What does a beloved TV sitcom mom, Ike and Tina Turner, and one bad motha have in common?
All were portrayed by actors who honed their craft at a theater company that had its start in the East Village. Phylicia Rashad (who played Claire Huxtable on The Cosby Show), Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett (who played Ike and Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It) and Richard Roundtree (who was the title character in Shaft) are among the hundreds of actors whose talents were fostered by the Negro Ensemble Company, which held its first performances in a former movie house on the corner of St. Mark’s Place and Second Avenue. We have previously blogged about the transformation of this site from a late 19th century mansion to a 20th century movie house.
Inspired by productions of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, in 1965 playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone came together to create a theater company that empowered African American actors by creating productions with meaningful and challenging roles for them. The Negro Ensemble Company performed its first play, Days of Absence on November 15, 1965 at St. Mark’s Playhouse at 133 Second Avenue.
Douglas Turner Ward was recognized with an Obie Award for his performance and a Drama Desk Award for his writing. The play drew a lot of attention to the ensemble leading to a New York Times opinion piece written by Ward about the state of black theater which in turn helped the group secure funding to make St. Mark’s Playhouse its permanent home for several years. The company, now located in the Theatre District, is still a leading force in the development of actors.
Today the building at 133 Second Avenue has shops and restaurants on the ground floor and condominiums on the upper levels.