In 1966, Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks, and Gerald Krone began to work on their vision for a groundbreaking, inclusive space in the theatre: a permanent home where Black theatre artists could have agency over projects made for them, by them, and about them. Hooks had independently produced two of Ward’s plays (Happy Ending and Day of Absence) off-Broadway at the St. Marks Playhouse in Greenwich Village—to fantastic critical success. Running for 504 performances and winning Ward an Obie Award® for acting and a Drama Desk Award for writing, the plays also drew the attention of The New York Times, which invited Ward to write on American theatre’s exclusivity problem and the future of Black theatre artists in the industry. The resulting manifesto – “Theatre in America. For Whites Only” – attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation. And with a $1.5 million grant, The Negro Ensemble Company was born.
With Ward as Artistic Director, Hooks Executive Producing Director, and Krone the Administrative Director, the trio created an arts institution that fostered the talents of artists in all theatre disciplines as well as launching the first Black theatre ensemble company performing plays in rotation. (The first season consisted of Song of the Lusitanian Bogey (Peter Weiss), Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (Ray Lawler), Kongi’s Harvest (Wole Soyinka) and Daddy Goodness (Richard Wright).
The company—which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017—has since been a powerhouse in training and presenting outstanding Black artists. “There is no way we could survive except by being excellent,” Ward said, and the Negro Ensemble Company’s list of alumni provides ample evidence: Denzel Washington, Laurence Fishburne, Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Adolph Caesar, Rosalind Cash, Denise Nicholas, Phylicia Rashad, Garrett Morris, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Moses Gunn, and Esther Rolle to name just a few. And Writing and Directing alumni are now staples in film, television and stage. Overall, the Negro Ensemble Company has been home to more than 4,000 artists from every theatre practice and background, producing over 200 new plays which even now make up the classic canon of Black plays while also creating an extensive theatrical training program to solidify its commitment to inclusive arts education.
Though critically acclaimed and raising some of the most trailblazing questions of its time, the Negro Ensemble Company ran into a number of economic troubles and had to disband its resident company during the 1972-1973 season. This led to the difficult decision of downsizing to only one new play produced per year. Luckily, that first new play was The River Niger by Joseph A. Walker, presenting a fresh, potent, and tender perspective on the struggles of a Black family from Harlem. The River Niger was the first Negro Ensemble Company production to move to Broadway, where it ran just under 300 performances and won the Tony Award® for Best Play. The popularity of the production ensured the Negro Ensemble Company’s financial well-being for the next 10 years, when it debuted the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play—their most successful play to date.
Today, the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. continues to strive towards its mission of presenting theatre by, for, and about Black people to a historically underserved audience, partnering with companies like the Signature Theatre (2008-2009 Residency) to produce and teach. Their mission remains the same: to “provide African-American, African, and Caribbean professional artists with an opportunity to learn, to work, and to grow and to be nurtured in the performing arts.”