Playwright. Tony-nominated actor. Director. Advocate. Those are just a few words to describe theater great Douglas Turner Ward, who died on Saturday, February 20 as confirmed to The New York Times by his wife.
The Times reports that Ward passed away in his Manhattan home at 90 years old. The cause of his death has not yet been determined. Roosevelt Ward Jr. was born on May 5, 1930 to Roosevelt and Dorothy Ward in New Orleans, La. He would later develop a love for all things theater, making his debut as an actor in the late ‘50s and choosing to go by his new stage name Douglas Turner, based off his affinity to abolitionist Frederick Douglass and slave revolt leader Nat Turner. His first few roles include plays such as Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and as an understudy in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun. He would then go on to star as a lead actor in various works, such as Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and The Brownsville Raid, earning a Drama Desk Award in the process.
In 1966, Ward penned an opinion article for The New York Times, titled American Theater: For Whites Only?, that articulated the racial inequalities present in the world of American theater. His piece caught the attention of Ford Foundation Vice President of Humanities and the Arts W. McNeil Lowry, who then decided to aid Ward in his quest for creating more opportunities for actors of color. That article, along with Lowry’s $434,000 grant would serve as the impetus for founding New York City’s Negro Ensemble Company in 1967. Ward’s talents began to also shine through on the playwriting and directing front. He directed and performed in Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer and Joseph A. Walker’s The River Niger, the latter of which was produced by The Negro Ensemble Company and won the Tony for Best Play in 1974, giving Ward his first Tony nomination for acting.
More from The New York Times on the Negro Ensemble Company:
Other notable productions by the company included Samm-Art Williams’s “Home” (1979) and Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play” (1981), about a Black officer investigating the murder of a Black sergeant at a Louisiana Army base during World War II, when the armed forces were segregated. The cast included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. (It, too, was adapted for film, as “A Soldier’s Story,” in 1984.)
The Negro Ensemble Company became—and continues to be—a training ground for Black actors, playwrights, directors, designers and technicians. Many of the troupe’s actors over the years went on to become stars, among them, in addition to Mr. Washington and Mr. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Louis Gossett Jr. and Phylicia Rashad.
Fans from in and outside of the theater world are paying their respects to Ward, the Actors Equity Association writing in a tweet: “The positive impact that Douglas Turner has had on theatre is immense. Not only was he a prolific performer, he was a founding member and artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Company, a successful playwright and a mentor to many. Rest in peace.”
David Alan Grier, who starred as Corporal Cobb in A Soldier’s Story, the film adaptation of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work A Soldier’s Play originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, also shared his condolences on social media, writing:
“Rest n Peace Douglas Turner Ward. A true renaissance man...actor, playwright, director, mentor to so many young actors n creatives of color. Doug told me years ago “It’s nice that you make money in Hollywood but don’t forget the theatre you must always come back.”
Douglas Turner Ward is survived by his wife Diana, their two children and three grandchildren.