Negro Ensemble Company

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Negro Ensemble Company
Formation 1967
Type Theatre group
Artistic director(s)
Robert Hooks, Gerald S. Krone, Douglas Turner Ward
Notable members
Debbie Allen, John Amos, Angela Bassett, Avery Brooks, Roscoe Lee Browne, Adolph Caesar, Rosalind Cash, Keith David, Bill Duke, Judyann Elder, Giancarlo Esposito, Laurence Fishburne, Danny Glover, Louis Gossett, Jr., David Alan Grier, Moses Gunn, Sherman Hemsley, Kevin Hooks, Samuel L. Jackson, Cleavon Little, Delroy Lindo, S. Epatha Merkerson, Garrett Morris, Denise Nicholas, Ron O'Neal, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Richard Roundtree, Clarice Taylor, Glynn Turman, Denzel Washington, Charles Weldon, Lynn Whitfield, Dick Anthony Williams, Victor Willis, Hattie Winston

The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) is a groundbreaking New York City-based theater company and training institution established in 1967 by playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald S. Krone with funding from the Ford Foundation. The company's focus on original works with complex themes grounded in black life with an international viewpoint created a canon of theatrical works of which set the stage and created the audience for writers who came later, such as August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, and many others.


The Negro Ensemble Company was created in 1964 when actor Robert Hooks created a tuition-free acting workshop for urban youth which he named the Group Theatre Workshop (GTW) in tribute to Harold Clurman's The Group Theatre. The group became a refuge for young minority actors. He and his associate Barbara Ann Teer then decided to utilize the young actors in a one-night friends-and-parents showcase. The plays chosen were Gwendolyn Brooks' We Real Cool and Douglas Turner Ward's Happy Ending.

Jerry Tallmer, reviewer for the New York Post, happened to attend this free, one-night student event and glowingly reviewed it.[1] This inspired Hooks to option both Happy Ending and Ward's Day of Absence with the goal of producing them as a double bill under the banner of Robert Hooks Productions. After raising $35,000 (equivalent to $267,000 in 2016) from music moguls Clarence Avant and Al Bell, Hooks booked the St. Mark's Playhouse (where many black performers had performed in the long-running show, The Blacks) and hired Gerald Krone as Company Manager.

Ward was also invited by The New York Times to write an opinion piece for its Sunday edition on the state of black theatre. American Theatre: For Whites Only? (8/14/66), a scathing indictment of America's theatre establishment, also posited the need for a unique Black theatre institution.[2]

This article made the visionary[3] McNeil Lowery of the Ford Foundation contact the production office and set up a meeting with Hooks, Ward, and Gerald Krone, who, as company manager for Hooks, had a skill-set that would complete their triumvirate. Invited to present a proposal, they came with a proposal for an ensemble company much like Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble. The concept of a true ensemble company – a nucleus of actors performing a roster of plays back-to-back within the course of each season – was practically unheard of in American theatre, let alone a theatre based on the black experience, created and staffed by black artists. And, in the spirit of his Group Theatre Workshop, incorporating a training arm providing tuition-free acting, directing, writing and theatre administration workshops to raise a new generation of theatre professionals. The concept was accepted almost immediately as they were awarded a three-year, one and a half million dollar grant (equivalent to $10,700,00 in 2016), to establish their innovatively conceived new company.

Controversy at the Start[edit]

From the beginning, they resisted demands that the new company be located up in Harlem and sought out a space downtown where they could build on the existing theatre audience while cultivating an informed black theatre-going audience which hadn't existed before on a large and reliable scale. They decided on the St. Mark's Playhouse on Greenwich Village's Lower East Side because of its flexible configuration.

During the era of Black Power, the decision to use the term "Negro" rather than the more current "Black" raised some eyebrows and hackles. But it was meant as a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, a living legacy to the brilliant artists (i.e., Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Countee Cullen, Jessie Fauset, Claude McKay, Ethel Waters), some of whom were still alive and in New York at the time. Also, the term "New Negro" (made popular by philosopher and journalist Alain Locke) was used during the Harlem Renaissance to invoke an outspoken advocacy of dignity and a refusal to submit quietly to the practices and laws of Jim Crow racial segregation.

The fact that Gerald Krone, by then administrative director, was Caucasian, caused some vocal consternation from black nationalists.[4][5]

On the move[edit]

In unveiling and introducing the Negro Ensemble Company, the three founders wanted to give notice to New York and to the world that they were not an exclusionary...but an inclusive... black theatre; an arts institution dedicated to discovering, nurturing and expanding a theatrical exploration of what it was to be black within in a "world view" perspective.[6] And part of that was acknowledging that playwrights of all nationalities had been, and were currently, writing incisively about the plight of Africans, African Americans and international colonialism.

The first repertory season (1967-1968) was not without controversy. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Ray Lawler; Kongi's Harvest by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka; Daddy Goodness, an early work of Richard Wright's and as the first play of the inaugural season, Song of the Lusitanian Bogey by Caucasian German author Peter Weiss. This last play dealt with the oppression of black people from an international perspective, set in turn-of-the-century colonization in Angola. Some black activists protested, accusing NEC of selling out by taking "white money" and by utilizing a white author, on one occasion, attempting to storm the theatre during a performance of Bogey. Soon after, in London, the NEC's production of Song of the Lusitanian Bogey created a storm of controversy and was heckled by-right wing protesters who resented its anti-colonialist message.

Over the years many plays were produced by the Negro Ensemble Company — most of which dealt with complex, sometimes disturbing, and heretofore ignored aspects of both the black experience, and the American experience. Its nurturing of black playwrights (i.e., Lonne Elder III's Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Charles Fuller's Zooman and The Sign) over the course of four decades created a body of performance literature which provides the backbone of the African-American theatrical canon.[7]

Ironically, despite rave reviews and sold-out audiences, and producing some of the most important and critically acclaimed theatrical work of its time, the early 1970s found the Negro Ensemble Company in economic trouble. The 145-seat theatre had become too small to generate the revenue needed for its ambitious projects. During the 1972-73 season the resident company was disbanded, staff was cut back, training programs cancelled, and salaries deferred. The decision was made, starting immediately, to produce only one new play a year.

Fortuitously, that chosen play was The River Niger, by Joseph A. Walker. A moving and poetic play set in Harlem during the growing and turbulent racial redefining of the 1970s, the piece revolves around the struggles of a proud black family with one foot in the past, the other in the future. It was the first NEC production to move to Broadway, where it remained for nine months, winning a Tony Award for Best Play, and embarking on an extensive national tour, helping to ensure the continued work of the NEC.

In July 1980, the NEC relocated to a new 299-seat home at Theatre Four, 424 West 55th Street, where it would remain until 1991.[8]

Then, in 1981 the NEC mounted what turned out to be its most successful and prestigious production. A Soldier's Play, by Charles Fuller is a gripping story of the murder of a black soldier on a Southern Army base, and the subsequent investigation by a black army captain. It examines both black pride and self-hatred and won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Critics Circle Best Play awards. (Original cast: Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Brent Jennings, Charles Brown, Larry Riley, Peter Friedman, Cotter Smith, James Pickens Jr., Eugene Lee, and Stephen Zettler.) In 1984 it was made into a movie featuring several original cast members and NEC alumni, notably Adolph Caesar, Denzel Washington and David Alan Grier. A Soldier's Story was nominated for three Academy Awards.

In 2005 the Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. – a new, restructured incarnation of the original Negro Ensemble Company — was formed under the leadership of NEC alumna Charles Weldon as Artistic Director. It was among 406 New York City arts and social service institutions to receive part of a $20 million grant from the Carnegie Corporation, which was made possible through a donation by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.[9]

Major awards[edit]

Pulitzer Prize for Drama
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
Tony Awards
  • 1969 – Special Achievement
  • 1973 – The River Niger
Obie Awards
  • 1968 – Citation for Excellence
  • 1971 – Dream on Monkey Mountain
  • 1973 – The River Niger
  • 1974 – The Great McDaddy
  • 1975 – The First Breeze of Summer
  • 1977 – Eden
  • 1979 – Nevis Mountain Dew
  • 1980 – Lagrima del Diablo
  • 1981 – Zooman and The Sign
  • 1981 – Sustained Achievement
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
Vernon Rice Drama Desk Award
Dramatists Guild Award
  • 1976 – The First Breeze of Summer
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
American Theatre Wing Award
  • 1983 – Negro Ensemble Company
Clarence Derwent Awards
  • 1976 – The First Breeze of Summer
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
Audelco Award
  • 1977 – Eden
  • 1980 – Home
Margo Jones Award
  • 1975 – The First Breeze of Summer
Outer Critics Circle Awards
  • 1980 – Home
  • 1982 – A Soldier’s Play
Eudora Welty Television Award
  • 1978 – The First Breeze of Summer
James A. Vaughn Award for Excellence in American Theatre
  • 1980 – Negro Ensemble Company
Premio Roma Award
  • 1969 – Song of the Lusitanian Bogey
Theatre Club Award

1982 – A Soldier’s Play

Brandeis University Creative Award
  • 1970 – Negro Ensemble Company
New York State Arts Council Award
  • 1976 – Negro Ensemble Company
Bronze Medallion of New York City
  • 1977 – Negro Ensemble Company
New England Theatre Conference Special Award
  • 1981 – Negro Ensemble Company

Original ensemble company[edit]

Norman Bush, Rosalind Cash, David Downing, Frances Foster, Arthur French, Moses Gunn, William Jay, Judyann (Jonsson) Elder, Denise Nicholas, Esther Rolle, Clarice Taylor, Hattie Winston, and Allie Woods. Production Stage Manager, Edmund Cambridge. Stage Managers: Horacena Taylor, James S. Lucas.

Original training staff[edit]

Acting: Paul Mann, Lloyd Richards, Ron Mack, Luther James and Edmund Cambridge. Directing: Michael A. Schultz. Playwriting: Lonne Elder III, Steve Carter and Gus Edwards. Set Design: Edward Burbridge. Costuming: Gertha Brock Dance/Choreography: Louis Johnson, Talley Beatty. Vocal Coach (for Actors): Kristin Linklater. Singing Coach: Margaret Harris. Theatre Administration: Gerald S. Krone, Carolyn Jones, Fred Garrett.

Notable alumni[edit]


  1. ^ Jerry Tallmer, "Reading Between Races", The Villager, Feb. 4, 2009.
  2. ^ "Negro Ensemble Company records, 1967-1993", Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library.
  3. ^ "Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism", Karen Ferguson, 2013 University of Pennsylvania .
  4. ^ "Negro Ensemble Company, The (1967- )",
  5. ^ "About the Negro Ensemble Co.", American Masters, August 18, 2004.
  6. ^ "Not the Other Avant-Garde: The Transnational Foundations of Avant-Garde Performance", James M. Harding, John Rouse, University of Michigan Press.
  7. ^ John J. O'Connor, "NY Times: Profile of Negro Ensemble Company", The New York Times, Sept. 14, 1987.
  8. ^ "Negro Ensemble Company records 1967-1993". Archives & Manuscripts. The New York Public Library. Retrieved 5 April 2017. 
  9. ^ Sam Roberts, "City Groups Get Bloomberg Gift of $20 Million", The New York Times, July 6, 2005.

External links[edit]