Is Washington, D.C. ready to support Black theatre produced by a new Black theatre company? I recently had the opportunity to speak with Ella Davis, co-founder of All About the Drama Theatre Group and director of Douglas Turner Ward’s 1965 play Happy Ending, now playing at Anacostia Playhouse.
Why were you drawn to Happy Ending?
I chose this comedy for our debut at Anacostia Playhouse because of the history of the playwright, Douglas Turner Ward, and the theatre group he co-founded, Negro Ensemble Company. The Negro Ensemble Company was created in the early 1960s when there were no outlets for the wealth of Black theatrical talent in America.
The main catalyst for this project was the 1959 production of A Raisin in the Sun, written by Lorraine Hansberry, a gritty, realistic view of Black family life. Playwrights writing realistically about the Black experience could not get their work produced, and even the most successful performers—such as Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen—were confined to playing roles as servants. Disenfranchised artists set out to create a theatre concentrating primarily on themes of Black life.
Ward’s play highlights Black life and creates characters of emotional depth and variety.
Describe the play for us.
Happy Ending is a social satire set in the 1950s about two sisters and domestic workers, Vi and Ellie; their idealist nephew, Junie; and Ellie’s husband, Arthur. These characters, who depend on income from their white employers—the Harrisons—have just discovered that the Harrisons are getting a divorce, which may cause the employees to lose their jobs It’s a play that everyone can laugh at, learn from, and watch to see characters come to life.. The story of how extended families in the Black community are struggling to make ends meet is relevant today.
One of my favorite moments is when Junie berates his aunts for their subservient ways, after which Ellie gives Junie an earful about life in the real world. Another is the Vi and Ellie tag team segment when they ask Junie what he has contributed to the household. They sent him to college, but he came back with his eyes wide shut.
Why did you cast these actors?
This is truly a DC production. So many people involved in this production are native Washingtonians: I studied at the National Conservatory of Dramatic Arts, formerly The Theatre School, in Washington, D.C.; Jennifer Lee, our Ellie, is a graduate of Howard University’s Fine Arts Program; Krinessa Pinkett, our Vi, graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts; and Greg Watkins, our Junie, is a graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University, and a former graduate student of Catholic University. The career of Charles W. Harris, Jr., our Arthur, spans from public television in the late 1960s to films, internet work, radio dramas, and the stage.
Each artist came with excitement to work on a historic controversial piece, set during a time that a few weren’t even born; each has a respect for the craft and was eager to dive right into the research—they did not hold back on questions about the playwright and about the character they would portray; finally, all were unafraid to step outside the box to fully commit to their roles, which in some segments would seem over the top.
The characters these actors portray are complex in nature, each from a different generation, which you will observe as each character states their case while trying to resolve the situation. The rehearsal process revealed new levels of discoveries, and I’m excited to watch the performances evolve.
closes August 25, 2018
Details and tickets
What makes your company unique?
The nonprofit I co-founded and lead as executive director, All About the Drama Theatre Group, is always looking for new artists and writers who celebrate the Black community.
We want to honor Black experience. D.C.’s population is almost 50 percent African-American, yet we only have one full-time, professional Black theatre company. There are no Black-owned theatre houses or stages. Since this play takes place in a kitchen, it’s transportable: I have directed it as dinner theatre for my church and also for senior citizens, but never before on a professional stage. This production at Anacostia Playhouse gives All About the Drama a chance to propel our mission forward by placing us in the community’s eyes.
It’s very important for Black theatre productions to survive because it’s the right of our culture. Like Negro Ensemble Company, it is our intent through this collaborative effort to help Black actors, producers, writers, and directors find those same opportunities to work and produce theatrical works with characters that have depth and meaning.
All About the Drama has a mission to spread awareness of some of our rich heritage through drama by capturing the essence of alternative performance styles raised in urban life. We are humbled to follow in the footsteps of Negro Ensemble Company.
Douglas Turner Ward originally paired Happy Ending with another one-act. What is your twist?
In the original one-act, Happy Ending was paired with Day of Absence. In the Happy Ending script, characters refer to their employer, the Harrisons, but we never see them. For this one-act production, we didn’t want to change Turner’s creation, but we decided to add a new element before the play that will introduce the audience to the Harrisons. I wrote something and worked on it with Prosperity Media, Koalaty Entertainment, and The Zhanra Group. It’s a surprise—you won’t want to be late to the show!
Will audiences encounter a humorous or serious experience?
Both. We have a wonderful ensemble who are truly excited about doing this. They bring a wealth of energy to this rollercoaster of a one-act play and they also know that comedy is serious. The audience is going to be in stitches.
Why should people see this production of Happy Ending in 2018?
People should come to support the new generation of Black artists channeling creative works from those that paved the way for Black theatre. Douglas Turner Ward’s satirical piece will bring on a chuckle while its message, suddenly and strikingly relevant in today’s political atmosphere, hits home.
In a time where immigration is a hot issue and racism still runs rampant, the play is a reminder to remember where we come from and how far we have to go. Happy Ending is just as enlightening and relevant today as it was during the 1960s civil rights movement. It will make you question what you know and the motives, if any, of the people around you. It is sure to draw an interesting conversation.