New Federal Theatre (NFT) was founded by Woodie King, Jr. in 1970 to give voice to primarily African American playwrights, actors, directors, designers and young people entering the American theater. Its mission was defined as "to integrate artists of color and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession and by presenting plays by writers of color and women to integrated, multicultural audiences - plays which evoke the truth through beautiful and artistic re-creations of ourselves." To-date, the organization has produced over 450 mainstage plays, an astonishing and influential record of achievement, sending multiple plays to Broadway and launching numerous minority and women playwrights and actors into prominent careers.
Since 1975, the company has also conducted training workshops in playwriting and drama workshops for adults and teens. These became a powerhouse program whose contributions have not yet been fully appreciated, although many of its alumni are now legendary.
The theater and its workshop have helped bring to national attention such playwrights as Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, J.e Franklin, Ntozake Shange, David Henry Hwang, Ron Milner, Joseph Lazardi, Damien Leake, Genny Lim, Laurence Holder, Alexis DeVeaux, and others. Actor veterans include Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, Debbie Allen, Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, Chadwick Boseman, Robert Downey, Jr., Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Jackée Harry, Phylicia Rashad, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Taurean Blacque, Garrett Morris, Sam MacMurray, Debbie Morgan, Lynn Whitfield, Reginald Vel-Johnson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ella Joyce, Starletta DuPois, Issa Rae, S. Epetha Merkson, Oz Scott, Trazana Beverley, Morgan Freeman, Anna Maria Horsford and many more.
Other noted artists who worked at New Federal Theatre include Lloyd Richards, Charles Nelson Reilly, Melba Moore, Vinie Burrows, Art McFarland, Kathleen Chalfant, Earle Hyman, Roger Robinson, Ellen Holly, Giancarlo Esposito, William "Mickey" Stevenson, Max Roach, Shauneille Perry and many more.
On May 19, 2020 the Off-Broadway Alliance named Woodie King, Jr. a "Legend of Off Broadway," recognizing sustained achievement in Off Broadway theater.
Woodie King, Jr. originally founded New Federal Theatre in 1970 as a development of a theater program at Mobilization for Youth. Operating as a neighborhood-based professional theater, it was funded by the Henry Street Settlement along with a small grant from the New York State Council on the Arts. The theater’s first season was held in the basement of St. Augustine’s Church on Henry Street. In 1974, the construction of the Henry Street Settlement’s Louis & Anne Abrons Arts Center located at 466 Grand Street was completed. The physical plant included three theaters, rehearsal studios and modern stage equipment, all of which were made available to NFT. In March 1996, New Federal Theatre’s administrative offices returned to St. Augustine’s Church, but the company maintained its production and training programs at Henry Street Settlement’s Abrons Arts Center. In 2015, the company and its offices moved to Castillo Theatre, 543 W 42nd Street. In 2016, the training workshops temporarily moved uptown to Dwyer Cultural Center, 258 St. Nicholas Ave. (at 123rd Street) before moving to Castillo Theatre.
NFT was originally inspired by a deep study of the original Federal Theatre Project and the vision of its leaders including Hallie Flanagan, Orson Welles and John Houseman. But the theater's artistic focus has always been on issues of the "now." This is reflected, in recent seasons, by productions including "Zora Neale Hurston: A Theatrical Biography," "Harriet's Return: Based Upon the Legendary Life of Harriet Tubman," Freight: The Five Incarnations of Abel Green" and "Looking for Leroy," a theatrical portrait of Amiri Baraka which won six AUDELCO Awards in the 2019 season.
Woodie King, Jr. has written about how the Black Lives Matter movement has raised widespread consciousness of the need for well-funded theaters of color across America: theaters that can pay professional artists wages that are comparable to those paid in large, white-controlled institutions with large fundraising staffs and sufficient marketing. He insists, "Playwrights must address issues of justice," adding "We speak for equality and fairness. Many people, both Black and White, who are protesting in the streets are denied access to culture, especially theater."
NFT has adapted to virtual programming during the Covid-19 lockdowns, in order to speak to the widest possible audience, including those who look to NFT for artistic leadership. Recent programs for virtual audiences include a poetry jam, "She Speaks, He Speaks, We Speak, Generations Speak" (September 21 and 28, 2020) and "Octoberfest," a retrospective readings series in which five distinguished plays, all previously produced by NFT, were recreated by accomplished actors (October 2 to 30, 2020). Last month, the theater's Board of Directors, through its Audience Development Committee, pioneered methods of outreach to the new, borderless, virtual audience with "50 years in the Groove," an evening of music and celebrity interviews.
In 2020, NFT changed its mission from "integrating people of color and women into mainstream theater" to "producing plays by people of color and women." It has also prioritized development of a marketing and fundraising budget, to ensure stability and enable it to respond and adapt to changing conditions. Woodie King, Jr. reflects, "Our condrum is that we are still here, that we are alive and well but still underfunded."
As New Federal Theater (NFT) embraces the digital world and adapts to becoming creative within it, Founding Director Woodie King, Jr. is now collaborating in its leadership of the company with actress/director/producer Elizabeth Van Dyke, who has been newly appointed to the position of Artistic Director. Van Dyke has been working since June with Mr. King on all the company's current programming.
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