University Obtains Archives of Prominent African-American Playwright

Emory’s Stuart A. Rose Library has obtained documents from playwright Douglas Turner Ward, a prominent figure in African American theater.

Ward cofounded and served as the artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC), one of the first spaces for black artists to perform theater in New York City, beginning in 1967.

The collection includes annotated plays, such as “Day of Absence” (a play written by Ward), administrative documents of the NEC and correspondences between Ward, writers and government officials. The letters include “politics, culture and the social importance of theater, specifically in empowering the African American community,” according to Pellom McDaniels III, curator of African American collections at the Rose Library.

In a copy of the play “Day of Absence,” hundreds of Ward’s annotations embellish the pages. He meticulously marked every time a pause must be made in speech and made small changes in the lines throughout the script. He made tweaks to lines. For instance, he modified “Look there! Another one!” to “What about this one?”

In a Sept. 6, 1966 letter, African American educator and U.S. Education Committee member Jeanne Noble expressed concern to Ward that there would not be enough African American literature for future generations.

“I have been intrigued by your ideas,” Noble wrote. “When, as you say, Negro plays and production are sporadic, I as a professor become alarmed.”

In an Aug. 12, 1973, letter to Ward, African American poet Amiri Baraka discusses a movement initiating a new direction in politics in his hometown of Newark, N.J. The Newark community is not interested in political parties, Baraka writes, but instead in change.

McDaniels said he worked with Ward to bring the collection to Emory.

“[Ward] wanted his materials to be at a university that would appreciate not only the history behind the documents but also would embrace bringing more works of his colleagues and directors into the space,” McDaniels said.

The documents “encapsulate the hopes, dreams, successes and fears of a group of people” and provide insight into African American history and culture in the 20th century, according to McDaniels.

“Plays are generally about everyday life and the facts of everyday existence,” McDaniels said. “Plays such as a ‘Soldier’s Play’ or ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ … give you a glimpse at the lives of African Americans, especially in terms of the 1960s forward, and how this group of people empowered one another.”

McDaniels said NEC was crucial in allowing black arts and culture to flourish in America.

“It gave African Americans a space to tell their story and reaffirmed their lives,” McDaniels said. “It provided a new vantage point to make the story of America more complete.”

Theater Studies Lecturer Brent Glenn said the collection is a pivotal part of history because the NEC helped black theater to reach a larger audience.

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