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July 6th, 2005

The Spirit of Black Theatre: The New Federal Theater’s 35th Anniversary Gala

by John Wegorzewski and Edward Callaghan

The invitation to Woodie King Jr.’s?Ǭ New Federal Theater’s 35th Anniversary Gala urged “Catch The Spirit of Black Theater,” and the over 800 supporters who packed New York’s historic Town Hall caught it indeed.

The awards gala, which honored significant contributions to the theater, was originally slated to be co-hosted by the legendary Ossie Davis, a long time advocate of the NFT. Sadly, Davis passed away just days before leaving Avery Brooks and Lynn Whitfield to helm the evening. Thanks to the sparkling luminosity of the duo, what could have been a sad affair turned out to be a jubilant celebration of the endurance of the Black Arts Movement as epitomized by Davis, Woodie King Jr. and the illustrious group of honorees.

“Mr. Davis was a celebrity who understood what celebrity meant, being a luminous body and spreading light everywhere,” said Whitfield.

Cliff Frazier, Chairman of the Board of directors of New Federal Theater (NFT), after calling for a moment of silence to honor the late Ossie Davis talked about the extraordinary history of the NFT led by Woodie King Jr-over 200 plays by minorities and women-and remarked “At the NFT, multi-cultural theater was encouraged before it was fashionable.”

Singled out for honors were actress/ singer/ composer Micki Grant, creator of such ground-breaking musicals as Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope; prolific playwright Ed Bullins; award winning producer/director/writer George C. Wolfe and Theater Development Fund, whose support of minority artists and companies has been critical to their survival.

Special honors also went to the cast of the critically acclaimed revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun. Phylicia Rashad accepting the award, was greeted with a thunderous ovation, as was Hansberry’s sister, Mayme and Lloyd Richards, who directed the original production 35 years ago.

Addressing the 35th Anniversary celebrants, Richards said “It’s wonderful to be at this history class, which must exist. When I came along, black theater was being done, but it wasn’t being written about. Now there are people who put it down and put it on library shelves.”

There were dazzling musical performances by the extraordinary acappella group Sweet Honey In The Rock, an ebullient Leslie Uggams and a truly radiant Hattie Winston who serenaded “roastee’ Douglas Tuner Ward, founder of the Negro Ensemble Company.

The crowd, a veritable who’s who of African Americans in the arts included Amiri Baraka, Jeffrey Anderson Gunter, Keith David, Lilias White, Barbara Montgomery, Robert Hooks, Glynn Turman, Arthur French, Cliff Frazier, Mary Alice, Cicely Tyson and scores more.

Law & Order stars S. Epatha Merkerson and Jesse L. Martin set off the flash bulbs as did the appearance of La Tanya Richardson Jackson and her Lackawanna Blues co-star Ruben Santiago-Hudson, both alumni of the NFT. Merkerson was particularly glad to attend. “NFT hired me. I did six plays with Woodie that allowed me to hone my skills. We are not represented on Broadway or Off& but Woodie’s consistently hiring black actors, writers and directors.”

Though the tributes to Ossie, Woodie King Jr., Douglas Turner Ward and the honorees rolled on for almost four hours, no one would have missed a moment of this truly historic celebration of the endurance and perseverance of Woodie King Jr., who has nurtured more minority talent than any other individual.

Speaking about King and his influence on the arts, alumni Obba Babatunde noted proudly, “New Federal Theater is a place where great artistry was born. It’s a fertile ground for sewing seeds of creativity. A ray of sun that nurtured crops of creativity.” Babatunde, who flew in from Los Angeles especially to pay tribute to his mentor, summed it up best: “When Woodie calls, I come.”

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