by Stephen Sachs
“When you look at a fellow, if you taught yourself to look for it, you can see his song written on him. Tell you what kind of man he is in the world.” – Bynum, JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE by August Wilson
Adolphus Ward was a shaman. When you stood in his sphere, you felt it. This was a man who accessed the otherworld. A conjure man, a healer, the keeper of souls. His impish grin, twinkling eyes, the playful tone of his voice warmed the heart.
The Fountain was Adolphus’ theater home. “From the start, the Fountain Family has been like blood-family-members to me,” he said. He and Ben Bradley were friends for more than thirty years, harking back to their Milwaukee theater days. At the Fountain, they partnered on two August Wilson plays. Adolphus’ favorite moment on stage in Gem of the Ocean was going to the City of Bones. “That was a damn good trip.”
I directed him in the premieres of two plays by Athol Fugard. Both times, Adolphus was other-worldly. In Coming Home, he played the ghost-spirit of Oupa (“grandfather”). A gentle soul who tended his desert plants and called the magic pumpkin seeds in his leather pouch “little miracles.”
In Fugard’s The Train Driver, he played a gravedigger overseeing a bleak South African burial site for the unknown and unwanted, who “puts the nameless ones in the grave.” I’ll never forget the moment in the play when Adolphus, as the gravedigger, sang a Xhosa lullaby to the souls in the ground who were “sleeping.” The song floated from Adolphus like smoke on the night air. Haunting, beautiful, quietly transcendent.
Adolphus now sleeps. And I sing to him.
Adolphus Ward passed away on November 7th at the age of eighty-six.
Stephen Sachs is the Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.