28 Years Since Theatre 4: NEC Acting Instructor and founder of http://www.necartz.com and NEC Monthly Meets, Marie Poncé remembers Backstage at Negro Ensemble Company.
Negro Ensemble Company was exciting in those days at Theatre 4! Marie Poncé was NEC’s wardrobe supervisor and her costume shop was above the big flag, up the stairs on the second floor between the men’s and women’s dressing rooms. The place where actors and tech congregated. This was the time when, Samuel L. Jackson was Sam Jackson, Phylicia Rashad was Phylicia Ayers Allen (Debbie Allen’s sister), L Scott Caldwell was “Scottie”, Marmarra McKinney was Marie Poncé we had a Count in our midst ( Count Stovall !), Brad Brewer gave life to an 8 foot puppet made by Marie Poncé , that dangled in the lobby of The NEC Offices on Broadway for years. Brad Brewer went on to create the Crowtations for the Muppets TV show) and then there was Charlie Brown and Charles Weldon (NEC’s current Artistic Director)!!! Abiola Sinclair of the Amsterdam News reported on everything black. Mary B Davis of Audelco saw and supported all the black plays. Everyone including Laurence Fishburne, did play readings at Garland Lee Thompson’s Frank Silvera’s writers workshop on 125th Street and 8th Ave
(which meets now on Monday nights at Harlem School of the Arts), a door or 2 down from where Popeye’s is now, up 2 flights of a steep stairway on Monday nights.
At Negro Ensemble Co, Lisa Watson did props. Wynn Anderson was House Manager. Jesse Wooden, Stephanie Hughley and Edward Bourke stage managed,while Marie Poncé (actor, singer dancer, writer) Judy Dearing (excellent dancer), Myrna Colley-Lee (then, wife of Morgan Freeman), Fontella Boone (later designer for Spike and other films) designed and produced costumes, Douglas Turner Ward (writer, director, co-founder of NEC and NEC Training Program) and Clinton Turner Davis directed and stage managed, Arnold Pinnix was box office, Malik Yoba (NAACP Image Award-winning American actor and occasional singer. and star of NY Under Cover) was an usher, Leon Denmark, Douglas Turner Ward and Susan Watson managed in the office a few blocks away on Broadway on 50 something street..
Marie Poncé , Director and Instructor of The Negro Ensemble Company Actor’s Training Program, got her first job as NEC’s Wardrobe Supervisor. After 2 years of study with Philip Meister at National Shakespeare Company Conservatory, Philip Meister walked Marie Poncé from NSC’s 51 Street and 9th Avenue Conservatory to The NEC office. Doug Turner Ward (more on Douglas Turner Ward) and met Marie Poncé . As fate would have it. Not long after, (a truly starving artist) she went to the Unbroken Chain Prayer Group at St Lukes Church on 46th Street Between 8th and 9th Ave in NYC where Ben Harney, Olive Pointer-Harney, Noel Pointer, Ray and many of the Broadway and Off Broadway actors met, sang, eat, networked and prayed. It was a close group with a small, anointed, gospel/jazz flavor.Music and Arts HS and Juillaid, runs BAMSS Theatre and programs in Brooklyn now.
Marie Poncé confided: “Stephanie Hughley asked me if I had ever done costumes, I said yes (??), which meant: “I’ll do anything right now and, actors always says yes and figure it out later”. I had worked as a seamstress. I had spent the summer sewing for designer Sara Mique. Judy Dearing’s Brilliance bridged the gaps. I got to meet virtually all the greatest black actors, who would become famous within the decade.. I remember wishing the world experience the talents of Sam Jackson and Carol Maillard and Delroy Lindo and Keith David and Frances Foster… Black was not necessarily in, in the 80’s. Denzel and Adolf Caesar were leaving to film Soldiers Story based on A Soldier’s Play which had just closed as I loaded in my first show there. Puppet Play by Pearl Cleage with Seret Scott , Phylicia Ayers Allen (Rashad).and puppeteer Brad Brewer was directed by Clinton Turner Davis, who pioneered diversity in the arts as Co-Founder of Non-Traditional Casting Project in NYC . My designer, Judy Dearing.”
“I never told anyone ,that I had spent many of my weekends at my Aunt Juanita Poitier’s house, eating Fig Newtons from their cookie drawer, running passed the Oscars in the stairs in their great hall, with black and white tiles, over looking the ping pong table on their back porch. I rode many hours on their bike to the main road and back at my Bahama cousin’s, Pleasantville, NY house. Sydney Poitier’s fame was of little consequence to me. As an 8 year old, I was more interested in cookies and running around the house’s secret passageways.
My cousin, Gina Poitier, my sister Margaret and I played “Operation”, eaves-dropped on Sherri Poitier and Pamela Poitier’ s girl talk, watched as they sewed dresses. Jean and Aunt Juanita cooked African, peanut butter stew and spoke of their trips to Paris. We listened to Guy Davis play the blues guitar and my brother Theo McKinney play the piano (self-trained virtuosos, the really talented ones). We made up skits before we knew what the word improv mean’t, in the living room.
Theo is a great artist, (yet humble to a fault) visual artist as well. Sidney Poitier (when he came home) taught the children, from his example, from his amazing, jaw-dropping presence, when we walked into a room.
I learned early that I could not share the knowledge of my special cousin with everyone. I was mocked and laughed at during 5th grade show and tell.
Sidney taught his children, at that time, that they had to “make it” on their own first. .. I agreed.. Until years later. I played Nellie Monk in Laurence Holder’s 3 character play called Monk ‘n’ Bud with Alvin Alexis and Tony Jackson at the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston Salem. Sidney Poitier was being honored that year. Irene Gandy noticed when Aunt Juanita and the family were hugging me in the lobby. The next thing I knew, we were included in all the press conferences. We took the show to the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, The Festival for Experimental Theatre in Cairo, Egypt and of course the premiere was at Crystal Field’s and George Bartenieff’s Theatre for the New City in NYC.”
As wardrobe supervisor at NEC’s Theatre 4 , “I washed many dirty shirts and underwear, quick-changed and calmed many actors. Learned from the best costume designers and directors. Learned to run an arts business from over heard phone and after the show conversations with Epatha Merkerson Phyllicia Rashad and Carol Maillard and Elain
As Wardrobe Supervisor, Marie was able to witness the great work of Samuel L Jackson (before film) when he, Delroy Lindo, Count Stovall, Graham Brown, Frances Foster, Arthur French, Keith David, Walter Allen Bennett, Bill Jay, Reuben Santiago Hudson, Carla Brothers, Alvin Alexis (who later was awarded and traveled with her to Eqypt, N.C. and Scotland with Laurence Holder’s 3 character play Monk ‘n’ Bud)…. Charles McClennahan created that great set with the huge car coming out of the wall for District Line with Sam Jackson as the snake like character “Side Winder”. Says Marie, “I think the best performances while I was there were in: Trevor Rhone‘s Two Can Play with Hazel Medina and Sullivan Walker and Leslie Lee’s Colored People’s Time with Carol Maillard, Charles Weldon, L Scott Caldwell, Angela Bassett… I don’t know if Phylicia Rashad has ever forgiven me for putting her dress on backwards in one of my first quick changes at Negro Ensemble Company. Yes I was an actor you learned to be a dresser in time..It was a little like being a child in a candy store on a vegetarian diet. It turned out it was a lot harder to find costumers and at that time. I learned so much from the actors about life and arts in NYC.”
Michele Shay included her in Arts and Essence Magazine events and PR at Michelle’s house, Hazel Medina took time to encourage and talk the artist in her, Malik Yoba talked of his many dreams of performing and and they would always promise each other that they would some day be on stage there or on TV. That happened, when she worked for several months as a waitress on TV show New York Undercover (many SAG hours were spent on that set. She would go on to play Carmen the waitress in Carlotta’s Diner on ABC’s “One Life to Live” for 9 months). Sandra Reeves Phillips inspired Marie while she made costumes for Saundra’s travelling show Great Ladies of the Blues. Says Marie McKinney,“ Lisa Watson, Clinton Turner Davis, Count Stovall, Keith David, Charles Weldon, Charlie Brown, Ves Weaver, Frances Foster, Stephanie Hughley.. taught me so much about life and art and being black in NYC. I am very grateful.”
After the show Split Second in 1984 by Dennis McIntyre with Michelle Shay and John Donnell , Marie McKinney moved on to her acting career on stage, film and TV, with many great stories, as she watched the doors of NEC’s Theatre 4 close. Much of the memorabilia, plays and info from that time is housed in the Schomberg Center for Reseach in Black Culture’s NEC Archives on 135th St And Malcolm X Blvd in Harlem with some holdings in an off site archive in NJ.
Marie Poncé began working to build NEC with O.L Duke and Robert Whaley in 2000 from the 42St and 8th Avenue Theatre location at 303 W 42St;
marketing, costuming and writing for the play like Tea, Taxes and Shakespeare for young audiences, and she was incorporated into Lou Meyer’s A Little Bit of Something as a dancer, actor and on stage quick change costumer.
In 2003, Marie Poncé ran the NEC Arts-in Education Residency Program, including work with The Richard R Green Middle School’s: The Forward School for Creative Writing, which partnered with principal, Terry Ballard, to create a black box cafe in this public school, created original choreography, scripts and original music in parttnership with NYU Film School, which aired “The Skillet Show”on MNN Cable TV and initiated the schools Creative Writing Newspaper. As director of The Negro Ensemble Company Training Program’s Acting department and Founder of the The Negro Ensemble Company Arts-in-Education department, Marie McKinney started The NEC’s Monthly Meets for artists, directors and technical professionals at Riverside Church.
Negro Ensemble Company’s Actor’s Training Program features acting, voice production, character, classics and style, dramaturgy, improvisation, accents and play writing workshops. The NEC monthly meetings, started by Marie Poncé (1st Saturdays at Riverside Church home of Theatre of the Oppressed Multi-Purpose Room) give arts professionals access to artist service organizations, small business resources, structures and teams to fulfill on their arts projects. Meets have featured staff from Arts Service Organizations, Film Producers and have covered Grants and Website development, career development, business planning and free business tools available for to grow arts businesses. The http://www.necartz.com website provides information and resources for artists with a focus on the special needs of multi-ethnic arts professionals.
July 10, 2009. An over-capacity crowd bombarded Negro Ensemble Company Repertory’s Lost and Found, Friday. .From 1967 to the 90’s, Negro Ensemble Company, the second oldest black theater company in the world, was the best place for black playwrights to sent their plays for production. When the company closed temporarily, in the 80’s, boxes of scripts and memorabilia unaccounted for. Excerpts from six of the hundreds of archived works re-discovered at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture returned to the stage. New plays and original
works by Actor/Writers, Barbara Asare-Bediako and Actor/Writer/Rapper, Quester Hannah; Ryan Johnson, actor/comic and singer/songwriter, heart throb, Jillian Walker ignited the stage . “Excellence and Prolific writing for the Theatre.” read NEC citations awarded veteran writers, Laurence Holder and Leslie Lee. An interview followed. NEC Repertory presented “LOST AND FOUND: NEC Honors Classic Plays and Emerging Playwrights” on July 10 at 8pm at Where Eagles Dare Theatre in New York, NY.
“Astounding work!..I see a young Denzel, Sam Jackson, L Scott Caldwell, Frances Foster on this stage….Judi Ann Mason passed. A huge loss, and yet these new artists give us hope for Black Theatre’s future.” The NEC Training Program Acting instructor and Director of Education, Marie Poncé , says “What an important historic find!A new generation of actors get access to this extraordinary, unknown material.” In addition, emerging playwrights Quester Hannah and Barbara Asare-Bediako premiered scenes from their original works for veteran writers, Laurence Holder and Leslie Lee, honored that night. Continuing the forty-two year traditions of NEC Training Program, LOST AND FOUND continues to support emerging actors who have completed NEC’s rigorous training program.The NEC Training Program combines solid groundwork in character technique, script analysis and voice production with ethnic culture. “We use the time-honored work of masters such as Michael Chekhov, Cicely Berry, Stella Adler as a foundation and bring it into an African American cultural context,” says Poncé .” According to Charles Weldon, NEC’s Artistic Director, “We get calls all the times from actors who have graduated from big schools who are hungry for information about their own culture.” Auditions are held by appt. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
LOST AND FOUND boasts scenes from brilliant vintage plays by unknown playwrights, and famed writers like Alice Childress and Ed Bullins, representing a unique portfolio of African American life The program features Gail Davis’ The Night of the Wizard, Daniel W. Owens’ La Grima del Diallo, Trevor Rhone’s Two Can Play, Gus Edwards’ Weep Not For Me, Laurence Holder’s Monk ‘n’ Bud, Leslie Lee’s Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things. New plays include Quester Hannah’s My Brother’s Keeper, and Barbara Asare-Bediako’s stirring one-person show, sharing the horrors of working in hospitals where medical experimentation on the poor takes place and her play exposing Ma Rainey’s seduction of Lillian in Secret Mist of Blue .
Quester Hannah, Barbara Asare-Bediako, Douglas O. Walker, Ginger Spencer, Ed Robinson, Cassandra Johnson, Jillian Walker, Malikia Causey, Jeanette Bookhard, and Ryan Johnson are among the performers on the July 10 production.
About Negro Ensemble Company:
The Negro Ensemble Company and NEC Training Program were first started by Robert Hooks, Douglas Turner Ward and Gerald Krone in 1967. Robert Hooks broke down the walls of his apartment and taught acting to a young Hattie Winston. Rosalind Cash, Frances Foster, Graham Brown and Bill Jay, among the original company members. This Pultizer Prize-winning company, with 200 productions on its roster, boasts a long list of notable alumni, such as Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Adolf Caesar, Phylicia Rashad, Samuel L Jackson, Roscoe Lee Brown, and many more. NEC looks forward to another extended run of Sundown Names and Night-Gone Things by Leslie Lee with brilliant ensemble work NEC has received 11 Audelco Award Nominations for its plays in the year. The company awarded $1000 to emerging playwright, Antoinette Nwandu, this spring at Tisch NYU. The current NEC Training Program is successfully fostering a new generation of performing artists and writers, who have, in the last year, played on HBO’s The Wire, Law and Order, NEC’s Zooman, Manhattan Theatre Club, Theatre Row, NY Comedy Club, New Heritage Theater, La Mama, Hip Hop Monologues, Commercials and 3 NEC members are invited participants of Harvard’s Advanced Training Program: Moscow.
Award winning, NEC resident playwright, Leslie Lee continues momentum with The Emerging and Classic Playwrights Series in the fall ,also at Where Eagles Dare Theatre. Charles Weldon became the current Artistic Director 5 years ago and stars in August Wilson’s Radio Golf. Charles started performing with NEC in 1970 and now returns as an alumnus of the The NEC and active board member, expanding its fiscal standing and ushering the company into the new millennium.
NEC Training Program is holding auditions and interviews for its ongoing classes for professional actor’s and playwrights. Email email@example.com for audition appointment, and semi-private ongoing classes. 347 560 3312 or 212 592-5860.
Anasi to Brer Rabbit: Our Right to Cultural Archetypes on Stage by Marie McKinney
Ever wish you didn’t have to explain your identity so much? As artists of color, whether African, Asian, Latin, European…there is so much knowledge that gives our cultures definition. (If we are considering ourselves as white or black, does this negate the color that we are?(Ethiopian, French, or Chinese?)) Knowledge which, if we are blessed, we find as adults. It’s not mainstream, cultural, knowledge, taught in most schools.
To seek out every bit of history and culture would be a lifetime feat! In teams and on blogs we can discover much with each other.
Please write your comments!
How often have you written a theatre piece, spending several pages explaining the information you are basing you art on, because your historical archetypes are not common knowledge? If someone says a character is like Mr. ROGERS, you know exactly what they are talking about, if you have watched TV in the last twenty years. How many historical references do American sub-cultures have, that are as accessible to everyone as George Washington and Clara Barton? What would it take to start a movement to let everyone know our “mainstream” culture and history? In the busy world we live in, the challenge may be to teach ourselves and share what we know with others who are doing the same.
What if Anansi, the West African spider, were known by every child? What if we understood words like, Jali or Joli to mean West African, oral historian. The french renamed the joli.. griot, which is the more well known term shared at Kwanza celebrations in the States, though few know it’s origins and significance, or that the instrument the Kora is associated with Jalis. Though Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, as archives at The Schomburg center for Research in Black Culture state, was a queen of England who originally came from Germany and married King George III. This is some pretty significant information, which is more significant these days, since somehow it was omitted from most 5th and 6th grade Social Studies books. It might have lived right next to accounts of George Washington. I often muse with some dismay that films and television accounts of Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers, with all it’s swash-bucketing fervor omits brown faced casting choices. And what of black Russian writer, Alexander Puskin. What would we think as we read The Bronze Horsemen or The Egyptian Nights if we realized that this celebrated writer was a brown as our Harlem neighbors. Now of course, our sense of what it is to be brown-skinned has changed over the years. It didnot always have the same meaning attached to it that it has had in recent years. Back then people relied on renditions by flattering painters given to personal or political interpretation.
If every child had the knowledge that the book: The Three Musketeers was written by an “Afro-cousin” in France, would their “play” be different? Would they swing from trees and fire escapes in swash-buckling joy in backyards and playgrounds?
And what about Afro-Native Americans? I often wonder how many casting directors feel it their responsibility to know enough to cast a world depicted in films with cultural accuracy. Who casted Pirates of the Caribbean? Pirates, really business people who searched the wreckages of ships of the coasts of Key West and the Bahamas. Some of these so called pirates were my distance relatives. That’s a long story for another article) Knowledge of The Dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets, could change the types of roles those of African and Latin descent are cast in.
Though it seems like I am going on and on about these references. I continue to show just how out of focus the cultural portrait of the old world is in mainstream media.
Have you read Shakespeares’s Sonnet 127? It begins: “In the old age black was not counted fair, or if it were it bore not beauty’s name.” The mixed marriage of Robert Browning (Afro-English) and Emily Bronte(Afro-English), which inspired the words: “How do I love thee, let me count the ways”
Let’s add the Black Madonna, which shows up all over Europe in statue form. Black Theater, African American Arts have a long, illustrious history in the U.S and the world. Jazz, Gospel, Blues, Tap dance, Horton, Hip Hop, Stepping, are distinctly Black American inventions of the last century, not to mention all the cultural inventions created by African and Native American collaboration before Columbus and the Colonists arrived in the Americas, like the sacred ball playing courts in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic and the parade culture and pageantry of the Bahamas, Trinidad and Brazil; the Afro-Indian Settlements in the Amazon, which migrated there with peoples from Peru and Brazil. National Black Theatre Festival
There is so much information…and Yes, some of the first Popes were African. Pope Gregory I invented Gregorian chant. And what of Beetoven. If someone becomes very famous, is he or she more likely to be considered European? Or is this just a coincidence? Some of these historic facts are common knowledge in parts of Europe. Why not the United States? The search for identity among these early Africans in Europe and elsewhere becomes further obscured by the many names there have been for “black”, African American, Negro, Moor…”colored”, Ethiop, Hamite, ruddy, mulatto, dark… ….Here are more references to google..See how many you already know: Write your responses to this blog!!! What are your questions? What are your discoveries? Suggested Topics for further discovery and research: Jali (in fr. griot): African Oral Historian, Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, Sonnet 127 and other black poems by Shakespeare, Pageantry in Brazil, Trinidad, Bahamas,New Orleans, carnivale, Bahia, stoicism in African religion, Islam vs Muslim, Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, Native American and African storytelling, Orisha, Pantheon, Mythology, Haiti: vodun and spiritual mounting and trance in Africa, the Caribbean and Brazil, Spiritualism in the Caribbean, The Holy Ghost in Apostolic and Pentecostal Churches in the Northern and Southern parts of US, blues as it relates to African and Native cultures, Cherokee stomp dances and Iroquois Smoke dances and how the cultures are related, Bill T Jones, Lori Carlos, Cultural Odyessy and Rhodessa Jones contemporary dance and theatre, Carl Hancock Rux performance poetry, Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, African Dance and song and Forces of Nature, Jazz Cafes in Harlem and University of the Streets 7th St and A, Open Mike Nights, Sis. Omelika Kuumba, Co-founder, Director GIWAYEN MATA, Inc. Celebrating 15 Years of Drumming and Dancing While Daring to Do It Differently http://www.giwayenmata.org, http://www.myspace.com/giwayenmata 404-766-4001 Improv and sketch Comedy Upright Citizens Brigade, Gotham City, Stand Up Comedy, The Globe Theatre-Playwrights of the Middle Passage and early America,Creole and Patois-varied combination of African syntax and European lexicon, or words. Junkanoo in the Bahamas…….more to come. Let us know what your research found..try the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The National Museum of the American Indian, Research Center at Foxwoods(CT), Harlem Churches, Temples and Mosques, Symphony Space’s World Music Institute, Lotus Dance School…