King was born in Mobile Alabama on July 27, 1937. At the age of five, he moved with his parents, Woodie Sr. and Ruby Johnson King, to Detroit, where he spent the rest of his youth. By the time he was 11 or 12 years old, King was supplementing his family’s income, which consisted primarily of Ruby’s housework wages, by modeling for church fans and calendars.
King became interested in acting while in his teens, influenced particularly by Sidney Poitier’s Oscar nominated 1958 performances in the film The Defiant Ones. During his last year at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, King was offered a scholarship to the Will-O-Way School of Theatre in suburban Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. At Will-O-Way, King had the opportunity to study with such luminaries as Vincent Price and Helen Hayes, and students acted as apprentices with the stock theater affiliated with the school. Nevertheless, King was frustrated by the lack of parts well suited for black actors. With the support of one of his teachers, he undertook to educate himself in the history and state of black theater and literature.
In addition to his work at Will-O-Way, King attended Wayne State University in Detroit for two years of postgraduate study in theater. Still aggravated by the problems black actors faced in finding roles in classic plays, he teamed up with several other black theater students at Wayne State to found a new community-based black theater company, called Concept-East, based in a Detroit bar that could fit 100 seats. King served as director and manager of Concept-East from 1960 to 1963. He also turned to writing short stories.
One of the plays produced by Concept-East was Study in Color, by Reverend Malcolm Boyd, a white chaplain at Wayne State. King brought a touring production of the show to New York in 1964, where it played at Union Theological Seminary and the American Place Theatre. Rather than return to Detroit, King chose to stay in New York, where he continued working at the American Place, staging five plays there. Later that year, King was named cultural arts director of Mobilization for Youth, an antipoverty program aimed at providing arts training for minority children.
During the second half of the 1960s, King established a reputation as a leading authority on black theater. He wrote frequently for a number of periodicals on the need for more theaters serving black communities. In 1966 he produced The Weary Blues, an adaptation of Langston Hughes’s poetry for the stage. Black Quartet, which he produced in 1969, was a series of four one-act plays by dramatists of the Black Arts movement.
In 1970, King founded a new company, the New Federal Theatre, based at the Henry Street Settlement. The New Federal Theatre (NFT), named after the Harlem-based, government-funded troupe of the 1930s, remained King’s base of operations for the next thirty years. King envisioned the NFT as a community-based theater that promoted the work of writers from diverse ethnic backgrounds and offered it to the community for free admission. The no-admission policy had to be abandoned in the late 1970s, but the organization has remained committed to seeking out the work of minority playwrights, particularly new black writers, whenever possible. 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. Among the playwrights whose work King produced were Ron Milner, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka and Ntozake Shange.
In early 2000, King was saluted with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by Wayne State University in his hometown of Detroit. By that time, he had produced some 160 plays, become a grandfather of three, and been immortalized with the creation of a drama award in St. Louis called the Woodie.
Unfortunately, the same economic forces that led King to start his own theater company to begin with— namely, the difficulty in getting deserving works by black playwrights produced in mainstream theaters— are still in place. King believes the solution today is the same as it was at the beginning of his career. “If I were to start a theater now,” he was quoted by TheaterMania.com, “it would be for the same reason: to produce plays that I don’t see being done. Aside from that, there’s no reason for doing it other than ego satisfaction.”
Milly Barranger is an author, educator, and producer and lives in New York City where she writes books about women and the modern American theater.
She is Dean Emerita of the College of Fellows of the American Theatre. She has served on boards of the Paul Green Foundation, the National Theatre Conference, The College of Fellows of the American Theatre, and the League of Professional Theatre Women. She has also served as Past President of the National Theatre Conference and the American Theatre Association. She holds the title of Distinguished Professor Emerita of Dramatic Art from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she served concurrently as chairwoman of the Department of Dramatic Art and producing director of PlayMakers Repertory Company, a member of the League of Resident Theatres. She received the 2009 Outstanding Teacher of Theatre in Higher Education Award from the Association of Theatre in Higher Education and the New England Theatre Conference 2010 Special Award for Outstanding Achievement in the American Theatre.
Recent books include Audrey Wood and the Playwrights; A Gambler's Instinct: The Story of Broadway Producer Cheryl Crawford ; Margaret Webster: A Life in the Theater; Unfriendly Witnesses: Gender, Theater, and Film in the McCarthy Era; Theatre: A Way of Seeing (seven editions); and Understanding Plays (three editions). She is coeditor of The Group Theatre: Passion, Politics, and Performance in the Depression Era by Helen Krich Chinoy; and coeditor of Notable Women in the American Theatre: A Biographical Dictionary; and she has compiled reference works on Margaret Webster and Jessica Tandy. She is at work on a book entitled The Group Theatre's Women: A Cautionary Tale.
She has lectured at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts on Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford and on stage director Margaret Webster and the 1943 Broadway production of Othello with Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, and José Ferrer.
More at: http://www.millybarranger.com/
What have you seen as positive change in the theatre in your lifetime? Are there negatives?
The positive change is that the quality of our work has vastly improved in my lifetime. The negative is that the popularity of the American Outdoor Historical Drama is waning.
3. What is the best piece of advice you were ever given?
From Mark Sumner, the outgoing director of the Institute of Outdoor Drama when I was following him in the job: “Don’t get stuck in this chair. Go out and see what’s being done across the country.” Did or didn't you follow it? Indeed, I did follow it for my 18 years at the IOD, and I would visit as many as 25 outdoor theatres (history plays, Shakespeare festivals and religious dramas in 38 states), each summer season. What were the consequences? I had a reading of the pulse of the outdoor theatre genre in the U.S., and could address trends and concerns that best served the movement.
Margot Harley co-founded The Acting Company with the late John Houseman in 1972. She co-produced the Broadway productions of The Robber Bridegroom and The Curse of an Aching Heart with Faye Dunaway. She produced John Houseman's celebrated revival of Marc Blitzstein's musical play The Cradle Will Rock in New York and at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Off-Broadway, she produced Ten by Tennessee, a two evening retrospective of Tennessee Williams' one-act plays directed by Michael Kahn at The Lucille Lortel Theater, and the New York premiere of Eric Overmyer's On the Verge, directed by Garland Wright at The John Houseman Theater. She was Administrator of the Drama Division of The Juilliard School for its first twelve years, from 1968 to 1980. Prior to that she appeared in numerous Broadway and off-Broadway productions as an actress and dancer. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she attended LAMDA on a Fulbright Scholarship.
Influences and Changes
by D.L. Rosenberg - 2/19/17
As a teenager growing up in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan in the mid-nineteen fifties, I was taken by my cousin Ann, a concert pianist, to what was to make an indelible impression on my imagination. I did not understand it at the time but Brecht’s THREE PENNY OPERA at the Theatre de Lys on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village introduced me to a wondrous world of whores, thieves and corrupt politicians who certainly were not common characters on the polite drawing room stages of those days.
Marc Blitzstein’s text, Kurt Weiil’s music, Brecht, and what I later understood to be a magnificent performance by a woman named Lotte Lenya, in a small theatre with a shower curtain backdrop, simply became the most exciting thing I had ever seen. While I had been thrilled by the original production of OKLAHOMA on Broadway, this was “something else.” The eight-piece German ratskeller band, the thrilling words and music in the tongue-in-cheek satire and the messages sung directly to the audience by actors who stepped out of character showed me a new world of theatre. “What keeps a man alive? He lives on others.”
I thought it would be fitting to begin with the protean and erstwhile peripatetic Ted Herstand, who started the ball rolling while the subway rolled uptown. - David Fuller, NTC Vice President
My first experience with Miss Mullin was at the age of nine or ten when I became a student in her Saturday classes, one class for the younger children, one class for the older. I started in the early class, for one dollar per year, which my parents told me they could afford. The fee was obviously not for profit, but rather to make it seem more important to the kids. As I later figured out, this was the perfect class for developing some of the child and juvenile actors used in the theatre company's major productions. Soon I learned that it also could provide training for a life in the theatre in every other aspect of theatre employment and, of course, for the development for future audience members.
The genesis of the Living Legacies series began during a conversation I had on the Uptown No. 2 Train (7th Ave. Express) during the 2015 NTC Conference, when I shared the trip to Harlem with long-time member Ted Herstand. We talked about one thing and another, but got around to personal history and Ted told me some interesting tales of his time as a child actor at the Cleveland Playhouse in the 40's, as well as working in radio and early TV. With the passing this spring of my father, I got to thinking about lives lived and how often stories remain untold. Fortunately for my family my Dad wrote some of his stories down.
But what of our NTC family? Are we preserving the past for the future? Our members all have lived and are living wonderful, full lives, specifically in the theatre and in show business generally. Certainly, many have written books, but some books don't get written simply because the potential writer is too busy living! Living Legacies is an attempt to bridge that gap.
- David Fuller, NTC Vice President
CELEBRATING AND PRESERVING THE WISDOM OF OUR MEMBERS