Douglas Turner Ward and Clinton Turner Davis spoke about A Soldier’s Play with education dramaturg Ted Sod as part of Roundabout Theatre Company’s lecture series.
An edited transcript follows.
There are spoilers below.
Ted Sod: I told Mr. Ward backstage that it is a thrill for me to finally meet him and to interview him in this context. The reason for that is when I was a very young man (I came to New York in 1976), I saw his productions at the Negro Ensemble Company, and they were just stunning. It made me understand that everything they taught me in college about doing ensemble work was possible. So, I thank you for that. Sitting next to him is an old friend, who I don't think I've seen in 30 years, Mr. Clinton Turner Davis. Clinton introduced me to some of the best working artists in the city. And I'm just thrilled that he was able to come as well. I'm going to read brief bios for both men:
Mr. Douglas Turner Ward is a driving force in the evolution of the black theatre movement in America. He wrote an essay published in The New York Times in which he called for the establishment of an autonomous black theatre company in New York City. He envisioned it as combining professional performances by a resident company and an extensive training program for promising actors, playwrights, directors, managerial and technical personnel. It is that vision which was realized in the Negro Ensemble Company or NEC. During the classic period of the NEC, over some three decades, Mr. Ward has functioned as producer, director, actor, and playwright. He directed the original 1981 NEC production of Charles H. Fuller Jr.'s A Soldier's Play at Theatre Four, which ran for over 450 performances and kickstarted the careers of Denzel Washington and Samuel Jackson, among other well-respected performers. Ward ended his association with the NEC in the late 1990s. His trilogy of plays, The Haitian Chronicles, was recently published by Boo-Hooray Publishing.
Mr. Clinton Turner Davis is a director, educator, dramaturg, playwright, production supervisor, and arts consultant. He has directed productions off- Broadway and at numerous regional theatres, colleges and universities in the United States and Taiwan. A noted interpreter of August Wilson's 20th-century cycle of plays, his productions have received multiple national and international commendations. He was the production supervisor of the original NEC production of A Soldier's Play, and its subsequent 22-month national tour. Mr. Davis also directed the first NYC revival of A Soldier's Play for the Valiant Theatre in 1996.
Mr. Ward, I just read the article you so kindly sent me that was in the Times in 1968, entitled American Theater: For Whites Only? It was extremely provocative at the time and remains provocative today. I'm curious, what inspired you to write that article? And what happened after its publication? The Ford Foundation got involved — correct?
Douglas Turner Ward:Yes. The thing that inspired me was that there was a need at that time concerning black representation in American theatre — it was in that article. And as you said, I called for the creation of an autonomous black theater movement. And the article came to the attention of the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation led to the establishment of regional theatre all over the country. It turned out that they were looking for something to fund in terms of black identity. They read the article and invited me to come talk with them. And I did. And at that time, I had two one-act plays of my own that were running off-Broadway at the Saint Marks Playhouse. So, it wasn't a radical idea. It was practical because we were already doing it. We had a 99 percent black cast. So, we were already actively doing what later became the Negro Ensemble Company. The Ford Foundation decided that they would fund us for three years. And the rest is history.
TS: What I love about that article is that you call for an end of bourgeois writers writing for a bourgeois audience. You suggested a company that would offer a home for black artists. Artists would be able to perform in plays that would speak to a black audience. And you accomplished it. You obviously got people who weren't black to come as well, which is really wonderful. I'm curious, if you sense that we need another major black company today, and how that can happen.
DTW: I have no idea. But the personnel is there for it. All it would take is someone with a vision to do what we did. And I think it would lead to the same result we had. So, yes, I think it could happen.
TS: What I have learned in my research is that you and Mr. Robert Hooks and later on your third partner, Mr. Gerald Krone, who was the business manager, saw a need for artists who were black to not have to play servants all the time. I am curious about your memories of the classic NEC. What stays with you?
DTW: As you said, we did it.
TS: You made it happen.
DTW: What I said in the Times article, what I said could happen, we did it. We created a body of work that I'm proud of. And A Soldier's Play represented it. I always knew that would happen if we created it. Those works would go on to be duplicated all over the country. The other thing I'm proud of is the personnel that we trained and the fact that they’re still active in every field of theatre, TV and film. Not just the writers, but the actors, the designers, the stage managers, the backstage personnel, the directors. Everybody. To this day they are all over American show business working. And some creating their own theatres. I'm very proud of them and the body of work we all created.
TS: As well you should be. Clinton, in 1972 you joined the NEC. You must have been a child…
Clinton Turner Davis: Yes, I was.
TS: You graduated college around that time, correct?
CTD: Around ’71, yes.
TS: What made you want to be a part of the company?
CTD: I went to Howard University and the company was on tour with Song of the Lusitanian Bogey. I saw that and after that performance, the entire theatre class went backstage. And all the company members were so welcoming. And almost every one of them said, “When you graduate, come to New York and come see us.” And that was the open door. I moved to New York in '71 and I was performing as an actor, dancer and singer. And I had gotten to this point where I was not working for about a month. I was in a panic. And I was ready to go back to Washington, D.C., and get a good job in the government. And the phone rang. It was my cousin, Horacena Taylor, who was the production stage manager at NEC. And she asked me if I wanted a job. I said “Yes, where?” And she said, “NEC.” I said, “Where's that?” And she gave me directions. And I went down to the theatre. I walked up the long flight of steps and I was greeted by her and the first person I met was Steve Carter. I was taken into the theatre and given a mop, a broom, and a bucket. And she said, “Mop the stage.” They were in rehearsal for Sty of the Blind Pig. I mopped and I waxed the stage. And, each time the four actors in that production made their entrance -- Adolph Caesar, Moses Gunn, Clarice Taylor and Frances Foster -- they slipped and fell. I thought, okay, I'm going to be fired because I waxed the stage. We got a good laugh out of that. I continued to work with NEC for 18 years.
TS: Can you tell us a bit about your responsibilities? Because you were a jack of all trades it seems.
CTD: When I left the NEC — officially in '84 — I was basically Doug's assistant. I was a literary manager. I was reading at least five or six plays a week. I had plays at home in various rooms, at my desk, and always had one in my bag to read on the subway. I was a casting director. The production supervisor, the production manager. When I left NEC, A Soldier's Play was running at Theatre Four. Abercrombie Apocalypse — which I directed — was at the West Side Arts. Colored People’s Time by Leslie Lee was at the Cherry Lane Theatre. I think Home was on tour. And there were two other shows in rehearsal. I was managing all of those at the same time. I designed, built costumes, rebuilt costumes. I did props. I taught a movement workshop, dance classes. I had my fingers in all things.
TS: Mr. Ward, I wonder if we could talk a bit about Charles Fuller. He's not here today, but he's coming to opening night, as are you. I'm curious how you met. Did you know him in his Philadelphia days when he was part of the Afro-American Arts Theatre?
DTW: I first met Charles after he did a show in Princeton.
TS: Which came out of his play The Perfect Party. The McCarter Theatre commissioned him.
DTW: Right. And I met him and then he submitted a play to me, his first play. Then in 1976, he wrote The Brownsville Raid. And the next one was Zooman and the Sign.
TS: Which won an Obie. And after Zooman, came A Soldier's Play, which won the Pulitzer. You directed Zooman and the Sign and A Soldier’s Play, but you were in The Brownsville Raid, weren't you?
TS: What is it about Mr. Fuller’s work that made you think it was special?
DTW: Charles's style is documentary-like. His style of writing is very deceptive because there's always a thematic statement. His writing is very lean and fact-based. After A Soldier's Play, we put four plays of his on at Theatre Four and we went on tour all over the country with them – we called them The We Plays. Four separate plays that interconnected.
TS: I've read that he was inspired to write A Soldier's Play because his dear friend Larry Neal had passed away. They were very close; they grew up in the projects in north Philly. They were students at Roman Catholic High School and made a wager with each other to see who could read every book in the library first. And then they realized there were no authors of color. So, they took it upon themselves to fill the shelves with books by authors of color. It's so remarkable for young men to decide to do that.
DTW: They were both great writers. I always respected Larry Neal for being one of the best critics around. One of the reasons I liked Larry so much is because of The Reckoning. It's a play of mine that is still controversial. The New York Times wrote a review of The Reckoning, and it was almost five pages of the Times. The critic, Walter Kerr, couldn't figure out what was happening. But he kept writing about it. And thankfully, Larry Neal got to write a review in the same Sunday Times. Larry explained my play by saying Douglas Turner Ward proves that he is not just a playwright but he's a poet too. Larry got it. He realized what my intentions were and how I expressed them and he said, “Ward writes like Charlie Parker plays the sax.” That's the best compliment I've ever gotten from a critic. It's doesn’t get any better than that.
TS: So, the Times published two perspectives. Same day. One black, one white. Amazing. Clinton, could you talk to us about that original production of A Soldier's Play? What do you remember from working on it? Did you know you had a hit when you were working on it?
CTD: I think everyone knew we had something. There was a fire inside of everyone. It's the best way to describe it. We had two days of auditions, a day of call backs, the next day we went into rehearsal. The first day of rehearsal before Doug walked into the room, I told everyone in the company, “You all need to be off book. And you need to be off book yesterday. Are we clear?” And they all looked at me like who are you? I said I'm going to repeat it one more time. And I did. And we were off book. And we were running through the play after the first week. From the first rehearsal through the end of that week, it was just discovery, discovery, discovery. After that we were basically waiting for the paint to dry on the set. Because the actors were ready. There was a lot of humor, a lot of camaraderie among the actors and a lot of comeuppance too. A lot of crazy funny moments. One of the most horrific -- but very funny moments -- was a time in one of the performances, Denzel and Adolph were on stage for the “They still hate you; they still hate you” lines. And we had this .45. Denzel pulled the trigger and it misfired -- it didn't go off. And Adolph was standing there saying the line. Denzel didn't know what to do. He held the gun up and said, “Bang, you're dead!” And Adolph just said, “Oh yes I am.” From then on, we had a backup .45. There was another time when one of the actors was acting out backstage. He was getting in trouble with everyone. I just pulled him aside. I'm not going to mention a name. And I said, “You know, karma is really something. You should pull it together.” He came on stage for the next scene. And he had a line, and he said the line. It was a line with plosive sounds and his partial flew out of his mouth. He caught it midair. And it so tickled all of the cast members that everyone turned their backs from the audience. And all you saw was them laughing.
I guess one of the biggest highlights of the original run was -- once it was a bona fide hit – a lot of celebrities came to see the show. Peter O'Toole came and he was six sheets to the wind. He stepped up to the box office and said, “I'm here to see the soldiers. I'm Peter and I'm here to see the soldiers.” I was walking through the lobby. I saw who he was and the condition he was in. I told one of the production people to go backstage and make strong coffee. And I took him inside and just pumped coffee into him and tried to sober him up through the show.
The highlight of the entire time we were at Theatre Four was when Lena Horne came to see the production. She came backstage. She was in tears and she took time to speak to all the cast members individually. I worked for a year on her show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, for the international tour after that.
TS: Those are wonderful memories.
DTW: For the original production of A Soldier's Play, Denzel was hired at the last minute. He called and asked, “Are you still auditioning?” And I said, “If you can get here in the next half hour, come. But I'm ready to make a decision on Peterson.”
TS: He played Peterson in your production.
DTW: He came in and auditioned. And it was obvious he was Peterson. Also, Charles may not remember this, but I had to fight for Adolph Caesar.
TS: Adolph was brilliant as Sergeant Waters.
DTW: Charles made the mistake of offering that role to another actor. I said. “No, man. This is Caesar’s role!” I remember when I read the script, I kept thinking that was Caesar's role. I said, “No. I'll cast your actor in any other role, but not that. That's Adolph Caesar's role.”
I learned a lesson that there are certain ideas you have in your mind about who a character is, and then an actor comes, and you change your mind. My memory of A Soldier's Play is that Denzel, Larry Riley and Adolph Caesar were all so good that they competed with each other. We were ready after one-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal. They didn't want to let themselves down by not being as good as their companion actors. That's why they were so ready so quickly.
Audience Question 1: Why did you cast Denzel? Was it because he had Peterson's intellect?
DTW: It was everything. I was ready to make up my mind about somebody else. He came in. I realized, no, he's Peterson, not the other actor.
Audience Question 2: Do you feel the play will have any trouble resonating with audiences today given that we are several generations removed from World War II?
TS: I think that could be answered by both gents. Does the play resonate for a 2020 audience?
CTD: Absolutely. Racism is still apparent and still with us, unfortunately. The play speaks to the very core of so many different types and aspects of racism.
DTW: If you see the movie, I think Norman Jewison made a couple of mistakes. The movie was good, but made the mistake of making it patriotic and that’s not what A Soldier’s Play is — it's ironic. All the soldiers, no matter what happened during the play, decided to fight Hitler, and all of them got killed. Therefore, the comment that Charles was making is not a patriotic comment. It's an ironic comment. That was one mistake the film made. The other mistake was the film treated the story as if it was about the Captain. It's not about the investigator, it's about everybody else. When you see the movie, it's almost like they made the mistake of trying to make the central character Captain Davenport.
TS: One of the things I found so very deep is that the men, the soldiers in the play, thought they would earn respect by going to fight Hitler. Of course, those that came back, came back to more bullshit. They thought now that we're fighting for our country, people will treat us with respect. But it never happened.
I read an article with Mr. Fuller where he said he thought your production of the play might have moved to Broadway at that time except that the audience couldn't handle the last line about blacks being in charge. Is that how you remember it?
DTW: I don't quite remember it that way. I knew that at that time it didn't belong on Broadway. The play didn't belong on Broadway then.
Audience Question 3: The name is Allie Woods. I'm a founding member of the NEC. I have one question to my old boss. How did you go about choosing the cast for that first production?
DTW: Half worked for us before. Sam Jackson, Charles Brown—
CTD: Eugene Lee. James Pickens.
DTW: By the time A Soldier's Play came along, we had already had the experience of making everybody become part of an ensemble, rather than standing out as individual stars or what have you. They were all stars. That play was just a continuation of our mode of ensemble acting.
Audience Question 4: Do you think that there's room for a company to emerge with this type of talent, this type of focus, during these times — do you think there will ever be another company that will be recognized for excellent work the way NEC was?
DTW: Yes. But I think if I was in charge again, I would be more dependent on the audience supporting the theatre rather than outside funding.
TS: Clinton, how do you feel about that question?
CTD: It is possible. But there needs to be a collective will. A collective will sans ego.