Oral History Ties Late Artist Robert Douglas To The Origins Of Shakespeare In Central Park

Over the last several years, Kentucky Shakespeare has emerged as one of the city’s (and the region’s) most influential and prominent arts organizations. It’s a company notable not just for its artistic on-stage excellence (which in recent years has expanded beyond the summer festival to become a four-season affair), but for its artistic partnerships with an array of other area companies (not least Louisville Ballet) and for its commitment to programs like Shakespeare Behind Bars and Shakespeare with Veterans.

The origin story and exact timeline of the Kentucky Shakespeare Festival – which is the longest-running un-ticketed free Shakespeare festival in the country – has long been a bit unclear, a tale based as much on oral lore as organization records, which is hardly surprising, given that in the early years the founder, C. Douglas Ramey, was probably not focused on what the Festival would look like sixty years in the future. 

But it turns out there is a credible, documentable origin story which suggests that today’s Kentucky Shakespeare Festival is the legacy of a mostly forgotten collaboration between two very disparate groups of artists that happened some sixty years ago. 

In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, The Carriage House Players, led by C. Douglas Ramey, was an ambitious theatre company that had its headquarters in Old Louisville, but regularly performed in venues like The Gold Room at the old Parkmoor Bowling Alley and Scaccia’s Italian Theatre Restaurant on Taylor Boulevard. 

At the same moment in time, there was an ambitious group of African American visual artists who were fighting for recognition — whose access to exhibition space was as limited as you might expect in an era when it was still routine for help-wanted and houses-for-rent ads to bluntly specify “whites only.” Individually and collectively, those visual artists — including Sam Gilliam, G.C. Coxe, Ed Hamilton, Johnny Richardson, Fred Bond, and Kenneth Victor Young — who later would come together as the Louisville Art Workshop — have had an enormous impact on American art over the last sixty years — and one of their leaders, the late Robert L. Douglas, is the subject of the exhibit “Louisville’s Avant-Garde: Robert L. Douglas,” which ran in the Speed Art Museum’s Chellgren Gallery through October 1.

The works in that show are fascinating simply as artworks alone – and I hope you can get there before it closes. But when I attended a gallery talk by Dr. fari nzinga (who planned and curated the show in partnership with Professor Douglas), I was startled to hear Dr. nzinga mention that in addition to his other well-documented accomplishments, Douglas had played a key role in the history of Kentucky Shakespeare. 

Douglas was, by all accounts, an inveterate and enthusiastic activist and organizer (among other credits, he is known as the “father” of UofL’s Department of Pan-African Studies). During the early ‘60s, when many established galleries were not open to the work of Black artists, Douglas and his colleagues often organized shows and workshops in unconventional locales — bars, restaurants, or wherever was available. (LEO has previously covered aspects of this story.)

Part of the Robert L. Douglas exhibit. Photo by Mindy Best.

By the end of that decade, things would begin to open up, the Louisville Art Workshop would gain some prominence, and Douglas himself would become a staff artist at the Courier-Journal.

But in 1961, Douglas and company were still experimenting and taking on any kinds of art projects they could find. That year, in August, under the name “Gallery Enterprises,” they organized an arts festival at Central Park. According to a newspaper story (in those years The Louisville Courier-Journal covered arts), the festival included “drama, painting, folk singing, jazz, and dancing.”

In an oral history interview collected in 1999 by UofL history professor Dr. Tracy K’Myer, Douglas recalled this event — the same event later recounted to Dr. nzinga, and the impact it had on C. Dougas Ramey and its role in the history of what would eventually become Shakespeare in the Park.

Part of the Robert L. Douglas exhibit. Photo by Mindy Best.

According to a transcript of the interview, Douglas said (referring to Ramey and the Carriage House Players), “We used to help him with the sets. So he was doing Shakespeare. So we said come and do our show. He said, ‘That’s crazy. Nobody does that kind of stuff in no park.’ So we raised hell, told him, ‘Look, you either come and do that or we won’t help you with the sets anymore.’ So he came out and it was great. He never left… It was our impetus. We forced him to come out there. He only admitted that one other time that I know of to me and another person. We were sitting down with a group, sitting there back in ‘75 or ‘76, when he was turning it over to someone else. But it became a life for him.” (Dr. Tracy K’Meyer’s eagerly awaited book, “Under the Greenwood Tree: A Celebration of Kentucky Shakespeare,” a collection of more recent oral history interviews conducted with Kentucky Shakespeople, will be published by the University Press of Kentucky early next year).

Until now, the Douglas account was long forgotten, and there was no firm understanding of the timeline around the first Kentucky Shakespeare Festival. When I first spoke with Matt Wallace, Kentucky Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, and Monte Priddy (whose burnished golden voice has been part of the company since 1961), both agreed that there was no firm organizational history from that period, though there was a handed-down sense that the Festival had begun in 1960.

But contemporaneous newspaper accounts align directly with Professor Douglas’ account. The Central Park arts event he described did occur in August 1961. A month before, in July 1961, C. Douglas Ramey and The Carriage House Players had in fact mounted their first “Shakespeare Festival” (“Much Ado About Nothing,” “Othello,” and “Measure for Measure”) – but it was an indoor, ticketed event that took place inside the Carriage House Theatre. 

It was the following year, in July 1962, that the Carriage House Players mounted a free, outdoor Shakespeare festival with three productions. News photos show the audience sitting on park benches in front of the Central Park colonnade.

By the following summer, 1963,William Mootz, long-time Courier-Journal theatre critic, could report that an audience of about 1,000 people had gathered in a newly built amphitheater for a production of “The Tempest.” 

And it turns out that as Wallace, Amy Attaway (the company’s associate artistic director), and I batted this around in a text message string, we dug back and found accounts of the Carriage House Players performing Shakespeare (and plays on topics like the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys) at the Kentucky State Fair as early as 1959.

Then Wallace struck gold — discovering a 1963 mailer from “The Committee for Shakespeare in Central Park” — that also confirmed the 1962 date — though not the hidden influence of that group of African American artists. 

During Dr. nzinga’s gallery talk, it was clear that beyond the artistic quality of Professor Douglas’s work, she was equally excited about the ways in which his strategic approach to organizing and community building had played an enduring role in shaping our history — not just in the world of visual art, but in his hitherto unknown impact as the impetus behind one of the region’s preeminent cultural institutions.

Kentucky Shakespeare mailer.

I asked her why that mattered.

“My first training was in cultural anthropology,” she said. “I’m interested in who artists are, what they’re doing, what they’re responding to, and what shapes the historical moment they’re living in. That is what excites me and makes me want to learn more. These kinds of stories tell us more about what people are doing as artists in the world. There doesn’t have to be a monumentality to it, but it tells us about the artists’ human experience. A story like this tells us what these artists were doing outside of the communities where they were already known. So it really helps to create a permanent record. And that’s important because this is held in the experience of the phenomenon in the social experience. A story like this reveals the way Professor Douglas was a keystone member of this community in his ecosystem, and the ways he worked to communicate with people through his art and his partnerships. He was always very intentional, and I think this is a really strong part of his legacy.”