For Pioneering Black Theater, A Season-Long Salute New York's Negro Ensemble Company helped launch the careers of many a notable name — and it was a first-of-its-kind venue for black playwrights writing about the African-American experience. Margot Adler reports on its lasting influence.
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For Pioneering Black Theater, A Season-Long Salute

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For Pioneering Black Theater, A Season-Long Salute

For Pioneering Black Theater, A Season-Long Salute

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The Signature Theater Company is an odd duck on Broadway. It made its name by focusing each season on a single playwright. This year's subject at the Signature, though, is another theater company, the Negro Ensemble Company. That groundbreaking troupe was founded in the 1960s, a time when there were few outlets for black plays or playwrights.

Now, the Negro Ensemble Company, or NEC, has been a launching pad for actors - Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L. Jackson. It's also been a magnet for awards - Tonys, Obies, Pulitzers. NPR's Margot Adler reports, many of its plays, though, have been forgotten, until now.

MARGOT ADLER: The first play that the Signature Ensemble Company is presenting is a sprawling multigenerational family drama, "The First Breeze of Summer," written by Leslie Lee. The Negro Ensemble Company originally produced it in 1975.

And today, the theater is packed every night with people of every race, every age wearing every style of clothing. Tickets are subsidized, $20, amazingly low for off-Broadway. Overflow audiences sit in the aisles. Jim Houghton is the founder and artistic director of the Signature Theater Company.

Mr. JIM HOUGHTON (Founder, Signature Theater Company): If you got on the subway train right now, that's our audience. It represents every economic class. It represents every color. It represents age.

ADLER: And the good news, he says, is, if you make it accessible, this is an audience hungry for the theater, and they'll come. There are many stories in the "The First Breeze of Summer." The central one is that of a bright college-bound African-American man coming of age, uncomfortable in his own black skin, who idolizes his grandmother as a perfect sexless creature who has raised three children heroically.

He comes to learn that she, like most human beings, made compromises that fly in the face of his rigid view of perfection. Ruben Santiago-Hudson worked with the Negro Ensemble Company many years ago, and now he directs Leslie Lee's play, a drama where you see the world from inside a black family.

Mr. RUBEN SANTIUAGO-HUDSON (Actor-Director): It's a play written by a black playwright that his whole world doesn't evolve around white people. It's about us in this house, you know, everyday living and loving and laughing and crying and arguing. And so it's a play just about family, like, say, "Biloxi Blues" or "Brighton Beach Memoirs." You know, it's about a family. And so it can be done in China or Italy or Poland, and I think it would still be profound.

(Soundbite of gospel singing)

ADLER: There is music in the play and very real family scenes that give many in the audience a shock of recognition. At one point, a minister comes to the house. Jim Houghton.

Mr. HOUGHTON: The family's gathered, and the older generation is testifying, and...

Soundbite of play "The First Breeze of Summer")

Mr. HOUGHTON: And the preacher turns to the rest of the family and says, perhaps one of the young members of the family would like to testify. And there's just that, oh my God, do I have to testify? And it's just a wonderful family moment that I think is very insightful and sort of beautiful.

ADLER: And you can see some people in the audience laughing knowingly. But by the end of the play, all kinds of issues of identity and shame, feelings about race, self-worth, and sexuality are explored, not to mention differences that take place as succeeding generations become more educated and prosperous. Santiago-Hudson says most African-American plays have remained unfamiliar to theater goers.

Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: I want people to realize the importance of the work of African-American writers, how entertaining they are, how educating and enlightening and entertaining at the same time. And so I haven't seen a retrospective like this in 25 years I've been here. And not only do I want people to see these plays and do them, I want them to teach these plays. I mean, in grad school, I was in a course called the development of the drama, I read 35 plays. Not one was black.

ADLER: And Santiago-Hudson is making another point. Ignoring these plays hurts everyone because theater is one of the best ways to experience another culture.

Mr. SANTIAGO-HUDSON: Because you actually go home with people, opposed to looking at their photographs or looking at their art or listening to their music. You go into their homes. You see their sweat. You see spit flying out of their mouth. You smell them. The first time I went home with an Irish family was in an Irish play, Jewish friends in a Jewish play. And I was like, wow, we're the same. So theater is that immediate entrance into another culture.

ADLER: The Negro Ensemble Company was founded in 1965 on the heels of the 1959 long-running drama "A Raisin in the Sun," which brought many African-American artists together. The founders of the NEC, playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone took that energy and pushed forward to create a new company devoted to black theater.

The Negro Ensemble Company still exists and puts on one production a year. But for Jim Houghton of The Signature Theater Company, this is a very appropriate moment to look back at the legacy of the NEC.

Mr. HOUGHTON: The work was very exciting. And over 200 new plays, three of them moved to Broadway. There were multiple workshops, free workshops for artists. It was clear that there was a need here. So I guess what I'm hoping we do over the course of this year is really reflect on that, celebrate it, put it in a context of our canon of work as a society.

ADLER: And he notes, we planned this several years ago, but it's an interesting year to raise all these questions. "The Breeze of Summer" has been extended until the middle of October. "Home," by Samm-Art Williams, opens in November. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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