Douglas Turner Ward, Actor and Co-Founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, Dies at 90

Douglas Turner Ward
George Napolitano/FilmMagic

Douglas Turner Ward

He won a Tony Award while also directing and starring in 'The River Niger' in the '70s.

Douglas Turner Ward, a Tony-winning playwright, director and actor who co-founded New York's trailblazing Negro Ensemble Company, has died. He was 90.

Ward, inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1996, died Saturday at his home in Manhattan, his wife, Diana Ward, told The New York Times.

Energized by the success of Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun and with help from a Ford Foundation grant, Ward, actor Robert Hooks and theater manager Gerald Krone officially launched the Negro Ensemble Company in 1967 as a home for Black playwrights, actors and crewmembers.

The theater group's The River Niger, written by Joseph A. Walker, won the Tony Award for best play in 1974, with Ward producing, directing and starring in a Tony-nominated turn as a house painter turned poet. (James Earl Jones had the role in the 1976 film adaptation.)

Based at St. Mark's Playhouse in the East Village, the group also produced the 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama A Soldier's Play, an off-Broadway drama written by Charles Fuller that featured Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson. It also was made into a film and revived on Broadway last year.

Also for Broadway and the Negro Ensemble Company, Ward directed, produced and acted in The First Breeze of Summer in 1975 and helmed Home in 1980-81.

"I'm proud of the personnel that we trained and the fact that they're still active in every field of theater, TV and film," Ward said in an interview last year. "Not just the writers, but the actors, the designers, the stage managers, the backstage personnel, the directors. Everybody. To this day they are all over American show business working. And some creating their own theaters."

Born on May 5, 1930, in Burnside, Louisiana, Ward attended Wilberforce University and the University of Michigan before he quit school to come to New York. He appeared in a Circle in the Square Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh in 1956, and in A Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, he served as an understudy and had a small role.

In 1965, a double-bill of his satirical one-act comedies had a long run off-Broadway and earned him a Drama Desk Award for outstanding new playwright.

Ward made his onscreen acting debut in 1963 on an episode of the CBS series East Side/West Side. He also appeared on television in The Cosby Show and The Women of Brewster Place and in films including Man and Boy (1971) and Go Tell It on the Mountain (1984).

In addition to his wife, whom he married in 1966, he is survived by their children, Elizabeth and Douglas, and three grandchildren.