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Negro Ensemble Company to Launch 50th Season with DAY OF ABSENCE

To launch its 50th anniversary season, The Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) will revisit its very first production, "Day of Absence" (1966) by Douglas Turner Ward, with an eight-performance run December 4-11 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Mark's Place. The season will include three more productions at Theatre 80 St. Marks and one at La MaMa.

"Day of Absence" is one of the most famous contributions of Black playwrights to the Off-Broadway movement in the 1960's. The play jokes wildly about a Southern town on a day when all its Negroes mysteriously vanish. Bereft of its floor-sweepers, porters, cooks, shoe-shiners, maids and baby-nurses, the town is having a fearsome day as its very economy and social structure are breaking down. The "Clan" blames the Mayor and the Mayor blames the "Clan." Policemen are deprived of their daily quota of Negro arrests. Household disasters threaten the collapse of Dixie femininity and Southern Belledom. The Social Welfare department, lacking shirkers to "rehabilitate through positive participation" (uplift with non-paying jobs), is inconsolable. The town cannot even import convicts, an otherwise reliable source of Negroes, to fill the gap. The Mayor melts down from begging the whole formerly unappreciated class of citizens to return. The whole town, venting its frustration, goes from madness to submission. The play frolics like "Laugh In," uncensored and on steroids. Many of the white characters are played by Black actors in whiteface. Scholars now consider the play an example of the best non-musical satire of its period. It still offers important commentary on race in America at a time when race and bigotry are again in the forefront of our national consciousness.

"Day of Absence" (directed by the author) was produced in a double-bill with Mr. Ward's "Happy Ending" (directed by Philip Meister) at the St. Mark's Playhouse in 1965 and won the Drama Desk Award for Playwriting in 1966. Its success and the support of the Ford Foundation enabled Mr. Ward, together with producer/actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald S. Krone, to launch the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967 as a performing troupe and training institution based on Brecht's Berliner Ensemble. The institution became a seedbed for generations of African-American actors and created the audience for the cohort of treasured Black playwrights who came after. NEC's awards include a Pulitzer Price (1982, "A Soldier's Play"), two Tony Awards, eleven Obies and many more.

Journalist Jerry Tallmer, who initially discovered the plays of Douglas Turner Ward when he was a critic for the New York Post, recounted the founding of the company in an article in The Villager in 2009 (thevillager.com/villager_301/readingbetween.html). Tallmer noted that Ward and Hooks actually had met while working in a road company of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." He wrote, "Almost every black actor or actress who is now a bright star of the stage, the large screen, or the small screen came to it out of NEC. Just to give an idea, one NEC show alone, Charles Fuller's 1981 Pulitzer-winning 'A Soldier's Play,' gave birth, so to speak, to film and television's Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, and James Pickens, Jr."

This production of "Day of Absence" will be directed by Arthur French, who appeared in the original cast. The one-week run is being offered as a tribute to the company's co-founders: Douglas Turner Ward, Robert Hooks and Gerald S. Krone. The cast will include Charles Weldon, NEC Artistic Director; CeCee Antoinette, a long-time supporter of NEC, and Allie Woods, Hattie Winston and William Jay Marshall, NEC original company members who will reprise the roles they originated in 1965, along with other NEC alumni from 1967.

A talk-back follows the Sunday, Nov. 4 performance. A reception will follow the talk-back; reception tickets are an additional $20.

A Sidewalk Signing and Honors Ceremony will be held Wednesday, November 16 at 4:30 PM onstage at Theater 80 in which Douglas Turner Ward will add his signature and hand prints to Theatre 80's Sidewalk of Stars, which includes Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Alan Cumming and many other lights of theater.

Scenic design is by Patrice Davidson. Lighting design is by Alex Moore. Sound design is by Jacqueline Anscombe.

IF YOU GO:
DAY OF ABSENCE
December 4-11, 2016
Theatre 80 St. Marks, 80 St. Mark's Place
Opens Sunday, December 4 at 3:00 PM. Plays through December 11: Mon, Tue, Th, Fri, Sat at 7:00 PM; Sun, Dec. 11 at 3:00 PM and 7:00 PM.
Presented by Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (www.necinc.org)
Tickets $18; Students, students and groups $15
Box office: (212) 868-4444, www.necinc.org. Group sales 212-582-5860
Running time: 1 hour. Critics are invited to all performances.

Director Arthur French is a leading figure in Black Theater in NYC. In a career spanning over 50 years, he has worked extensively with the Negro Ensemble Company and has acted a wide variety of roles both on and off Broadway. His Broadway acting resume includes "Dividing the Estate" by Horton Foote, August Wilson's "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and most recently, "The Trip to Bountiful" with Cicely Tyson. Has directed plays at New Federal Theatre, Classical Theatre of Harlem, Africa Arts Theatre Company and The Morningside Players, among others.

Douglas Turner Ward made his Broadway debut acting a small role in "A Raisin in the Sun." However, his first significant artistic achievement was as a playwright when "Happy Ending/Day of Absence," a program of two one-act plays, premiered at the St. Mark's Playhouse in Manhattan on November 15, 1965 and ran for 504 performances. Ward received a Drama Desk Award for playwriting. In 1967, he co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company and served for many years as its Artistic Director. He is also author of "The Reckoning" (1969), "Brotherhood" (1970) and "The Redeemer" (1983). He directed these and "The First Breeze of Summer" (1975), "Daddy Goodness" (1968), "Zooman and the Sign" (1980) and "A Soldier's Play" (1982). He has received two Tony Awards and two more nominations, three Drama Desk Awards and three more nominations. Nine of his productions were staged at St. Mark's Playhouse, two at Theatre Four and one at Lucille Lortel Theatre. Beside "A Raisin in the Sun," he acted in "Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (St. Mark's Playhouse, 1969), "The River Niger" (1972, St. Mark's Playhouse), "The First Breeze of Summer" (1975, St. Mark's Playhouse) and "Tigues" (1983, Theatre Four) and various other plays with NEC.

Since NEC officially began in 1967, it has nurtured numerous emerging Black playwrights, launching the careers of such eminent dramatists as Charles Fuller ("A Soldier's Play"), Samm-Art Williams ("HOME") and Steve Carter ("Eden," "Nevis Mountain Dew"), NEC's premiere playwriting instructor. NEC has produced more than two hundred new plays and provided a theatrical home for more than four thousand cast and crew members. Among its ranks have been some of the best Black actors in television and film, including Samuel L. Jackson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Denzel Washington, Adolph Ceasar, Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Phylicia Rashad, and BeBe Drake. The NEC is respected worldwide for its commitment to excellence and has won dozens of honors and awards. It exists as a constant source of sustenance for Black actors, directors, and writers as they work to break down walls of racial prejudice. (www.necinc.org)

Pictured: "Day of Absence" by Douglas Turner Ward, 1967. Robert Hooks and Barbara Ann Teer. Photo by Bert Williams.


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