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Douglas Turner Ward, Co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, Dies at 90

Ward's plays include Day of Absence, and he directed the original production of A Soldier's Play.

Douglas Turner Ward
(© David Gordon)

Douglas Turner Ward, a theatrical giant and co-founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, has died at the age of 90.

Born Roosevelt Ward Jr. on May 5, 1930, in Burnside, Louisiana, and raised in New Orleans, Ward attended Wilberforce College before transferring to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He arrived in New York City in the late 1940s, with his first script, titled Star of Liberty, performed when he was only 19 years old. He spent three years studying with Paul Mann at the Actors Workshop, while at the same time, working as a reporter and editor for the Daily Worker newspaper.

Ward's chosen stage name — Douglas Turner — was a tribute to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion. His acting career was launched in 1956 when he was cast in the Circle in the Square revival of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, which led to his casting in Lost in the Stars at New York City Center. His friend, Lorraine Hansberry, invited him to audition for her new play, A Raisin in the Sun, and he was hired for a minor role and to understudy leading man Sidney Poitier. He later played the role of Walter Lee Younger on tour opposite Claudia McNeil.

It was in the road company of Raisin that Ward met fellow performer Robert Hooks, and together, they dreamed of starting a theater company to showcase the excellent work of Black artists. Hooks presented two of Ward's plays, a double bill of Happy Ending and Day of Absence at the St. Mark's Playhouse, winning an Obie and a Vernon Rice-Drama Desk Award and running 504 performances.

During the run, Ward penned an article for the New York Times titled American Theater: For Whites Only?, where he called for the creation of an autonomous Black theater in New York, complete with a resident company and training program for actors, writers, directors, and technical artists. The article was seen by the Ford Foundation, which provided a grant of more than $400,000 for the creation of the Negro Ensemble Company, founded by Ward (artistic director), Hooks (executive director), and theater manager Gerald Krone (administrative director).

Over the first three decades of the Negro Ensemble Company, Ward served as producer, director, playwright, and actor. The company won a special Tony Award in 1969, and Ward made his Broadway acting debut in the company's drama The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker, which won the Tony for Best Play in 1974 (he earned a Best Featured Actor nomination himself, though turned it down, according to published reports, deeming the categorization to be inappropriate). Ward would guide his productions of Leslie Lee's The First Breeze of Summer and Samm-Art Williams's Home to Tony-nominated Broadway productions, as well. Among the many other productions Ward staged are Zooman and the Sign, the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier's Play, and Wee, all by Charles Fuller.

The Negro Ensemble Company became a training ground for actors like Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Phylicia Rashad, and David Alan Grier, who starred in both the original off-Broadway and 2020 Broadway runs of A Soldier's Play, as well as in the film, retitled A Soldier's Story. The NEC is still in operation.

Ward was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1996. His latest plays, The Haitian Chronicles, were published in 2020. He is survived by his wife, Diana Ward, whom he married in 1966, their children, Elizabeth and Douglas, and three grandchildren.

When A Soldier's Play made its long-awaited Broadway debut at the American Airlines Theatre in January 2020, Ward was invited onstage for a special curtain call.

Douglas Turner Ward, with Charles Fuller and David Alan Grier at the opening of A Soldier's Play on Broadway in 2020.
(© David Gordon)

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