Top Down: The Ford Foundation, Black Power, and the Reinvention of Racial Liberalism

By Karen Ferguson | Go to book overview

Chapter 5
Multiculturalism from Above

On August 14, 1966, the New York Times published a guest editorial by Douglas Turner Ward, the African American playwright, director, and actor who had recently become a darling of the New York theater world. Ward’s breakthrough had come thanks not only to his undisputed talent but also to his race in a period when white audiences and critics were hungry for realistic theatrical expression of the “black experience” as a way to understand African Americans’ claims and actions in the black power era. He capitalized on this moment of white attention and the Times’s bully pulpit to make the case for the immediate creation of what he called “a permanent Negro repertory company off at least of-Broadway size and dimension,” which he promised his readers would revitalize the American stage. “[J]ust as the intrusion of lower middle-class and working-class voices reinvigorated polite, effete English drama,” Ward claimed, “so might the Negro, a most potential agent of vitality, infuse life into the moribund corpus of American theater.” However, Ward insisted that this lifegiving force could only succeed through the creation of a separate, all-black company that would play to mixed but majority black audiences; otherwise, Ward felt the refreshing possibilities of black drama would be lost, with the “Negro playwright” doomed as always “to be witnessed and assessed by a majority least equipped to understand his intentions, woefully apathetic or anesthetized to his experience, [and] often prone to distort his purpose.” By contrast, “with Negroes responding all around,” Ward claimed that “white spectators, congenitally uneasy in the presence of Negro satire,” among other genres, “at least can’t fail to get the message.”1

Thus, Ward outlined his claim for black theater based on what African Americans could do for a white-dominated national culture if they were allowed to intervene and join in it on their own terms. Despite framing his argument to appeal to the interests of the white theatrical cognoscenti, Ward’s multicultural vision was a radical one that posited genuine, equitable cultural

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