New Federal Theatre Founder Woodie King, Jr. Continues Mission To Tell Untold Stories

Woodie King, Jr., founder and producing director of New Federal Theatre, chats with Playbill.com about his theatrical accomplishments and dedication to presenting diversity onstage while celebrating Black History Month. 

Woodie King
Woodie King

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Woodie King, Jr. is a man on a mission.

It's been more than four decades since he founded New York City's groundbreaking New Federal Theatre, and the maverick is showing no signs of slowing down. With almost 300 productions already under his belt, he just wrapped the world premiere of Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington at the Castillo Theater. Of the Clare Coss-written play, which revolved around a critical time for two founding members of the NAACP, King said he wanted to tell a story that was never told before.

"I've know Clare Coss for 35 years and I've produced or co-produced other plays by this writer. I approached her eight years ago about writing a play about Dr. Du Bois and Mary White Ovington, she thought about it and came up with a draft two years ago," he explained. "I did a reading of the play and then she did more re-writes. I produced a three-day production for the 2013 Black History Month Series and it worked."

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington starred Timothy Simonson as W.E.B. DuBois and Tony Award nominee Kathleen Chalfant (Angels in America, Wit) as Mary White Ovington. "I try to select plays that are written with characters deeply rooted in our humanity," King explained, while also mentioning an upcoming revival of another Du Bois-themed production, The Most Dangerous Man In America, underway. "I tend to avoid plays where the black characters are in the play only to humanize the white characters."

King said the upcoming production fulfills his need as an African American producer to explore the life of the legendary civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois. "Amiri Baraka and I worked on this play for many years," he explained. "This will be the third play that I've produced on Du Bois. His contribution to African American life is vast, covering over six decades, ending on his death on the eve of the 1963 March on Washington."

Born in Mobile, Alabama and raised in Detroit, King has been on this trailblazing journey since 1970 when he founded the New Federal Theatre. With a bold mission to integrate people of color and women into mainstream American theatre, the New Federal Theatre (headquartered in New York City's Lower East Side) has provided a platform and opportunity for emerging artists and groundbreaking theatre works.

From Academy Award winners Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman and Emmy Award winners S. Epatha Merkerson and Debbie Allen to a litany of Tony Award winners, including Phylicia Rashad, Leslie Uggams and Laurence Fishburne, the New Federal Theatre has been a breeding ground and a source of cultivation for many notable African American performers.

Even the fabled Ntozake Shange play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf got its New York City start with the New Federal Theatre.

"Many white-controlled theatres produce only European plays that are directed to their own need to glorify the past," King stated. "African Americans are not integral to their past in any kind of positive way. That leaves me with a large canvas of untold stories."

When asked what some of his proudest achievements in theatre were, the Theater Hall of Fame inductee pointed back to how rejection has been transformed into triumph.

"My proudest moments were the times when traditional theatre producers denied me access and we prevailed," he said. Some, he said, include New Federal Theatre winning the Drama Desk Award for Black Girl by Ms. J. E. Franklin; winning the Drama Critic's Circle Award for Ed Bullins' The Taking of Miss Janie; producing For Colored Girls on Broadway; Denzel Washington first starring as civil rights icon Malcolm X in Laurence Holder's When the Chickens Came Home to Roost; and the Broadway production of Checkmates, starring Washington and Ruby Dee.

"And every play that I produced by Amiri Baraka was a learning experience on black art," he added. "I just love black theatre," King, who has also acted on Broadway ( The Great White Hope), in film ("Serpico") and on television ("Law & Order"), said about his drive and determination. "To see a story on a page come alive on stage is such a thrill to me. I really enjoy standing at the rear of the theatre and watching an enthusiastic audience giving a standing ovation and knowing that I made that happen, whether it's James Brown in Liberia, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf in London or Checkmates on Broadway."

King is currently in the midst of producing The National Black Touring Circuit's 2014 Black History Month Play Festival, which showcases biographical tributes to visionary African American cultural heroes in entertainment. He founded the touring circuit in 1974 as a community-based initiative to make existing black theatre productions available to a larger audience.

The remaining programming of this year's festival include a "Great Divas of Gospel" tribute the New York Academy of Medicine, 103rd St. & Fifth Avenue (Feb. 22- Feb. 23); Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holiday starring Vanessa Rubin (Feb. 28–March 2) at National Black Theater; and special readings of the Ossie Davis play The People of Clarendon County (Feb. 23 and Feb. 28) at National Black Theater.

He's happy to have all the productions for the festival performed in Harlem this year, adding that each of the productions "brings a significant historic story about these African American cultural visionaries, who continued to create their art and messages while facing discrimination."

And for the company's 44th anniversary gala, New Federal Theatre will honor another black theatre pioneer, Voza Rivers, the founding member of New Heritage Repertory Theatre. The fundraising event, hosted by award-winning actors Danny Glover and Debbi Morgan, is co-chaired by Harry Belafonte and former New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins and will feature performances by Daniel Beatty and Grammy Award winner Valerie Simpson, among others.

King is making sure this year's gala, held at the BMCC Tribeca Performing Arts Center March 16, will extol the virtues of one of one of the country's leading African American theatre producers.

"Voza Rivers took the reigns of the fledging Roger Furman New Heritage Repertory when Roger died and he works primarily in Harlem," he said. "The wider theatre community need to know that he is responsible for bringing the first South African plays with South African artists to Harlem, They need to know that he is responsible for the Academy Award nominated Impact Repertory Theatre, comprised of 25 pre-teens and teen performers. They need to know he put together the much need Harlem Arts Alliance, which is an alliance totaling 400 smaller arts organizations."