Woodie King Jr: Living Legend
The problem becomes that white people feel they have to play a great part in the lives of Black people. They use Black plays to humanize white people when they have nothing to do with our exploration [of Black life] or our experience...Wherever Black people are, is where Black theatre will be. If you progress as a people, Black theatre will progress...when I saw Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" I wanted to know how he got there at such a young age...That's when I knew that anything was possible.
Director, producer, visionary--these words best describe Woodie King, Jr., founder and producing director of the New Federal Theatre (NFT). He started the legendary and much needed theatrical institution 35 years ago and in the process created a legacy of excellence and a standard that we must live up to. NFT is the forerunner and pioneer in developing young Black, Asian and Latino theatre professionals. I had the chance to meet with Mr. King to talk about Black theatre and the New Federal Theatre's upcoming 35th Anniversary Gala Benefit â€œCatch The Spirit Of Black Theatreâ€? a star-studded evening that will include Robert Hooks, Samuel L. Jackson, Byron Lewis, Ruben Santiago - Hudson, Phylicia Rashad and a host of others on February 13th, 2005. The late Ossie Davis was to have been a co-host. All proceeds will benefit New Federal Theatre, Inc. Call 212-838-2660 x 22 for information.
BSN: What can you tell your readers about Mr. Woodie King, Jr.?
WK: I've been in theatre at NFT for 35 consecutive years where we have showcased four new plays every year, sometimes we have showcased seven or eight in one year. I've had the opportunity to work with some of the finest actors in America, such as Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Debbie Allen and Laurence Fishburne to name just a few.
BSN: When did you know that you would pursue a career in theatre?
WK: Three or four weeks after High School graduation I knew I would pursue a career in theatre. I really knew when I saw Sidney Poitier in "The Defiant Ones" and I wanted to know how he got there at such a young age. When he was around 16 or 17 he could not speak English and at 24 he was nominated for an Academy Award. That's when I knew that anything was possible.
BSN: What has been the most gratifying part of being in theatre?
WK: When the final line is said in the play and the audience jumps to their feet, applauding, crying and sometimes laughing. Knowing that I played a part in bringing that to someone's life is an unbelievable rush.
BSN: What were some of the early obstacles, if any?
WK: Not enough money to get actors, designers. Lack of being taken seriously.
BSN: When you founded the NFT, Medgar, Malcolm and Martin had been assassinated. The new militant Black power movement was spreading, what was the theatre atmosphere like?
WK: We had the riots in Watt's, Harlem, Detroit and other places and America started reaching out to Blacks. Europeans were reacting out of fear. They were giving money to Blacks, offering jobs. A lot of us took advantage and built theatres. We said 'ok, we can create viable, really meaningful institutions that were about us.' Young Black artists were speaking out in a passionate, fervent way. This articulation was happening as a result of riots, Black exploitation. Many Black plays were produced on Broadway.
BSN: When you started out, you were a working actor and then you went on to directing and producing. First, of all, how did this process evolve for you? And secondly, what was the adjustment to directing and producing like for you?
WK: I came to New York in the sixties while touring with a play that I wrote and co-directed. In New York, I saw some awesome actors like Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones, Al Freeman, Jr., and Clarence Williams III. They were awesome but they were making $60 a week. I was looking at the situation in the moment. I made four or five times that a week as a producer. It was not about the passion. It was the economic reality
BSN: Do you think that African American theatre has extended the range of the Black experience?
WK: No it has not because it cost so much to produce on stage until it reaches a large audience. The novel extended the Black experience through works by James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Dorothy West. A play has to be performed, while a novel is forever. The only contemporary playwright that has come close is August Wilson.
BSN: What makes a good play good?
WK: Audience acceptance, touching someone in the audience. When it articulates and reaffirms the audiences' reality. The play starts hitting on the truth. A good play reaffirms things that you want to say that you don't. Good Theatre makes you talk.
BSN: Charles Johnson author of "In Being and Race" says that Black fiction is about "crisis of identity" in that Black people are constantly asking the question, "Who am I?" in a culture that constantly portrays them as different. Do you see this in Black theatre as well?
WK: Yes, but more so that the problem becomes that white people feel they have to play a great part in the lives of Black people. They use Black plays to humanize white people when they have nothing to do with our exploration [of Black life] or our experience.
BSN: Where do you see Black theatre in the next 10 years?
WK: Wherever Black people are is where Black theatre will be. If you progress as a people, Black theatre will progress. New generations are in a world where they have new knowledge and ideas but they are working for people. Progress is not working for big companies like Time Warner. That is individual progress. We need a collective, communal progress.
William King Jr., on Ossie Davis:
Ossie Davis has been a pioneer, a forerunner, in this morass in culture and art. It was nothing but a jungle and he cut a clear path and made it a smoother walk for the rest of us. He gave freely of his time and energy. He shared it with young artists, community people, Civil Rights Organizations. He was tireless for his entire life. At age 87, he saw change in America that he was proud of but he was also disappointed. I am enriched by having him as a part of my life and the theatre community.
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