Val Gray Ward popularly known as “The Voice of the Black Writer” is an internationally acclaimed dramatist-historian, producer, director, educator, cultural activist and the founder of Kuumba Theatre. Born Q. Valeria Ward in the oldest all-black town in the U.S. Mound Bayou, Mississippi on August 21st, 1932, Val had a preordained gift for performance, which manifested at an early age when she dramatically recited poems and won various oratorical competitions throughout the state of Mississippi. Her keen interest in African American literature and folklore also shaped and fueled her innate commitment and creativity in the Black arts as well as her activism.

In 1951, Val moved to the city of Chicago where her dedication to Black empowerment, liberation and culture got her heavily involved in the Black Arts Movement. She cultivated lifelong friendships with Gwendolyn Brooks, Dr. Margaret Burroughs, Hoyt Fuller, Haki Madhubuti among many others, and was a regular at the South Side Community Arts Center and the DuSable Museum of African American History. In 1965, Val met her husband veteran journalist, professor emeritus of journalism and co-founder of the Chicago chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), Francis Ward who fully supported her life’s work.

In 1968, Val founded the pioneering Kuumba Theatre Workshop in her south side home. In KiSwahili “Kuumba” means “clean-up, create, and build,” and is the 6th principle of the Nguzo saba. It was always Val’s vision to revitalize the local black community through the arts. She holds the unwavering view that theatre is meant to educate and entertain. Prior to Kuumba, she established a community-centered organization called “Artists for Freedom.” In 1969, Val became the first director of the Afro-American Cultural Center at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.

A pan-Africanist at heart, Val has traveled widely across the country and to various parts of the world where she performed and gave lectures at universities, colleges, churches and cultural events. In 1977, Val took the Kuumba cast and crew of Useni Perkins’s play “The Image Makers” to FESTAC ’77 held in Lagos, Nigeria. Under Val, Kuumba has produced notable plays such as James Baldwin’s “The Amen Corner,” Samm Art Williams’s “Welcome to Black River” and “Five on The Black Hand Side” by Charles Fuller. In 1981, Val took Kuumba’s musical production “The Little Dreamer: The Life of Bessie Smith” to Japan and Buddy Bulter’s “In the House of The Blues” to Montreal, Canada. When Val is not producing, she performs one woman shows in the U.S. and abroad, which include “My Soul is a Witness,” “Harriet Tubman” by Francis Ward, “Sister Son/ji” by Sonia Sanchez, and “I Am A Black Woman” that features poetry by Mari Evans. In 2003, Val released her Grammy-nominated CD: Rhapsody in Hughes 101, which honors the life and works of Langston Hughes. Val is the recipient of over 200 awards including 21 Emmys for her docutainment film “Precious Memories: Strolling 47th Street.”

At 88, Val is still giving electrifying performances via Zoom, and recently performed for the students at Wellesley College, MA.
Works and Publications

James Baldwin's Friend Val Gray Ward Remembers Him "Like a Prophet".” Esquire, Jun. 2021