Woodie King, Jr., talks to Lisa Stephenson about 30 years of producing the unproduced at the New Federal Theatre.
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 directed a then-unknown Denzel Washington. "He played Malcolm X in When Chickens Came Home to Roost," King began, "and it was amazing. He looked like Malcolm, walked with his rhythm and, quite simply, embodied him. Audiences have had the same reaction to his performance in Hurricane, but Denzel accomplishes this with every role he does. When he did research for When Chickens Came Home to Roost, he looked at one book for six hours. Nobody knows what he's doing until the performance happens."
And what, exactly, is the "it" factor? King admits that it's still a mystery. "In actors it's not hard to see, but with actresses it's extremely difficult. I think the male animal is an interesting species. The way they protect themselves, walk away, return and listen. You need those things, and actors who are astute can transfer it to their performances. But with women, you often can't tell. And you don't know. In Hollywood or in the theater, men think they know and understand women, but they don't."
NFT's next production, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire by Howard Simon, is now playing at the Henry Street Settlement through April 30.
Too often today, he said, plays rarely move past a staged reading. "And very often the people who come to readings only give a gut reaction, which won't lead a playwright anywhere," King adds. "The voices you want are from people who can produce it."