Val Gray Ward popularly known as “The Voice of the Black Writer” is a dramatist-historian, producer, director, educator, cultural activist, and the founder of Kuumba Theatre. Born in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, the oldest all-black town in the U.S., Val had an ordained gift for performance that manifested at an early age when she dramatically recited poems and won various oratorical competitions in school. Her keen interest in African American literature also shaped her thoughts, and fueled her innate commitment, and creativity in Black arts.

In 1951, Val migrated to the city of Chicago. Val’s 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, she met her husband and veteran journalist, university professor and co-founder of National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Francis Ward, who fully supported her work.

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

A pan-Africanist, Val has performed across the country, Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, where she performed and gave lectures at Universities, Colleges, and festivals. In 1977, Val took the Kuumba cast and crew of Useni Perkins’s play The Image Makers to FESTAC ’77, Lagos, Nigeria. She has produced and directed plays such as The Amen Corner by James Baldwin, Welcome to Black River by Samm Art Williams, and Five On The Black Hand Side by Charles Fuller. In 1981, Val took Kuumba’s musical production of The Little Dreamer: The Life of Bessie Smith, to Japan, and produced Buddy Bulter’s In The House of The Blues, in 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 recorded her first CD Album titled Rhapsody in Hughes 101 honoring the life and works of Langston Hughes, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. At 88, she 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