Woodie King Jr. always had a gift for teasing talent from unconventional sources. One young playwright was minister of culture for the Black Panther Party. Another had an idea for a dance drama about the Chinese laborers who lay track for the transcontinental railroad. A third was working on an unclassifiable artscape in which traditional boundaries between poetry, music, dance and drama blurred, fused, blossomed, punched and grieved, in a kind of communal lava lamp.
Each time an insistent musicality peeked through the verbiage of an embryonic work, King would make sure his latest protégé was seen and heard even while he kept a low profile pulling strings from the back office.
Perhaps that will change on Sunday, when Broadway’s establishment belatedly acknowledges King’s contribution to American theater over the past six decades with a special Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre award. The medallion takes on greater meaning when one realizes that King’s name has never been spelled out in either light bulbs or pixels on a Broadway marquee.
King, 84, belongs to a generation of ambitious literary émigrés who made their way to the perimeters of the commercial theater from such exotic locales as Alabama (where King was born), Missouri, Texas or the Bronx, New York. Beginning in the middle of the last century, they nourished Broadway (even when too many of their ideas went into Broadway’s blender and came out as vanilla smoothies).
Smoothies, however, were never on King’s menu. The Tony Award citation acknowledges this:
“The mission of New Federal Theatre, founded by Woodie King Jr. in 1970, is to integrate artists of color and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession, and by presenting plays by writers of color and women to integrated, multicultural audiences — plays that evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re–creations of ourselves.”
The cage-rattling works described above were Ed Bullins’ The Taking of Miss Janie (1975), a violent parable about rape, wishful thinking and crossed wires; David Henry Hwang’s elegiac The Dance and the Railroad (1981); and Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1976), a work so genre-averse it demanded its own neologism: choreopoem.
When King arrived in New York from Detroit in 1964, he was intent on making his way as an actor. The wannabes were many; the pickings were meager.
“There was no place for Black actors, Black artists, except in the churches,” he said, digging into eggs over easy and toast at a diner near his home in Washington Heights. “I produced my first play. Otherwise, there was no work. Would I take menial roles, small roles?”
A midtown church played a major part in turning things around for King. While most of the cultural revolution was unfolding below 14th Street at theaters including La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Caffe Cino and the Judson Poets Theater, a new company had settled into St. Clement’s, an underused Episcopal Church on West 46th Street, on the fringes of the Broadway district. The American Place Theatre and its artistic director, Wynn Handman, flipped the bird at Broadway commercialism, drafting literary lights untested by the demands of the stage. The American Place was launched in 1964 with U.S. poet laureate Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory, a trilogy that starred a young Frank Langella as captain of a slave ship, and Roscoe Lee Browne as the agitator who leads an insurrection. Buzz coming out of the rehearsals sparked interest among the Manhattan literati just as King’s friendship with Handman was taking root.
“I was at all those meetings with all the great artists,” King recalled. “Robert Penn Warren, Ralph Ellison. We were not interested exclusively in Black literature or white literature. I was interested in literature, wherever it came from. We talked about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg. I brought in all the Black actors that they needed. It was a wonderful cast and I became friends with them. Roscoe and I became friends, and Wynn and I became friends, and we stayed friends forever.”
New York had a rich history of ambitious theater companies giving voice to outcasts, outliers and others who didn’t fit the standard bill. Most of them opened with fireworks, only to fizzle out when they couldn’t compete with Broadway. Notably, the American Place and the New Federal Theatre were preceded by Abram Hill and Frederick O’Neal’s American Negro Theater (ANT), whose alumni included Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis. The ANT shut down in 1949 after nearly a decade of producing works by authors ranging from Sean O’Casey to Henry and Phoebe Ephron. Their vision was quite uncomplicated: Tell truthful stories — and don’t leave anyone out.
The key, for King, was hearing music in the words. “Some people understand this,” he said. “It’s always about the rhythm of a play. The musicality that is found in a play is found in Black music. And that’s what I looked for, that’s what seemed to work.”
After several years of working both off-Broadway and on — including his 1968 Broadway acting debut in the cast of Howard Sackler’s The Great White Hope — King started his own company, which he named Woodie King’s New Federal Theatre, to honor the corps of theater artists formed under- President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration.
In his words, “I started the New Federal Theatre after having read a lot about John Houseman and Orson Welles. We were coming-of-age having studied the great writers of our time, like Tennessee Williams.”
The theater’s first production in 1970 was Williams’ one-act play, Suddenly, Last Summer. “I was into multiethnic casting, and I said, ‘This will really, really work with a Black Catherine.’ Dr. Sugar was Asian. Tennessee Williams came down to see her last performance and said he loved it. I thought, ‘Man, I wish he could have seen it early on.’ ”
The training King had received in Detroit was amplified in the anything-goes cultural cauldrons with Joseph Papp and Handman, along with other visionaries, including Ellen Stewart at La MaMa, Joe Cino at Caffe Cino and Al Carmines at the Judson Poets Theater. Writers would get their sea legs at New Federal — at the time, it was located in the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side — and then, move on to Papp’s nonprofit Public Theater or the American Place, and even, on occasion, to Broadway itself.
When Papp introduced a young Chinese American writer to the world in 1980 with FOB, by Hwang, King commissioned his second work, The Dance and the Railroad, which not only illuminated an overlooked historical moment, but also made a star of John Lone (The Last Emperor). Hwang would go on to write the Tony-winning M. Butterfly, and, more recently, the political musical Soft Power. He has also become a prominent figure at the American Theatre Wing, the nonprofit group that founded and co-produces the Tony Awards.
“We were given a lot of freedom to create,” Hwang told me in a telephone conversation. “Woodie led, he really just gave us the space and let us make the thing that we had to make. I think he came and saw some run-throughs and gave notes. What mattered is that he wasn’t only interested in Black plays.”
The luminaries who have passed through the doors of the New Federal Theatre, whether onstage or in its training programs, amount to a compendium of bold-face names: Chadwick Boseman, Debbie Allen, Morgan Freeman, Phylicia Rashad, Denzel Washington, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Issa Rae. It was at the New Federal that I first saw André De Shields, a Tony winner for Hadestown, playing King Nebuchadnezzar in a loopy but weirdly moving biblical farce by Lonnie Carter called The Sovereign State of Boogedy Boogedy. And it was here that King mounted the first version of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, by an unknown poet and dancer from New Jersey who had changed her name from Paulette Williams to Ntozake Shange.
I asked King how that had come about.
“Her sister, Ifa Bayeza, worked at Henry Street Settlement and we had done a play by her called Drink Water,” King recalled. “She told us that her sister had written some things that would fit with us, and I should go and see it. They were developing it at a theater on East 3rd Street. And I went over and I saw the play and I brought it to Henry Street.” He’d been knocked out, he said, by Shange’s integration of words, music and movement — by the work’s musicality, in particular.
“Have you ever seen Alvin Ailey’s Revelations?” he asked. “There’s no difference. You feel the same thing, you feel the same thing when you hear Smokey Robinson, when you hear Sam Cooke. What is that thing? That thing that you hear is the spirituality in their voice or the movement, the devil, music.
“Watch The Temptations when David Ruffin was with them, there’s a spirituality, there’s a sound in his voice,” King continued, and now he’s on a roll, his reverberant baritone suddenly animating the glassware. It’s the musicality all around us, or, rather, all through us, he said: “And when you do a play or you read that play, you can see it.”
Never one to rest on his laurels, King is still looking forward. He’s in production on an all-star revival of Paul Osborn’s Morning’s at Seven. The cast includes Lindsay Crouse, Alma Cuervo, Judith Ivey, Dan Lauria, Patty McCormack, Tony Roberts, John Rubinstein, Keri Safran and Jonathan Spivey. The director is Dan Wackerman. The associate director is Elizabeth Van Dyke, King’s wife and successor as artistic director of the theater he founded half a century ago. And talk about full circle: The show will run at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on West 46th Street, the space where a Detroit transplant first made his mark.
“I wanted to start something where African Americans and women would work in this business,” King told me. “All I wanted to do was get the plays to a larger audience.
“And I would like to say New Federal Theatre had a lot to do with that.”