Theater News

Talent Thrust

Woodie King, Jr., talks to Lisa Stephenson about 30 years of producing the unproduced at the New Federal Theatre.

Woodie King, Jr.
Woodie King, Jr.

Everything about Woodie King, Jr., is robust: his encyclopedic references to productions, playwrights, actors and actresses; his passion about the New Federal Theatre, which he founded in 1970; and his pride with its illustrious history (150 plays by over 100 playwrights). And his smile, initially cautious, which beams to accompany a deep, warm laugh.

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.”


From NFT's A Soul on Fire
From NFT’s A Soul on Fire

Five years later, NFT moved Ntozake Shange’s landmark “chorepoem” for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf from a club on East 3rd Street to The Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and then to Broadway. By then, the NFT had produced a hit every year and King was no longer the manager of a mystery theatre. Awards and nominations came rapidly (Drama Desk, Obie, Tony, Drama Critics Circle) and so did the talent–Morgan Freeman, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle whom King knew had “it” before anybody else.

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.”

Away from NFT, King enjoys music, buys vast amounts of books and spends quiet time with other colleagues from the theater. He says that he would love to be the first producer of a jazz musical, and to produce a musical about Latinos in New York. “It would be written and directed by Latinos, and if I produced it, they could do whatever they wanted.” He smiles. “It would be a show that would turn the city upside down.”

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