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Woodie King, Jr.

(b. 1937)


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(b. 1937), essayist, short-story writer, anthologist, dramatist, scriptwriter for film and television, producer, director, actor, and contributor to the Black Arts movement.

Born in Mobile, Alabama, Woodie King, Jr., moved to Detroit with his parents, Woodie and Ruby King, when he was five. From 1955 to 1968 to help out his family, which was supported by his mother's housework, King worked as a model for church fans and calendars. He attended Michigan's Will-O-Way School of the Theatre on scholarship from 1958 to 1962, studying every element of the theater while immersing himself in black literature. In 1959, he married casting agent Willie Mae Washington with whom he would have three children. From 1959 to 1962, King wrote drama criticism for the Detroit Tribune.

Both at Will-O-Way and at Wayne State University and the Detroit School of Arts and Crafts, where he did postgraduate study in theater, King lamented the lack of acting opportunities for blacks and, with Ron Milner, cofounded the Concept-East Theatre. As its manager and director from 1960 to 1963, King staged plays by white and black playwrights, including Milner's, eventually exchanging the middle class for a neighborhood audience to the enlivenment of the productions.

Negro Digest published his first story, “Ghetto”, in August 1962 and his second, “Beautiful Light and Black Our Dreams”, in 1963. The latter, republished in Langston Hughes's The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers (1967), explores the poetically expressed thoughts of a black man and his lover and is notably sympathetic toward the woman who has been disillusioned by too many black hustlers yet longs to color her romantic dreams black.

A year after his 1964 move to New York, King won a John Hays Whitney Fellowship to study directing and theater administration and became Cultural Arts Director of Mobilization for Youth. In 1966, King adapted Langston Hughes's poetry for the stage in The Weary Blues, later adapting Hughes's stories in Simple's Blues.

After producing in 1969 Black Quartet, four one-act plays by Black Arts movement dramatists (including Ron Milner), King founded the New Federal Theatre in 1970. Serving as showcase and inspiration for new black plays, the New Federal Theatre also welcomed works by other ethnic writers.

In the 1970s, King edited several landmark anthologies, including Black Drama Anthology (coedited with Ron Milner), Black Short Story Anthology (containing his story “The Game”), and Black Poets and Prophets: The Theory, Practice and Esthetics of the Pan-Africanist Revolution (coedited with Earl Anthony).

King has also produced, directed, and written several films, including The Long Night (based on Julian Mayfield's 1975 novel) and The Black Theatre Movement: “A Raisin in the Sun” to the Present, and scripted teleplays for “Sanford and Son”. A collection of his essays on Black Theater: Present Condition was published in 1981.

A multitalented man, King has greatly aided the development of contemporary black theater, both through his writings and encouragement of black dramatists widely varied in political and social viewpoints, and black literature through his short stories and anthologies.

Stephen M. Vallilo, “Woodie King, Jr.,” in DLB, vol. 38, Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, eds. Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, 1985, pp. 170–174.Bernard L. Peterson, Jr., “Woodie King, Jr.,” in Contemporary Black American Playwrights and Their Plays, 1988, pp. 294–297.Kalamu ya Salaam, “Black Theatre the Way It Is: An Interview with Woodie King, Jr.,” African American Review 31:4 (Winter 1997): 647–658.

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Subjects: Literature.


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