St. Mark’s Playhouse and the Negro Ensemble Company
The 1960s saw immense change as calls for civil rights and racial justice transformed our cultural landscape. In tandem with these movements, many of which have their roots in our neighborhoods, Black artists across the country used their platforms to amplify the kaleidoscopic perspectives and experiences of black people in America. The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC,) which made its theatrical home at the St. Mark’s Playhouse (133 Second Avenue) from 1965 until 1980, was one such group.
A 1959 production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, a groundbreaking theatrical work in its own right, inspired castmates Robert Hooks (b. April 16, 1937) and Douglas Turner Ward (May 5, 1930 – February 20, 2021) to dream of a theater company run by and for black people. They nurtured this dream for years, waiting for an opportunity to realize it.
In 1962, Hooks was an actor in Dutchman, LeRoi Jones’ (October 7, 1934 – January 9, 2014) explosive Obie-winning play whose revelations on generational violent racism touched the exposed nerves of black and white audiences alike. One night, after giving a talk on Dutchman and his experiences as a Black theater artist, Hooks was followed outside by 15 young black people thirsting to know how they could get involved in theater. Touched by their passion, he invited them to join him at his apartment on Monday evenings to talk about theater and do play readings. Before he knew it, Hooks found himself taking a sledgehammer to the walls of his apartment to create a makeshift stage for the growing group.
Though this setup worked for longer than expected, Hooks was forced to evacuate his apartment and the group relocated their Monday meetings to the Cherry Lane Theatre. There the group of youths mounted a showcase of scenes from plays, poetry readings, and a one-act play by Ward. Though the performance was meant for family and friends, a critic in the audience was moved by Ward’s work, writing that Ward’s work was meant for a commercial production. The two men set to work.
Hooks committed himself to fundraising while Ward furiously wrote. The duo brought on theater manager Gerald Crone, and together, the three men crafted an evening of satirical one act plays that opened at the St. Mark’s Playhouse in November 1965. The plays were a hit. They ran at St. Mark’s Playhouse for 504 performances, winning Ward an Obie Award for acting and a Drama Desk award for writing in the process.
These accolades gave Ward an unprecedented platform. His August 14,1966 manifesto “American Theater: For Whites Only?” was published in the New York Times, where it drew the attention W. McNeil Lowry of the Ford Foundation. After a passionate pitch from Hooks, Ward, and Crone, the Ford Foundation provided the men with a grant to found a resident black theater company that would create opportunities for active black theater artists and train the next generation. In 1967, the Negro Ensemble Company officially came to be.
With the St. Mark’s Playhouse as its home, the NEC produced plays that allowed black actors and writers to showcase black stories with empathy and depth, an opportunity previously unheard of in popular commercial theater. Though the group faced pushback from right-wing protestors and community members who disagreed with the NEC’s collaboration with white administrators, playwrights, and funders, they put on productions of celebrated plays like Peter Weiss’ “Song of the Lucitanian Bogey”, Lonnie Elder’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” and Charles Fuller’s “Zooman and the Sign”.
For years the NEC employed black actors, writers, and theatrical designers of all types while simultaneously holding classes in dance, speech, playwriting, acting, costume and scenic design, and administrative management. Yet, though they often played to sold-out audiences, the NEC struggled to meet budget once the money from the Ford Foundation ran out. Black funders were hard to come by at the time, and few white investors were willing to invest in a theatrical space for black artists. In a bleak turn, most of the NEC company was forced to disband after the 1972-73 season.
Though they had to operate at a greatly reduced level, the NEC resolved to produce one play a year. In what can be called luck, a blessing, or an example of the undeniable virtuosity of black artists, the first play they chose, “The River Niger” by Joe Walker, was an instant smash when it premiered on December 5, 1972. The production moved uptown from the St. Mark’s Playhouse to Broadway, where it played for nine months, winning a Tony Award for Best Play, spawning a 1976 movie adaptation, and ensuring the continued work of the NEC for the next decade.
In 1980, the NEC left the St. Mark’s Playhouse for a large theater uptown. However, the group left an indelible mark on our neighborhood which continues to reverberate through American show business.
Want to learn more about black theater artists in our neighborhoods? Read about The African Grove Theater and the many stars whose careers were launched by the NEC.