Douglas Turner Ward Essay - Critical Essays

Ward, Douglas Turner


Ward, Douglas Turner 1930–

Ward is a black American playwright, actor, producer, and director who cofounded the Negro Ensemble Company. He has been termed "a direct descendant of Langston Hughes" by Doris E. Abramson for such plays as Happy Ending and Day of Absence which deal humorously with serious racial issues. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)


[It] pleasured me no end to hear the characters in "Happy Ending" and "Day of Absence," a pair of one-act plays …, giving voice to some rich, funny, authentic American Negro speech. The author of these dramas is Douglas Turner Ward, and he is equally adept at turning a telling phrase and inventing sly, satiric plots. When "Happy Ending" starts to unfold, we are introduced to a couple of weeping women, who are bewailing the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, the white folks they work for, are about to dissolve their marriage. Pretty soon, I think, you'll be shedding a few tears yourself, but only of laughter, for Mr. Ward quickly goes about demonstrating that his mourners' grief is peculiarly motivated….

While Mr. Ward uses very broad farce to spoof the Southern establishment [in "Day of Absence"], nothing less, perhaps, would work out, since at times the Southern realities teeter on the edge of farce themselves.

John McCarten, "Burdensome Baggage," in The New Yorker (© 1965 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLI, No. 45, December 25, 1965, p. 50.∗

Gerald Weales

[Happy Ending] not only uses a verbal sledgehammer on the white family; in the figure of the nephew who learns the value of being a new Uncle Tom, it makes fun of that part of the civil-rights movement which is concerned with the lip-service values of the middle class—dignity, position, image. If the play had been written by a white man, there might be pickets around the theatre, but as it stands it is a harmless inside joke; after all, a joke that is offensive in the mouth of a Klansman might be funny at a Hadassah meeting. Although I do not think Ward meant the play to be anything more than amusing, there is a serious point about American materialism implicit in it….

Day of Absence, which is called "a reverse minstrel show," is based on a supposition which also underlies Happy Ending—that without the Negro to do his presumed menial tasks, white society would collapse. Day of Absence shows us this collapse in a Southern town that wakes up one morning to find all the Negroes gone. It is played by Negroes in white-face, and, like the traditional minstrel show, it deals only in comic stereotypes…. The idea is a clever one, but it is difficult to sustain because Ward quickly becomes repetitious where he needs to be inventive.

It may be that Ward intended more than the surface of his play provides, that he was commenting on some of his fellow Negro playwrights; for the kind of white stereotype that Ward uses as a joke, a writer like James Baldwin uses seriously in Blues for Mister Charlie. (p. 48)

Gerald Weales, "Off-Broadway Trio," in The Reporter (© 1966 by The Reporter Magazine Co.), Vol. 34, No. 4, February 24, 1966, pp. 47-8.∗

Wilfrid Sheed

["Happy Ending" and "Day of Absence"] deal with the same subject: the classic master-servant joke, as interpreted in racist America. Mr. Ward's approach is so apparently happy-go-lucky that it is easy to forget that he has a subject. But he has one indeed and he sticks to it scrupulously. It seems to be his understanding that the master-servant relationship is basically ridiculous, regardless of race, creed or color; in other words, that whether you play the front end of the horse or the back, you are going to make a fool of yourself. The fact of color introduces its own special poisons into the game, but these are not Mr. Ward's first concern—this time around anyway. He just wants us to see how funny it is that this man should be serving that one….

In "Happy Ending" he shows us life at the back end. Two colored ladies are sitting in a kitchen, mourning the impending divorce of their employer. Their nephew comes bouncing in to tell them they should be ashamed of themselves….

Slowly and with sensuous relish the aunts explain to the indignant nephew how his way of life, the very clothes on his back, depend on their employer's well-being….

Gradually, he breaks, and begins also to sob for the master. The hypocrisy is funny enough; but what makes it even funnier is that these are real tears. The phony relation has given birth to a genuine emotion (just as crummy institutions in general can...

(The entire section is 433 words.)

Edith Oliver

Douglas Turner Ward's "The Reckoning" … is an acrid joke that is sometimes strong or funny, and sometimes not. It is about the bigoted governor of a Southern state who is blackmailed by the beautiful Negro whore he has been visiting on the sly, and by her pimp…. The play, which boils down to a contest of wits between the foxy governor and the even foxier pimp … is described as "a surreal Southern Fable," and it has indeed many dreamlike or, more exactly, day-dreamlike aspects….

"The Reckoning" is a smothering avalanche of words and oratory, and since the characters use Deep South accents and seldom pause for breath, I found a lot of it unintelligible. Liking or not liking the play does not seem especially pertinent. It is a hateful show—no doubt deliberately so. Mr. Ward is not out to attract or enchant or lightly amuse us, but his play's passion is alive, and despite all its faults, it does exist, which is more than can be said for most plays….

Edith Oliver, "Off Broadway: 'The Reckoning'," in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XLV, No. 30, September 13, 1969, p. 105.

Theophilus Lewis

The closest I can come to describing [The Reckoning] is to call it a black power melodrama. It may be reasonably described as a Jesse James story in black face. According to legend, Jesse James robbed the rich to give to the poor. In Reckoning a Negro pimp blackmails a racist Southern Governor to advance the cause of racial equality….

This type of story presumes that the end justifies the means, a premise that diminishes dramatic impact. In The Reckoning we see one scoundrel striving to outsmart another, reducing the confrontation to the level of a dog fight. We can derive no moral satisfaction from a victory by either of the antagonists. The author substitutes social justice for moral principle, but social issues change while the moral element in drama has remained stable for centuries. The Reckoning is not one of the author's better efforts.

The characters, however, are as believable as your neighbors; and the dialogue has the rhythm of angry poetry. (pp. 244-45)

If you are interested in social drama, or better race relations, your reviewer calls The Reckoning to your attention. With all its limitations, it is engrossing theatre. (p. 245)

Theophilus Lewis, "'The Reckoning'," in America (© America Press, 1969; all rights reserved), Vol. 121, No. 9, September 27, 1969, pp. 244-45.

Catharine R. Hughes

[The curious thing about The Reckoning] is that what is at best a mediocre one-act play should have attracted so much attention in the first place. While leaving it to the sociologists to ponder, it does seem a rather obvious reflection of the sort of paternalism and over-solicitude that continues to afflict white America's attitude toward black art. (p. 14)

That there is nothing in the least original about The Reckoning goes almost without saying. From his 'night-time nigger' Scar, to his elegant demagogue of a Governor, voicing his sonorous platitudes and his scorn, his lengthy set speeches and his vitriol, and the two obsequious servants who decide the time to turn the other cheek is...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Walter Kerr

Douglas Turner Ward's Brotherhood, … may have been the most embarrassing forty minutes of theater I have ever managed to sit through, not so much because Mr. Ward had got his playmaking wrong as that he had got his hate wrong. Getting the hate wrong is worrisome, and is the reason I wish to pause to speak of the play.

Brotherhood was meant to fantasize a fairly simple black-white situation in which a casually dressed white couple entertained an impeccably dressed black couple in their home for an evening.

It was recognizable as fantasy on the instant because an otherwise perfectly ordinary living room was cluttered, and in fact overwhelmed, by a group of sheeted...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Edith Oliver

Douglas Turner Ward's "Day of Absence,"… is, among other things, a reminder that satire is still possible in the theatre, in contrast to lampoons, put-ons, spoofs, and various kinds of hokum, which certainly abound….

"Brotherhood" is a new play, and while it is funny, too, it is a comedown—much broader and blunter than "Day of Absence," though no milder, and not nearly so original. There is even a difference in the quality of the laughter it evokes; the decibel count is about the same for both plays, but the special relish and appreciation for the first are lacking for the second…. Mr. Ward is incapable of putting together a bad line, even when he sacrifices his sharp, subtle wit to a bitter...

(The entire section is 152 words.)