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Black History Month and Special Collections: The Theodore Ward Papers

By Abbeylin Farnsworth

“I feel that it is only now that I have at last mastered my medium. And this much I have to depend upon if nothing else,” Playwright Theodore Ward observed his evolution as an artist in a 1951 letter to his friend Gail Martin, chairman of the Utah State Institute of Fine Arts and arts and music editor at the Deseret News. 

Born in 1902 in Thibodaux, Louisiana, Ward began formal studies at the University of Utah in the 1920s before pursuing creative writing at the University of Wisconsin. Although he never achieved any major literary successes, Ward gained widespread recognition for his plays, often tackling controversial subjects like anti-Semitism, racism and government politics. Ward later settled in Chicago, joining the Chicago Writers Workshop of the Federal Theatre Project. He crafted a critical piece entitled Big White Fog, which focused on the Garvey Movement – the Universal Negro Improvement Association, which became the largest Black Nationalism movement in African American History up to that point. Ward later took the play to New York, where it became the first production of the Negro Playwrights Company.

Despite his travels, Ward maintained a lifelong friendship with a professor he met at the University of Utah, Dr. Louis C. Zucker. Through the correspondence found within the collection, Ward valued Zucker’s feedback on his work, with letters between the two dated from 1939 to 1951. They appeared to maintain a relationship of critical conversation, where Ward felt comfortable in defending his “talky conversational” work to Zucker in 1939, “you know too little of the life of my people to thoroughly understand the intensity of the conflicts which enfuse [sic] almost every line of the play and it is only when you are permitted to see the characters confronted with each other that proper insight can be gained” (letter to Zucker accompanying final copy of Big White Fog), but even twelve years later, he still sought Zucker’s critical literary feedback, even inviting the professor to  “use [Throwback] in a classroom” in 1951. 

Ward gained widespread recognition for his plays, often tackling controversial subjects like anti-Semitism, racism and government politics. Photo by Elise Virginia Ward.

Housed in the Special Collections Department at the University of Utah, The Theodore Ward Papers (1938-1951)contain two plays by Ward, Throwback andBig White Fog. Donated by Dr. Zucker, the collection includes correspondence and drafts associated with these plays. Both plays explore the struggle of African Americans for respect in a dominant white culture. The collection consists of four rough drafts, and a final copy of Throwback, with a letter from the author to Gail Martin. Additionally, the final script of Big White Fog is accompanied by correspondence and a critic’s review from the production’s 1939 opening in Seattle. 

While viewing the collection, one will find typewritten pages of rich character exposition, bordered by handwritten notes, including “feelers” and scene development, which produce the progress of the play and highlight the author’s writing process and development. Ward includes direction and even line delivery suggestions in the early drafts. Edits between the four drafts of  Throwback give way to conversation rather than storytelling, stripping the piece of its formality and increasing the intimacy not only between the characters themselves but between the cast and the viewer as well. 

Ward’s plays were highly praised for their innovative depiction of the Black experience. He was particularly noted for doing away with the spiritual ballads and feverish dancing that were common in “Negro theatricals” of his time in favor of a more nuanced, naturalistic approach to plot and character. 

Theodore Ward died in 1983. His writings highlighted the African-American experience during the period of the Great Depression. Take a walk with Ward through his development as a writer by visiting The Theodore Ward Papers. 

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