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The African American Legend series highlights the accomplishments of blacks in the areas as varied as politics, aviation, business, theater, literature, and religion. We will explore how African Americans have succeeded in areas where they've been previously excluded because of segregation, racism, and lack of opportunity. I'm your host, Dr. Roscoe C. Brown Jr., and Will this today is my friend, Woody King Jr. Director of the New Federal Theatre. Hi Woody, how are you doing? I'd be here again to tell you about what we're doing in the state of black theater. That's what we want to talk about. I've got some interesting things we want to talk about about black theater, but let's start 2006. Black theater has a long, storied tradition. What's going to happen in 2006 with black theater? Okay, I always tell people when they talk to me about what's going to happen. What's the future black theater? The future black theater is exactly where
black Americans are. Whatever the future black Americans are, that's the future black theater. And I think we are in good shape. I think we are in good shape, despite racism, classism, sexism, and all thoseisms that are against us. I think we are in good shape. Why do you think we're in good shape? Given the fact that we have a repressive administration and given the fact that the affirmative action programs are being destroyed, and given the fact that certain racist attitudes, particularly in the conservative media, are being projected. Why do you think we're going to take? Because the young people who are coming along today have access to almost every kind of new technology, and they are using it. They are using it in hip hop. They are using it in radio, television, all kinds of motion pictures. We have young filmmakers who are making major, major breakthroughs. People in theater are just flooding the New York and LA and London scene. And these are black people. Some of them,
and most of them, out of predominantly black universities. That's very interesting, because what that says is, despite the media, which says that African Americans are languishing, particularly after Katrina and so on, that there is a Zeisske's of hope and energy in a young population. Many middle-class black folks don't understand this. Now, part of that's immediate, and part of it is that they will come in contact with people like Woody King Jr. But what these young people are doing, and it's amazing, they are creating their own culture. They're taking the best of what existed and using it and moving on. I mean, whether you deal with hip hop in an old-fashioned way, the new fashion way. But hip hop is really an offshoot of rhythm and blues music, an offshoot of the black portrait of the 60s, and the black power movement, the last poets and all those, are now the major American
rep artists. That is interesting, because I know your son produced a hip hop musical. And you had trouble understanding what was going on there. But I finally got it, you know. And, but I was able to get a young director choreographer who was just getting ready to tour in 25 to direct it in choreographing. He understood everything. He made it happen. A young brother named Regina Maharaj, this mixture of black and Caribbean and Haitian and all those kind of things. So, it's a whole new culture. And this new culture is people by the young people out of these black, predominantly black universities. And what about some of the theater programs, some of the white universities programs that I don't think do much of them. I think they white universities are basically there to perpetuate European and Eurocentric culture. And if you go into them, you really got to still come out and
act on make yourself with black American culture. I mean, they have no interest in Richard Ryan, Ralph Ellis, and even August Wilson in a lot of the white universities. They are interested in the traditional Eurocentric, Russian literature of the past. As you say, arts, theater, and music reflect what's going on in the culture. Yeah. You gave an excellent expectation of what's happening in black culture. And in white culture, there is some tension about incorporating hip hop. Some of the younger white artists want to do more of this. How much has that been influenced by black theater and black music? Well, one of the things that I noticed whether you deal with Britney Spears, whether you're dealing with a new young white artist, Eminem, they are all really produced by major young black producers. It's like amazing how the sound that they come out with is a mixture of, you know, a little whiteness, but a lot of blackness. And so, I'm telling you,
this culture is really changing fast. And it's really predominated by blackness, you know? Well, one of the criticisms hip hop has been given is that some of the music is misogynistic and some of it emphasizes violence. Is that turning around now, so does going more mainstream? Well, if you look at Russell Simmons, Russell Simmons is even turning around. You know, if you look at Pete Diddy, he's turning around, you know? They are moving more away from there. I think that was to get attention. Even Snoop Dogg now is turning around, you know? But it's more that attention that gangsterism, that predominated the culture early on, was really to get attention. Most of those kids who said they were gangsters, was how it universally graduates and Hampton and Clark Atlanta University graduates. Now, but in the sense, wasn't it playing on the white community's view of black folks,
that we are gangsters with those who own respect to women? And many people have been trying to move away from that, and there's been a lot of criticism of it, of course. How are we now? Is it more in terms of dealing with racial pride and male-female relationships and moving ahead? Or is there still some theme of the violence and the sexism that has been in some of the early hip-hop? Well, I think those people who are entering it used that to enter it. Once they get into it, they realize, oh, wow, that's not the way it is at all. I mean, I got to be able to do what I do well. I got to be well trained in it. I got to be well trained in doing work in a studio, whether it's in a TV studio or recording studio. Because the bottom line is, how do you deal with those engineering feats that had been denied us for so long? Well, a lot of times we had to do scratches, create our stuff from the back of a car.
I think what happened is, those people want to enter into whether it's black theater or black music or rhythm and blues, they think it's a certain way. I think the white owners of these record companies and studios lead us to believe it's that way. Then we get in there, these young people are well educated. They don't take them long. They say, oh, wait a minute, this is not the way it is. This is where I can get out of this thing and get my mama house, my daddy house, and pay my girlfriends, some jewelry or something. But after a while, once they get into that, Roscoe, it evaporates within two or three years. Agreed. What does that say about a society that black folks have to act the fool, they used to be the mentors, have to act the fool, and cater to the stereotypes of whites? What does that say about us as a people that we have to do
this? What does it say about society that causes us to do this? Well, I think the society, whether it's black theater, hip hop, etc., those few people who make it, who do very well, those few black people give an image of this ebbity image, of a jet image of white people all around them, and very few of these young people can get to them. They have to go through white people to get to them, so they say, wait a minute, I'm going to make it on my own. I'm going, I mean, these people are not going to help me, because I can get to them for them to help me. You know what I mean? So, by old as Malcolm said, by whatever means necessary, these young people try to attain a certain kind of freedom of expression, freedom of economic freedom, most of all, economic freedom, because, and get-garring those richnesses that they see
are so-called leaders with. You know what I mean? Let's see, what do you think, Junior, and the new federal theater have been doing this for years, making opportunities for young African Americans, and not to young African Americans who want to express themselves through the motor theater. You've been able to survive. What has been the particular message that you've been able to send that attracts people to new federal theater and allows it to survive? Well, I think new federal theater has survived because it is a pass through. I'm, and we have been able to look at young writers who have early plays that, wow, if black people see this, they will appreciate you. Young actors, whether it's Denzel, or Sam Jackson, or Lawrence Fishbird, if people see these brothers, they'll see that they are serious
about what they're going to do. So, come, and this do is open to you. This play is available to you. And if you're a director, whether it's Guild Moses, Michael Schultz, or Scott, or Antizaki Shange, this door is open to you. Now, that does not mean that they can go and make it very well and become very, very rich, and they're going to help this deal. They're not going to help the next person that comes along. They, because they are, uh, New World Riches, they say, you know, they think they're going to lose it next week. So, uh, it is very, very hard to get any kind of continual, uh, support. So, what I think I've been able to do is really look at it very, realistically, I cannot make a living whether I want to or not only doing the theater. I gotta do books. I gotta do films. I gotta go out and give lectures. I gotta teach, you know, and the theater cannot support, uh, uh, me, the way a lot of people want their institutions to support them,
like white institutions support them. We don't have the kind of contributing income. Black people just don't have that kind of money to contribute year after year to help this theater. This is not, um, uh, the Manhattan Theater Club. It is not Lincoln Center or the Roundabout or any of those three or four or five million dollar institutions where the leadership and great staffs keep it going, you know, this is a small operation. That's what we choose to do. Now, you did say something that was very insightful. You said that many of these black actors writers become accepted and make some money do not spend a lot of time or effort bringing along someone else. Now, that has been the tradition of black educators, black ministers to bring people along. Now, you gave explanation that they're afraid they're going to lose something the next day, but that really is not an excuse. It's, it's kind of an insight that they don't have or we as a group don't
press upon them. Occasionally, as celebrity, it won't mention the name will give a million dollars for something. But that's very, very seldom. Is that part of the heritage of a racist tradition that said that black folks really one step away from losing what they have? Because these folks are not one step away from losing what they have. I'm sure you had some conversations with them about that. What kind of insights do you have on that? Well, my first, uh, uh, conversations with, uh, of course with a lot of highly visible artists, right? And, um, these artists feel that they made it, uh, so can the next person. They made it in a sense on their own, all of you. You know, though, you know, that door was opened there for them to walk in. Although, uh, they, uh, really sympathize, uh, they really believe that most black institutions, whether they are 35 years old,
uh, three years old, don't know how money. And so, uh, while they would give a white institution a hundred thousand dollars, they may give a black institution a thousand. While it caused me the same thing to pay an actor that the white institution pays. Because we the same thing to pay for it added in New York Times or anywhere else. And of course, uh, uh, most of the media is so, uh, racist. They don't, I can have Ruby D at a play at my theater. The white media is not going to come and see her, but if she's in a, uh, a play at that white theater, they will flood and give her all kinds of awards. So it's like that kind of, uh, racism, if you will, uh, classism, um, if you will, that, uh, deny us access to the wider audience who will come and buy seats. If it wasn't for, uh, shows like yours and, uh, M-HOTEP Gary Bird and certain black, uh, uh,
media, the black theater would be totally out of business. Well, one of the things I was thinking about, uh, and we talked about in this, uh, African American legends a lot about the tradition or the heritage of, uh, of racism that is affected both the white community and the black community. So we internalize those beliefs, those attitudes. Um, I'm reading a book now about Negro baseball leagues in the 30s and 40s and the struggles that they had. They were supported basically by black number writers and white promoters and the tensions were, but part of that has to do with the fact that the larger white financial community support community is not open to them. What can we do to force that community to do a better job? Because it's not true that our organization are poorly managed financially, we run out of money many times because we don't have enough money. But what are some of the
things that might be done to move that away? For example, you mentioned that many of the artists have white support staff surrounding them and not that white people shouldn't be involved and don't have the skills, but what can we do to get more African Americans into those support staff positions to open up the playing field? Well, if you deal with, uh, major television and Hollywood, that is controlled by white people. So in order for a start to enter into that world, you have to acquiesce the certain rules of that game. So in one of those, some of those rules are business people, accountants, secretaries, etc., uh, white. Is that a rule or is that something that happens by habit? Because we obviously have black business people, accountants, secretaries, computer specialists. Is it something that it's because of the tradition or the contacts or the fact that we're not going to do it hard enough? I think we're not going to do it very hard. That's not
the issue. Like, we, I mean the collective African American community demanding this. Well, let's, again, I don't think, uh, and I love these guys. They go kneel or, um, Chanel or Parsons at those companies. Any kind of sense helping black Americans, they, uh, in a sense, uh, really perpetuate a Eurocentric kind of, uh, domination and, uh, what they've learned how to do is do that. And they're not going to get that position as CEO, unless they do that. So now I'm not going to own doors, uh, whether I'm the, uh, best computer expert in the world, I'm going to be sent to the computer department. That person who's running that department, it'll know me. My black face means absolutely nothing to them. They're going to bring someone in there that they play golf with that they're more familiar with. I'm not going to be able to talk to, uh, Dick Parsons or Chanel or O'Neill. You know, well, this is January.
Yeah. And, uh, Martin Luther King's birthday was on January 15th at National Holiday. Martin Luther King and the people who work with him did change the nation with segregation, legal segregation. They opened some doors. Now the, the next level is widening that door. And what you describe undoubtedly is correct. But I was thinking, why can't the collective African American community begin to say, look, we deserve more of the pie. I noticed that whenever we say that white folks say you had enough, not all white folks, some white folks. So what is it? Is it, is it our consciousness isn't as great? Or is it that our political power isn't as great? What, what do you think? Well, I, uh, when you, when you speak of, uh, Dr. King, who and, uh, sister Rosa Parks and all those people who changed our lives. Um, and you look at, um,
I'm Martin Luther King March today. That march by its very nature includes all these white people saying they have the dream too. Okay. Now once that march is over, they go back to their respective community. They go back to their respective jobs. And it might be one black people work, black person working there. It's not, uh, so what happens is the infiltration, the integration of, uh, our lives, uh, so, uh, perverse in a way that it throws us off. Now, uh, what can we do? We can protest, uh, we can, uh, back people like Al Sharpton, we can back people like, uh, Charles Barron, who, uh, went to protest, anything that's out of line, you know, uh, we can talk about, um, uh, whatever we want to about, uh, black dealer, I am going to do those things that make black
people comfortable. I am not interested in, uh, really perpetuating a Eurocentric culture. Well, speaking of black theater and contributions, okay, over the past 50, 60, 70 years, black theaters made major contributions to a piece of new awareness of both blacks and whites about our condition. If I would ask you, what do you think the three most influential black players in the 20th century were? What would your answer be? Oh, God. First, I would say, uh, uh, Lorraine Hansberry with her breakthrough play, uh, uh, raised in the sun. Yeah, it's like the Jackie Robinson of theater. Right, right. And I would have to say the play I produce for colored girls who considered, uh, suicide when the rain boy is enough by into the Jackie Shange. Um, and I would have to say, uh, a breakthrough play was Dutchman by a myriad baroque. Um, and that would stand alongside, uh, Joe Turner's coming on, uh, by August Wilson and Ed Bullings is, uh, in New
England, winter and in the wine time. Those, uh, major, major American works by, uh, black American writers, ironically, two or by women and the rest of our men, you know, uh, but, uh, uh, it's hard to say, uh, what is, uh, the most influential because, uh, influence, uh, really is controlled by purely surprises. Um, like we know that, uh, Tony Morrison is one of Nobel, Wally Scharing, because one of Nobel, Derek Walker, because one of Nobel. Um, but then you said, oh, wow, in any European class room, how many of you read, uh, Tony's work? Well, we, we haven't gotten around to it. You know, you know what I mean? Um, or Wally Scharing or, uh, Derek, you know, they don't read these people's poetry and works. You know, uh, they'd be still, uh, beautiful awards on us and then,
uh, ignore us. One, one, one, one interesting thing I just want to say, um, is the Hollywood motion-pitches system and the critical, uh, reaction to that system will say to an actor, you are one of the finest actors I've ever seen. There is no one better than you. The Academy War comes. You say, well, why didn't you vote for him? Oh, well, I mean, he wasn't up to. But in that moment, the act is one of the five of the vote for him to get an award as totally something else, because an award is, uh, is a perpetuation of, uh, the energy and artistry of black people. Well, of course, what you're saying, we've been saying all this, uh, discussion is that the world has got to change. That the world, I think, will change. But one of the things that's necessary for change is awareness and what you try to do in the, uh, new federal theater and what we try to
do with African-American legends is to increase the level of awareness, right, to just describe it like it is, because many times, uh, those of us who have public positions do not always say exactly the way it is. And this country is in, in a crisis at a, at a pivotal point. The world, the global world, predominantly non-white, the global world, which has resources, is beginning to look at America, say, what are you going to do? And the fact that we only give a little bit of money for age in Africa, the fact that we're not doing anything significant for people in Katrina says to the world, look, the United States is at a crisis. What are some of the players that are reflecting that as you see through new federal theater and other groups? Well, the play that we have coming up, uh, real black man don't sit cross-legged on the floor. It's an unusual piece
about, it's a journey piece where, uh, this young man travels from the civil rights movement in the south to the north during, uh, the 60s to Africa, to the Caribbean, to, uh, Europe, and back to the south, and it's thrown him back to New York. Who wrote that play? Uh, brother named Christopher Malik Brown. Uh, it's directed by assistant named passion, uh, Rhonda Passion, excellent piece. How can our audience find out about this? All they have to do is call us, call us at 212-353-1176. And new federal theaters located at 466 Grand Street. That's where the play is. 466 Grand Street on the lower east side in Manhattan. In Manhattan. So this play, uh, this journey play is about a black man coming to awareness that, uh, uh, uh, the conversations in Africa, uh, with these people.
No difference in really the conversations in England with his people, or in the south with his people. Sounds like a great play, uh, Woody, we've completed our discussion today, but, okay, thank you for your very insightful views on black theater and good luck to Woody King Jr. and the new federal theater. Thank you for having me, man. You know, this is wonderful. You federal theaters longevity is an achievement and of itself. Admissions of the new federal theater are to present outstanding new plays by playing Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish playwrights.
I'll join us as we honor Woody King Jr. and new federal theaters 35 years of spirited theater and pioneering on Sunday, February 13, 3 p.m. Town Hall 123 West 43rd Street Hall. Now, two, one, two, eight, three, two, six, six, zero, two, one, two, eight, three, eight, two, six, six, zero.
African American Legends
Woodie King, Jr., New Federal Theatre
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Episode Description
Dr. Brown speaks with Woodie King, Jr. on "Black Theatre" and its future. They talk about the obstacles that determine the success or failure of "Black Theatre," the way our present day culture molds "Black Theatre," as well as the tension between Black and White culture. Taped January 17, 2006.
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Taped January 17, 2006
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This record is part of the Theater section of the Soul of Black Identity special collection.
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African-American Legends profiles prominent African-Americans in the arts, in politics, the social sciences, sports, community service, and business. The program is hosted by Dr. Roscoe C. Brown, Jr., Director of the Center for Urban Education Policy at the CUNY Graduate Center, and a former President of Bronx Community College.
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Chicago: “African American Legends; Woodie King, Jr., New Federal Theatre,” 2006-01-17, CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed September 25, 2023,
MLA: “African American Legends; Woodie King, Jr., New Federal Theatre.” 2006-01-17. CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. September 25, 2023. <>.
APA: African American Legends; Woodie King, Jr., New Federal Theatre. Boston, MA: CUNY TV, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from