“It’s a confirmation of what I was doing,” Ward recently told me from his home in Manhattan of watching team after team, in sport after sport, follow the Bucks’ lead in imitating his piercing presentation of America’s racial ills.
“Day of Absence” debuted off-Broadway in fall 1965. The New York Times summarized it as a “recount [of] the uproarious emergencies which occur when a Southern town is faced with the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of all its black citizens” who had kept White lives going.
The Bucks proved Ward prescient. These times and 1965 proved him reflective. A policeman in “Day of Absence” goes insane upon realizing he has no Black people to brutalize.
“Primarily, [the play] was my response, just like the athletes are responding to today,” said Ward, who then birthed the Negro Ensemble Company to rebut mostly all-White Broadway. “That was my response to those times and injustices of that moment. It was my way of dramatizing the issues.”
“Day of Absence” — coupled with a second one-act play that juxtaposed it, “Happy Ending” — won Obie and Vernon Rice (now Drama Desk) awards. It has been produced countless times and studied as groundbreaking by theatrical scholars.
And when a colleague suggested to Howard University theater professor Denise J. Hart that it was somehow obsolete after all these years, she responded: “ ‘Day of Absence,’ a play that I have taught for 16 semesters in my Play Analysis class, is an excellent framework for the facilitation of relevant discussions centered on both historical and contemporary issues that confront African Americans. ... I was dismayed that a play with such rich themes relevant to the African American experience was being relegated to being ‘dated.’ ”
Indeed, “Day of Absence” perhaps resonated more last month, after Black athletes led a protest of racial injustice by refusing to play, than it ever had before.
And their work stoppage reminded that there may be no greater stage to capture attention for critical issues than the one sports naturally provide. After all, when players in the NBA, the WNBA, Major League Soccer and Major League Baseball walked off their fields of play in protest of the most recent police brutishness against a Black man — Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back in Kenosha, Wis. — it forced more people to pay attention to the singular issue of police brutality against Black people, and the historic problem of racial injustice, than most anything anyone else could have done.
The protest demanded that those who think sports is an escape — and that athletes, particularly Black athletes, exist only to entertain them — reconsider. It made it impossible not to hear a universal wonderment in the Black community when Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers, with tears trickling down his face, said before cameras, “It’s amazing why we keep loving this country and this country does not love us back.”
Ward told me he followed the news of that shooting and the reaction to it as well.
Ward was long conscious of the truth that the klieg light of sports can shine on an issue. After he was born in Burnside, La., which was named for an Irish sugar plantation owner on whose plantation Ward’s parents worked, Ward’s family moved to New Orleans. He starred in football and on the track at Xavier Prep High. He went briefly to Wilberforce University and then the University of Michigan, where he played football for one season before being sidelined by a knee injury.
By 1950, he was in New York pursuing a sportswriter’s career at a communist newspaper, the Daily Worker, under the tutelage of progressive advocacy sports columnist Lester Rodney. Ward succeeded Rodney, an early agitator for desegregation in baseball, as sports editor. By the mid-1950s, Ward was studying theater and landing roles in Eugene O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh” and Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” And in between, he was jailed for doing something Muhammad Ali became famous for years later: refusing conscription. The Supreme Court eventually overturned Ward’s conviction, as it would Ali’s.
It all solidified Ward’s thinking when he started writing “Day of Absence.”
“It’s the same motivation that [athletes] have to make their protest and the attitude about who they are and what they represent,” Ward explained of watching his nonfiction tale unfurl in real life. “[Athletes] are like all of us, have a role to respond to injustice wherever it is. The athletes . . . are acting on their social conscience. So I agree with them for what they’re doing.”
These weren’t the first athletes Ward saw engage in his messaging from “Day of Absence.” Bill Russell was.
“His brother was a good friend of mine — Charlie Russell,” Ward said of the younger Russell.
Charlie Russell was a playwright, too, best known for his 1969 piece “Five on the Black Hand Side,” which became a popular Blaxploitation-era film. And during the first run of “Day of Absence” at St. Mark’s Playhouse off-Broadway, Ward recalled: “[Bill] Russell came to see it and after spent the evening with me and my cast. Bill Russell spent the whole evening with us.”
A few years earlier, Russell led other Black players in refusing to play an exhibition game in Lexington, Ky., after the eatery in the team’s hotel refused to serve them.
“That was my generation,” said Ward, who has been recovering from a stroke in early May that came on the eve of his 90th birthday. “The injustice done to Black people didn’t stop then and really hasn’t stopped. I’m happy the athletes are letting their feelings [be] known by their actions.”
I’m glad Douglas Turner Ward, though no one knew it at the time, showed them a way.