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Community Centers: Drama King

Celia McGerr Regan '79

When theatre faculty member Woodie King Jr. moved to New York City in the 1960s, there were few opportunities for minority actors and playwrights. But in 1970 King revolutionized African American theatre, founding the New Federal Theatre (NFT) and transforming the lives of artists and audiences alike.

Located on Henry Street in the Lower East Side, NFT has always worked to bring emerging minority playwrights, actors, directors, and designers to national attention. “Our goals since the inception have been to integrate women and minorities into the mainstream of New York City theatre,” King says.

As a Detroit teenager King studied every aspect of theatre while immersing himself in black literature. He studied at Will-o-Way School of Theatre in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and, later, at Lehman College in New York, and became increasingly interested in staging plays—by both black and white playwrights—for minority actors. One of his productions went on tour, landing in New York City.

Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Detroit, Watts, or Chicago’s South Side—we are basically the same people: a transurban people. What we have in common is the slave ship.

He found a metropolis vibrant with a burgeoning, increasingly visible black culture. “New York was so fertile then. The legends were still alive: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison were all working at and near the theatre. The great novelist John Oliver Killens had soirees once a month on Saturdays. Baldwin and his brother David owned a restaurant on 97th and Amsterdam. So I learned from them. These were my mentors.”

For King, these mentors represented a vital and enduring link to a common past that would continue to energize black culture. “Our legacy,” he says, “is a legacy that carries through generations.” And across the continent as well—“Harlem, Bed-Stuy, Detroit, Watts, or Chicago’s South Side—we are basically the same people: a transurban people. What we have in common is the slave ship.”

King saw the NFT as a means of bringing to the public what he’d learned from his mentors and from his training (which by then included an MFA from Brooklyn College, and, now, four honorary doctorates), while tapping into the desire for a real African American and African Caribbean presence in theatre.

Over the years, he has introduced dozens of actors—including Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington—and works by playwrights like Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, and Ntozake Shange, among many others, that have claimed international attention. King has also directed and produced on- and off-Broadway, written books, anthologized black writing, and taught theatre courses. He has received accolades and awards for the quality of his work, and for the brilliance of his vision.

And NFT’s success has influenced the mainstream: major companies that once wouldn’t have given black artists serious consideration now offer their work—and often, King notes with a sense of irony, co-opt the funding that is critical to companies that are “working in the black theatre, the political, radical theatre.”

At NFT he’s continually drawn a broad and evolving audience that renews itself year after year, and he’s done so through art that responds to the need—the right—of its audience to see itself reflected on stage. “You build an audience by doing works that relate to who they are. Plays like Black Girl or For Colored Girls … or the Jewish plays we do—they reach out to audiences who are neglected. People see themselves on the stage and they like it.

“When they give it a standing ovation, cheer, whistle, and talk back to the stage—then I’ve touched them, and I know that New Federal made that happen.”