Thirty years ago, when Woodie King Jr. founded the New Federal Theatre (NFT) on the Lower East Side, he was a virtually unknown out-of-town African-American actor-director-producer-writer who was, as he told Back Stage in an interview this week, "young enough not to know all the problems and impediments, and to be eager to be a part of the American theatre."
King's background involved acting in plays in college in Detroit and building a small theatre troupe in the Motor City, called Concept East, which led to a fortuitous opportunity. "Out of that theatre we had a show called 'Boy and Study in Color,' two one-act plays by Rev. Malcolm Boyd," he recalled. While still in his teens he directed and produced the plays, and acted in one, and then "we toured those plays to churches across the United States through something called the Episcopal Society for Racial and Cultural Unity.
"One of the places we ended up was New York, and I just loved the place—it was 1964, alive and active—and I just stayed." He soon got involved with a 1970 Mobilization for Youth theatre program, funded by the Henry Street Settlement with a small grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, which eventually became NFT.
In the three decades since, King and the New Federal have worked "to integrate minorities and women into the mainstream of American theatre, by training artists and presenting plays by minorities and women to multicultural audiences." Not just any plays, however, but those that "evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re-creations of ourselves."
New Federal has succeeded in its mission, having produced more than 175 plays by such authors as Amiri Baraka, David Henry Hwang, and Ntozake Shange. King is very proud of his successes—and just as annoyed that despite launching the careers of minority directors, designers, and actors (including Taurean Blacque, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Garrett Morris, Phylicia Rashad, Esther Rolle, Reginald Vel Johnson, and Denzel Washington), "In 35 years we've never really been recognized by the New York critical establishment, because the committees that decide awards don't have time to learn about Afrocentric plays and ideas."
Minority theatre artists—whether working as performers, directors, or dramatists—must get the backing of a mainstream theatre to succeed, he said. "August Wilson gets the power through an institution like Yale University putting its imprimatur on his work. You need that kind of endorsement."
Even the New Federal has operated on that understanding, he acknowledged. "When we had a relationship with the late Joseph Papp, we moved 10 or 15 plays to the Public Theatre. We also had a relationship with Wynn Handman at the American Place Theatre, and that worked extremely well. It had their imprimatur." Without that working relationship with Papp and Handman, however, critics neglect much of the work his company presents. "The New York critical establishment feels more comfortable going to the American Place or at the Public. They don't feel they're going to get 'beat over the head,' even though those who come to the New Federal know that in 30 years they've never been 'beat over the head.'
"When Joseph Papp was alive I knew that if a play got good reviews I could move it to one of his theatres and if it did well there, the Shuberts or Nederlanders would be interested in moving it to Broadway. That does not happen anymore. Now I could have a play with lines around the block, and the Broadway producers won't take a chance."
Without groups like his having access to Broadway, King sees little chance of mainstream theatre "breaking with a long tradition of Eurocentricity, a sensibility that permeates the American theatre." He is happy to see more African-American performers winning Tony Awards these days, including Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Heather Headley, but said, "Recreations of things like 'Kiss Me, Kate,' and Whoopi Goldberg taking a role in 'A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum' is not changing the European sensibility at all."
Interestingly, one artist who he thinks is changing that sensibility is a white Broadway director, Julie Taymor. "But she was working with black actors before it became fashionable, and her sensibility comes out of the nonprofit theatre," he pointed out.
And although there are an increasing number of institutions and theatres producing "very cutting edge" African-American works, such as the Hunts Point Cultural Center in the Bronx and the Fleet Black Cultural Arts Series in Queens, that doesn't mean there is necessarily a correspondingly larger funding pie to share. "That means the slices of the pie have to get smaller," he pointed out.
"A lot of the foundations are now recognizing the contributions of those new groups, even though much of the New York critical establishment doesn't recognize their contributions. That, and the fact that a lot of the larger institutions are dealing in multicultural programming, really cuts into the pie."
Later this month, on Sun., March 25, Debbie Allen, Avery Brooks, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Shirley Verrett, and Susan Taylor will host a gala performance at Broadway's Majestic Theatre to honor King and the New Federal Theatre's 30th anniversary.
Tickets and additional information are available at (212) 353-1176 or www.metrobase.com/newfederal.