Douglas Turner Ward, who in 1967 co-founded the New York City theatre organization Negro Ensemble Company, died February 20 at the age of 90. His death was confirmed to The New York Times by his wife, Diana Ward.
Through his work with the company, which saw works play Broadway and Off-Broadway stages, Mr. Ward established himself as a multi-disciplinary theatre creator, working as a director, an actor, and a playwright. Through all of his artistic endeavors, he remained stalwart in his ethos as an advocate and a voice for racial equity.
The impetus for the Negro Ensemble Company was a 1966 essay Mr. Ward wrote, titled “American Theater: For Whites Only?,” for The New York Times. At the time, a double bill of his plays Happy Ending and Day of Absence were running at St. Mark’s Playhouse (which would later become home base for N.E.C.). Among its propositions was the immediate formation of “a permanent Negro repertory company of at least Off-Broadway size and dimension.”
The publication of the piece resulted in a $434,000 grant from Ford Foundation Vice President of Humanities and the Arts W. McNeil Lowry to make this call to action a reality. Mr. Ward served as artistic director, with Robert Hooks as executive director and Gerald S. Krone as administrative director. Two years later, they were named recipients of a Special Tony Award.
Prior to N.E.C.’s founding, Mr. Ward had written (the aforementioned double bill) and acted for the stage; he had appeared in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh at The Circle in the Square Theatre (prior to the company becoming a commercial space on Broadway) and as an understudy in the original Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun.
Directing followed, not solely as a replacement but also an addition to his artistic duties. He both directed and performed in Joseph A. Walker’s The River Niger and Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer, which both transferred from St. Mark’s Playhouse to Broadway. The former won the 1974 Tony for Best Play (Mr. Ward was attached to the win as a producer) and saw Mr. Ward nominated for his performance. The River Niger also featured Charles Weldon, who passed away this past December.
Among his myriad additional credits included writing and directing the one-act Brotherhood, as well as helming the world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Soldier’s Play. Nearly four decades later, a production of Charles Fuller’s work opened on Broadway courtesy of Roundabout Theatre Company, opening in January 2020 and playing up until the coronavirus shutdown. Kenny Leon, who directed the production, expressed gratitude for the late Mr. Ward, calling him a “great and mighty Theatre Legend.” Mr. Ward was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1996.
Mr. Ward was born Roosevelt Ward Jr., May 5, 1930, and grew up in New Orleans. He attended Wilberforce University of Ohio and University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, but left before graduating to move to New York City. His professional name is a testament to his involvement in leftist progressivism, tributing both abolitionist Frederick Douglass and slavery revolter Nat Turner.
He is survived by his wife, their two children (Elizabeth Ward-Cuprill and Douglas Powell Ward), and three grandchildren.