Gerald Krone, a Negro Ensemble Company Founder, Dies at 86

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Gerald S. Krone, a theater manager and producer who in 1967 joined with Douglas Turner Ward and Robert Hooks to found the Negro Ensemble Company, a New York theater troupe that championed black writers, actors and themes in what was then a largely white theatrical landscape, died on Feb. 20 at his home in Philadelphia. He was 86.

His longtime partner, Ivan Kaminoff, said the cause was Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Krone, who was managing various Off Broadway theaters at the time, brought administrative savvy to the new enterprise, while Mr. Hooks, an actor and producer, and Mr. Ward, an actor and playwright, concentrated on the creative side. Mr. Krone stood out in the partnership because he was white.

Black activism was gaining a new militance in the second half of the 1960s, and before long the company, which took up residence at St. Marks Playhouse in the East Village, was drawing criticism over, among other things, the participation of Mr. Krone and other white people.

“We were damned for not being in Harlem,” Mr. Ward wrote in a 1968 essay in The New York Times defending the company at the end of its first season, “accused of conspiring against black playwrights, judged traitorous for hiring a few white people, and stigmatized with a host of other mortal and venial sins negating our right to be called a black theater.”

Criticism notwithstanding, the partnership enjoyed quick success, and the Negro Ensemble Company went on to send three plays to Broadway: “The River Niger” in 1973, “The First Breeze of Summer” in 1975 and “Home” in 1980. In 1981 it staged, Off Broadway, the premiere of Charles Fuller’s “A Soldier’s Play,” with a cast that included Denzel Washington and Samuel L. Jackson; the play won the Pulitzer Prize.

Less than two years after it was founded, the company received a special Tony Award, which Mr. Ward and Mr. Krone were on hand to accept. After Mr. Ward spoke, Mr. Krone addressed the audience, thanking his black colleagues “for being courageous enough — in this rather difficult, confusing, disturbing time — for being courageous enough to give me, a white man, an opportunity to be part of a very important, dynamic, wonderful black theater, which is theirs.”

Gerald Sidney Krone was born on Feb. 25, 1933, in Memphis to Irving and Eva Sauer Krone. He grew up in Memphis and attended Hume High School, where Elvis Presley was a class or two behind him; Mr. Krone once served as M.C. at a school event and introduced Presley, Mr. Kaminoff said.

Mr. Krone served in the Army during the Korean War, then graduated from Washington University in St. Louis. He served an internship with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

For a time he was married to Dorothy Olim, and they were business partners as well, working on theater productions in management capacities as well as forming Krone-Olim Advertising. The marriage ended in divorce.

Mr. Hooks met Mr. Krone and Ms. Olim when they were all involved in a production at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1964. When Mr. Hooks decided to produce two of Mr. Ward’s one-act plays, “Happy Ending” and “Day of Absence,” the next year at St. Marks, he asked them to serve as managers.

The production generated buzz, and in the aftermath Mr. Ward wrote a provocative essay in The New York Times that bore the headline “American Theater: For Whites Only?”

“Despite an eminent handful,” he wrote, “Negro dramatists remain sparse in number, productions sporadic at most, and scripts too few to indicate discernible trends.”

The article caught the attention of the Ford Foundation, which asked Mr. Hooks and Mr. Ward to meet to discuss a possible grant.

“Having Gerald right there as our general manager and numbers man, we asked him to come with us,” Mr. Hooks recalled in a telephone interview. The foundation asked for a proposal that would advance black theater; Mr. Krone was instrumental in drawing it up and securing a $1.5 million grant, which got the Negro Ensemble Company started.

“We were in the right place at the right time and were able to create a movement,” Mr. Hooks said, “and Gerald was a big part of that.”

The funding financed a company of 13 actors, workshops and a four-play season the first year. Mr. Ward was the artistic director, Mr. Hooks the executive director and Mr. Krone the administrative director. The first production, Peter Weiss’s “Song of the Lusitanian Bogey,” opened in January 1968.

Once its Ford Foundation money ran out, the company faced occasional financial crises. Mr. Krone remained as administrative director until 1982, when he left to work in television news, though he remained on the board of directors for some years.

In addition to Mr. Kaminoff, whom he married in 2013 after two decades together, Mr. Krone is survived by a brother, Norman.

The Negro Ensemble Company continues today with workshops and intermittent productions. In 2016 the company staged a revival of “Day of Absence,” one of the plays that brought the three founders together in 1965.

“The N.E.C. served its purpose,” Mr. Hooks said, “and is still serving its purpose.”


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