Day of Absence, Play That Helped Launch Negro Ensemble, Gets NYC Reading | Playbill

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News Day of Absence, Play That Helped Launch Negro Ensemble, Gets NYC Reading Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company announced a large cast of 17 for its Feb. 1-2 staged reading of the 1965 satire Day of Absence, written and directed by Douglas Turner Ward. Two original cast members, Arthur French and William Jay Marshall, are part of the experience.

The staged reading, which is by invitation only at The Peter Norton Space, is part of Signature's 2008-2009 Season, celebrating the historic works of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC).

The cast will include Peggy Alston, Norman Bush, Yaya DaCosta, Keith David, Brandon Dirden, Jason Dirden, Arthur French, January LaVoy, William Jay Marshall, Kathryn Meisle, Erica Peeples, Terrence Riggins, Heather Simms, Joyce Sylvester, Raphael Nash Thompson and Allie Woods.

Day of Absence is the landmark 1965 play that launched the founding of the NEC. It was first presented on Nov. 15, 1965, at St. Marks Playhouse on a double bill with Ward's one-act satire, Happy Ending. The plays were produced by Robert Hooks, whom Ward had met when the two performed in Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun. In 1964 Hooks' Group Theatre Workshop, a tuition-free acting school for local New York youth, presented Happy Ending. The critical success of the project prompted Ward and Hooks to unite with general manager Gerald S. Krone to produce the commercial Off-Broadway run of Happy Ending with the Day of Absence. The cast included Hooks, Ward and many future members of the original NEC acting company, some of whom have joined Signature for this special presentation.

Arthur French and William Jay Marshall appeared in the 1965 production. French, Marshall, Norman Bush and Allie Woods later performed in a television version of the play on PBS in 1967, which included Ward and the 13 original NEC company members. In 1970 French, Marshall, Bush and Woods appeared in a revival of the play at the NEC.

Ward received an Obie Award for his performance in Day of Absence and a Drama Desk Award for writing. A 1966 New York Times opinion piece by Ward, on the subject of African-American theatre, "attracted the attention of the Ford Foundation, who, after inviting Ward, Hooks, and Krone to apply for funding, awarded them with $434,000 in 1967 to establish the Negro Ensemble Company," according to Signature notes.

Signature's 2008-2009 season is an examination of a body of work from the historic Negro Ensemble Company's collective of writers, "whose contributions have helped shape America's theatrical heritage."

Charles Fuller's Zooman and the Sign begins previews March 3.

For more information on Signature’s 2008-09 season, visit

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