of Ain't Misbehavin', he was told that "until you've worked at the Negro Ensemble Company, or performed on the stage of the Apollo, or been on the cover of Jet magazine, or worked at The New Federal Theatre, you don't really qualify as a black actor." In 1985, King phoned De Shields and asked him to perform in a play called Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy. "After that brief run at the New Federal," De Shields proudly proclaims, "I was greeted in New York as a black actor."
The script for the entertainment portion of the gala is by playwright Samm-Art Williams, and Clinton Turner Davis is serving as director. A performance by Jennifer Holliday will cap the evening. Though Holliday herself does not have a history with New Federal, she recently worked with an actor who did. "He talked so much about what the New Federal had meant to him and what it had done," says Holliday. "It touched me greatly because young people need so much inspiration and encouragement--not only in theater, but in life."
The gala will also include an awards presentation to individuals who have made substantial contributions to or have profoundly influenced New Federal. The Shuberts' Gerald Schoenfeld, directors Lloyd Richards and Shauneille Perry, producers Wynn Handman and Philip Rose, and Coca Cola foundation education director Michael Bivens make up the list of distinguished honorees. In addition, posthumous awards will be given to photographer Bert Andrews and costume designer Judy Dearing.
"This is like receiving an award from someone who you brought up," says Lloyd Richards. "I have such great respect for Woodie." King studied acting under Richards; both men are from Detroit. "Woodie was our inspiration," gushes King. "When we were very young and wanted to go into theater, he would come to Detroit and we would get his feedback. What inspired us, of course, is his awesome talent as an acting teacher and his brilliance as a director." Richards' long list of achievements includes directing the original productions of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and many of August Wilson's plays, as well as heading the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center for nearly a dozen years. Although officially retired, he continues to teach master classes in acting. "Theater has always been a way of life, not a job," he says. "You can retire from a job, but you can't retire from a way of life."
For King, helming New Federal has also become a way of life. "When I started the New Federal Theatre, I thought I'd be able to direct and act in a lot of shows," he comments. "In 30 years, I've never acted in a show here and only directed six." King's producing duties keep him busy: Since its inception, New Federal has produced more than 175 plays and become one of the nation's foremost African-American theater companies. The early careers of such playwrights as Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, and Laurence Holder were boosted by New Federal. Perhaps the most famous of the theater's productions was the 1975-1976 run of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide...when the rainbow is enuf. Directed by Oz Scott, that show started out at New Federal, became a co-production with the Public Theater, and then transferred to the Booth on Broadway.
King notes that New Federal doesn't limit its mission to the development of African-American theater. "You cannot produce in New York City and not be aware of the unbelievable contributions of Jewish culture, Asian culture, and Latino culture," he says. "Any theater that only produces for white culture is a sad, sad comment on the mosaic/melting pot of New York."
"Woodie King never wavered from his vision of bringing a variety of quality work to the American stage," says Shauneille Perry, who has directed around 27 plays for New Federal. "He gave opportunities to people of every ethnicity, long before the word 'multiculturalism' was in vogue." For instance, New Federal offered early works by the Asian American playwrights David Henry Hwang and Genny Lim, and the Puerto Rican poet Tato Laveria. In its 1978-1979 season, the theater even produced a translation of Sholem Asch's Yiddish classic God of Vengeance.
Of course, New Federal has offered work and support to countless actors, writers, and directors. "In the early years, the woman director of any race was a rare species," says Perry. "Woodie was always an Equal Opportunity Employer, when many were not." Playwright P.J. Gibson, who got her big break when King produced her play Long Time Since Yesterday, concurs, stating that "My career would not be the career it is today without Woodie. He is so important to us."
"Like everybody else, I am indebted to Woodie King for several things," says Ossie Davis. "I have had the great fortune to be married to the same woman for 52 years, and one wonders how to manage such a prodigious feat. A major requirement, as far as my spouse [the actress Ruby Dee] is concerned, is to keep us supplied with gainful employment. Woodie has many times stepped into the gap. The employment was not always gainful monetarily, but it helped keep the two of us together."
Even those who have not actually worked with New Federal recognize the importance of King's efforts. "I am just so proud of the privilege of having known Woodie over these 30 years and beyond," says Lloyd Richards. "He's made a home for writers and for theater artists. That's what New Federal has become."