Derrick Sanders and Reginald Nelson arrived in Chicago in 1999 with a singular goal: to start a theater company that could fuse the ensemble aesthetic of a Steppenwolf with a focus on work that expressed and arose from the African Diaspora experience. The pair had met at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where they received bachelor’s degrees in theater; Nelson then attended the University of Illinois in Urbana for his master’s degree, while Sanders headed to the University of Pittsburgh. Keeping in touch long-distance, they talked about creating, in Sanders’s words, “a space where artists of color could come and create work that was nationally impactful and important. At that time in the nation there was only one city we thought could support that”: Chicago, which already had five Black-identified professional theaters producing year-round—ETA Creative Arts Association, the Black Ensemble Theater, MPAACT, and two companies no longer in existence, the Chicago Theatre Company and Onyx Theatre Ensemble.
Sanders’s model for a nationally significant Black theater was the fabled Negro Ensemble Company in New York, which had nurtured the work of Black artists throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. “They were able to collect a brain trust of artistic people who were uplifting, challenging, and expanding the stories of the African Diaspora,” says Sanders, now an asssociate professor of theatre at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They were the first to do it on a national scale.”
The company Sanders and Nelson created, Congo Square Theatre, debuted in 2000 with a well-received revival of The Piano Lesson, by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, whom Sanders had met in South Africa in 1998. Over the years the company’s mountings of Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, King Hedley II, and Jitney were also successful, and its staging of Wilson’s Seven Guitars in 2005—the same year as Wilson’s death—won Joseph Jefferson Awards for production, ensemble, and Sanders’s direction. Over two decades the troupe has also staged works by Langston Hughes, George C. Wolfe, Pearl Cleage, Cheryl L. West, Athol Fugard, and Ntozake Shange, as well as premieres by Chadwick Boseman (the future star of Black Panther wrote Deep Azure for Congo Square in 2006), company member Javon Johnson, and Lydia Diamond, whose 2006 Congo Square hit Stick Fly later ran on Broadway.
When Sanders looked for a project to mark Congo Square’s milestone 20th anniversary this winter, he reached back to the legacy of the Negro Ensemble Company, selecting Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 one-act Day of Absence, the play that led to NEC’s creation. “We wanted to do something that spoke to the present day and also reflected who we were and who inspired us,” Sanders says.
Douglas Turner Ward—who turns 90 on May 5, 2020—was an original cast member of A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking drama about an African-American family on Chicago’s south side. Following a tryout at Chicago’s Blackstone Theatre (now the Merle Reskin Theatre of DePaul University) in February 1959, Raisin opened on Broadway in March of that year, becoming the first play by a Black woman to run on “the great white way.” Ward played a minor role in the show while also understudying its star, Sidney Poitier. In 1965, Poitier’s then-wife, Juanita Poitier, and actor Robert Hooks produced Ward’s Day of Absence at the Off-Broadway St. Mark’s Playhouse in New York’s East Village.
Described by Ward as a “reverse minstrel show,” performed by an all-Black cast of actors wearing whiteface, Day of Absence is—in the words of Dramatists Play Service, which licenses production rights—”a satire about an imaginary Southern town where all the black people have suddenly disappeared. The only ones left are sick and lying in hospital beds, refusing to get well. Infants are crying because they are being tended to by strange parents. The Mayor pleads for the President, Governor, and the NAACP to send him ‘a jackpot of jigaboos.’ On a nationwide radio network he calls on the blacks, wherever they are, to come back. He shows them the cloths with which they wash cars and the brushes with which they shine shoes as sentimental reminders of the goodies that await them. In the end the blacks begin to reappear, as mysteriously as they had vanished, and the white community, sobered by what has transpired, breathes a sigh of relief at the return of the rather uneasy status quo. What will happen next is left unsaid, but the suggestion is strong that things will never quite be the same again.”
Day of Absence‘s original production ran for two years with an ensemble that included Ward, Hooks, Adolph Caesar, Lonne Elder, Frances Foster, Moses Gunn, Esther Rolle, and Billy Dee Williams, all of whom went on to major stage and screen careers. Ward himself played the Mayor and won an Obie Award for his performance as well as a Drama Desk Award for outstanding new playwright.
The play’s success emboldened the New York Times to publish a 1966 commentary by Ward, titled “American Theater: For Whites Only?”, in which Ward called for “an all-embracing, all-encompassing theater of Negro identity overseen by black artists.” With support from the Ford Foundation and Ward as founding artistic director, the Negro Ensemble Company debuted in January 1968 with Song of the Lusitanian Bogey by Peter Weiss, the German author of Marat/Sade. That was followed shortly by Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka’s Kongi’s Harvest and then Daddy Goodness, by Richard Wright and French playwright Louis Sapin. Over the next 20 years, NEC produced both off and on Broadway, generating such significant plays as Joseph Walker’s The River Niger, Leslie Lee’s The First Breeze of Summer, Samm-Art Williams’ Home, Lonne Elder III’s Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, Steve Carter’s Eden, and Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize winner A Soldier’s Play, a 1981 Off-Broadway hit that has just opened in a new production on Broadway. NEC struggled throughout its existence, finally ceasing operations in the early 90s. But it left an indelible legacy, having paved the way for a later generation of Black writers such as Wilson and Suzan-Lori Parks.
Day of Absence has gained new currency in recent years. When a reconstituted Negro Ensemble Company staged the play Off-Broadway in 2016, a New York Times reviewer wrote: “Mr. Ward’s wit is scathing, if not exactly nuanced,” adding: “There’s cruel humor in a white cop who goes crazy when he has no black men to assault and a Klan member upset that he wasn’t the one to drive the African-Americans out of town.” And a production by Theater Alliance in Washington, D.C., last October was praised as “hilarious, and hilariously telling” by the online publication DC Metro Theater Arts.
For Sanders—who stepped down as Congo Square’s artistic director in 2009 but remains an ensemble member—Day of Absence conveys a serious and even hopeful theme beneath the satiric irony. “I think Ward was trying to uplift his black audience,” he says. “He was saying: look at what would happen without us. Where would they be without us?”
Congo Square’s board chair, Christopher Audain, thinks the play takes on sharp new significance as Chicago experiences what a 2019 Reader story described as “a little-understood reverse Great Migration.” Noting that “Chicago’s black population, the city’s largest demographic in 2000, has dropped by 24 percent through 2017,” the article examines possible factors creating this situation, ranging from “the rust-belt-restructuring theory” to violent crime, school closures, and especially Chicago’s legacy of segregation. “It shows how great art is relevant in different eras for different reasons,” says Audain, a 33-year-old grants officer at the Alphawood Foundation. He joined Congo Square’s board in 2015 after seeing Twisted Melodies, actor-writer Kelvin Roston Jr.’s powerful one-man show about 1970s soul singer Donnie Hathaway.
When Congo Square’s then-artistic director Samuel Roberson Jr. died in 2017 at age 34 following a series of health problems, ensemble members began rotating the duties of producing on a show-by-show basis while company member TaRon Patton served as executive director. “TaRon really helped keep the organization running through a lot of challenges,” says Audain, who became board chair in January 2019 with a focus on shepherding Congo Square into its milestone platinum anniversary season. Veteran Chicago theater administrator Luther Goins is serving as interim executive director while a search for a permanent executive director begins, buoyed in part by what Audain calls “our Christmas miracle”: an unexpected $75,000 “Signal Grant” announced in December by the Bayless Family Foundation.
With Sanders producing and company member Anthony Irons directing, Day of Absence features an ensemble of seven actors, each of whom plays multiple roles, as Douglas Turner Ward requested: guest artists Jordan Arredondo, Meagan Dilworth, Bryant Hayes, and Sonya Madrigal and ensemble members Kelvin Roston, Ronald L. Conner, and Ann Douglas, who plays the Mayor—the role that playwright Ward himself played in the original 1965 production. “We’re really excited,” Sanders says. “There’s going to be a female Mayor for the first time.” v