The success of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun sparked a number of changes in 1959. Hansberry became the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway and though the play took home four Tony Award nominations and was named best play of 1959 by the New York Drama Critics’ Circle, opportunities for black actors, writers, and directors in the landscape of American theatre were still few and far between.
Douglas Turner Ward, who understudied Sidney Poitier in the historical play and took over the role as Walter Lee Younger in the show’s national tour, penned a manifesto published in The New York Times that addressed the color barriers in American theatre. His opinion piece, titled “American Theatre: For Whites Only,” published just a few years after the Supreme Court declared segregation of public schools and thereby public facilities, unconstitutional– shed light on the non-existent space for African-American theatre artists.
A theatre evolving not out of negative need, but positive potential; better equipped to employ existing talents and spur the development of future ones. A theatre whose justification is not the gap it fills, but the achievement it aspires towards— no less high than any other comparable theatre company of present or past world fame.
The article caught the attention of W. McNeil Lowery at the Ford Foundation, who encouraged Ward to apply for a grant to build the type of theatre he described in his essay. Ward was awarded $434,000 and along with fellow castmate, Robert Hook and theatre manager Gerald Krone the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) was founded in the summer of 1967. Ward and other black writers would now have a platform to showcase their work and young black actors, like the ones who worked with Hooks, were given the opportunity to play complex characters with depth and originality.
The inaugural season opened with Peter Weiss’ Song of the Lusitanian Bogey in 1968. NEC received criticism on both sides of the racial spectrum. Members of the black community were critical of the NEC employing white staff, playwrights, and funders. NEC continued to serve the African-American theatre talent pool, mentoring the likes of Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Phylicia Rashad, Delroy Lindo and Angela Bassett.
Even though the NEC broke barriers for many Black actors, directors and playwrights, box-office sales suffered. In the 1972-73 season the resident company was disbanded and major cut-backs of training programs, salaries and productions occurred. The NEC would now only produce one play a year.
In 1974 NEC made its Broadway debut with The River Niger by Joseph Walker that took home a Tony Award for Best Play and went on a national tour. The success of The River Niger bought the NEC more time, and in 1981 A Soldier’s Play by Charles Fuller won the Outer Critics’ Circle Best Off-Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best American Play, the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was later turned into a three-time Academy Award nominated movie.
Ward left the company in 2002. O.L. Duke took his place from 2002-2004 and now Charles Weldon stands at the helm of the historic landmark. Weldon expanded the theatre’s education programs by offering video production, commercial theatre management, producing, advertising and public school training. NEC currently offers workshops in basic acting, actors intensive, playwriting, dance and movement and more.
In January 2015 Weldon was quoted in an article published in Newsweek explaining why he continues to persevere and maintain the company. For him, it means that he gets “to hold on to history. A history that was great. A history that so many great people were a part of.”