James Theodore (Ted) Ward was born on September 15th 1902 to John and Louise Ward in Thibodaux Louisiana, 40 miles west of New Orleans. He was the sixth of eleven children. His father was born into slavery, and became a devoutly religious schoolmaster who sold patent medicines and books to supplement his income.
While still a young boy, Ted wrote a small play and showed it to his father who proclaimed it to be “the work of the devil” and threw it on the fire. When Ted was twelve his mother died, the family broke up and he ran away from home. He rode the freight trains north, and travelled extensively, working variously as a bell-hop, shoe-shine boy, and barber shop porter. He finally ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he was briefly jailed, began to write again, and attended the University of Utah. He entered a story in a magazine contest, winning first prize. As a result, a Utah newspaper editor, Gale Martin, encouraged him to apply for a Zona Gale creative-writing scholarship which he won, allowing him to attend the University of Wisconsin from 1931-1933 where he hosted a radio show and gained a reputation for his dramatic readings.
Having moved to Chicago in 1934, he wrote a one-act play called Sick ‘n’ Tiahd, which was produced in 1937 and won him second prize in a drama contest sponsored by the Chicago Repertoire Group; the winner was Richard Wright, who encouraged him to join the South Side Writers Workshop and to write a full-length play. This play became Big White Fog, completed in 1937 and produced by the Negro Unit of the Chicago Federal Theatre Project (FTP) in 1938.
Ward then wrote several more plays: Even the Dead Arise, The Falcon of Adawa, Skin Deep and an adaptation of Richard Wright’s short story Bright and Morning Star. In 1939 he came to New York in the chorus of the FTP's The Swing Mikado.
In 1940 he joined Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Theodore Browne, Richard Wright and Alain Locke in forming the Negro Playwrights Company based in New York City. Their first production was a revival of Big White Fog at the Lincoln Theatre in Harlem. Also in 1940, he married Mary Sangigian, an Armenian-American social activist. They had two daughters, Laura and Elise, and were married for 23 years. Mrs. Ward died earlier this year aged 95. This production of Big White Fog is dedicated to her.
In 1947, Ward's historical drama Our Lan’ was produced off-Broadway at the Grand Street Playhouse, transferring to Broadway’s Royale Theatre and winning him the Theatre Guild Award. That same year he was named Negro of the Year by the Schomberg Collection of the New York Public Library. Ward was later a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim and National Theater fellowships for playwriting.
Further plays include Shout Hallelujah!, John Brown, Of Human Grandeur, Madison, John de Conquerer, Candle In The Wind, Whole Hogor Nothin', Charity, Throwback, The Daubers, The Bell and The Light, and Big Money. Ted Ward was also a renowned and respected poet.
During the 1940's and '50's, Ted Ward struggled to make a living solely as a writer. During World War II, he contributed to the war effort by writing news and broadcasting scripts for the Office of War Information. With the 1953 appointment of Senator Joseph McCarthy as Chair of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Ward's career as a progressive writer, like those of so many artists and intellectuals, was almost completely suppressed until the re-emergence in the 1960's of black theater, black nationalism, and a re-discovery by younger black dramatists of his work and his outspoken voice.
Ward returned to Chicago in 1963 to head the Louis Theatre and School of Drama at the South Side Centre for the Performing Arts. During the 1970’s he was playwright in residence for a year as at the University of Massachusetts and for several seasons at the New Orleans Free Southern Theatre.
In 1977 in recognition of his many accomplishments, contributions, and prestigious awards, the Mayor of Chicago declared April 23 of that year as Theodore Ward Day. In 1985, Columbia College Chicago established the Theodore Ward Prize for African American Playwriting, awarded annually to emerging and established black playwrights.
Theodore Ward died on May 8 1983.