The list of alums of the Negro Ensemble Company reads like a who’s who of prominent black actors: Phylicia Rashad. Denzel Washington. Laurence Fishburne. Samuel L. Jackson.
In the 1970s, the NEC was the place for a black actor to get noticed. But after a long period of decline, the company has produced only a few shows in the last several years, and most of them in small theaters with low budgets.
Charles Weldon, a 38-year vet of the org and its current a.d., hopes all that is about to change.
Off Broadway’s Signature Theater has opted to stage an entire season of NEC revivals, a slate that includes Leslie Lee’s 1974 drama “The First Breeze of Summer”(bowing Aug. 5), 1984’s “Home” by Samm-Art Williams (Nov. 11) and Charles Fuller’s 1981 play “Zooman and the Sign” (March 3).
It’s a change for the Signature — in the past, the org has nearly always focused on a single author like August Wilson or Arthur Miller. But a.d. Jim Houghton says that the NEC season fits in perfectly.
“It’s an expansion of what we already do,” Houghton explains. “We usually celebrate and honor a writer, and now we can do that with a company that has the same heft that a writer has.”
With Weldon actively working to make the NEC solvent again, alums like Tony winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson (director of “Seven Guitars”) hope the Signature shows will create interest in the company.
“I want to remind my colleagues and friends and those that might have the wherewithal to fund these kinds of plays to step up to the plate. Where’s ‘The River Niger?’ ” asks Santiago-Hudson, who is directing “Breeze” for the upcoming series.
So what happened to the company that premiered Fuller’s Pulitzer winner (and basis for the Norman Jewison film) “A Soldier’s Play” with Washington, Jackson and the late Adolph Caesar?
“Financial ruin,” Santiago-Hudson says simply.
In its heyday, NEC connections helped aspiring creatives get a foot in the door. “People would go out to Hollywood and lie!” laughs NEC founder Douglas Turner Ward. “They’d say they had been to the NEC, and they would get the part. When you had been in an NEC production, you at least got a hearing.”
But the 1980s saw changes in the regulations governing nonprofit arts orgs and their funding, which cut the NEC off at the knees.
“The Reagan period really put a nail in the coffin of major Off Broadway productions,” Ward recalls. “The foundations weren’t allowed to give any institution more than a third of their budget, and then we were dependent on public funding.”
The NEC had been drawing nearly all of its budget from the Ford Foundation, and while other orgs were able to weather the storm, the NEC ended up making do however it could, sometimes with entire seasons of one-acts or readings series. It’s a source of frustration to everyone involved.
Santiago-Hudson, Ward and Weldon all praise Houghton for the choice to program the season, but everyone, including Houghton, wishes the NEC didn’t need the aid.
“I hope it pays off, to stimulate the autonomous movement,” Ward says. “The kindness of strangers doesn’t matter. The decisionmaking process has to have blacks in charge, making final decisions on a regular basis. It’s wonderful that they decided to honor the history, but we need a self-perpetuating major black company producing regularly.”