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.”
Woodie King, Jr.
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