The lights of Houston's stages are considerably dimmer with the death of Detria Ward, one of our most distinctive, distinguished actors. The Ensemble Theatre, the company in which she shone brightest, released the news of her death, November 17.
Whenever I saw her name in the cast list at Ensemble, I knew I'd be in for a treat. She was an original, full of fun prickly attitude with loads of snap.
She was a big presence on stage, radiating her own special light. Sophisticated and soignee were her trademarks.
Reed thin, she possessed a languorous contralto that carried through the theater on clouds of velvet. More often her roles were those of the wise woman who knows exactly how the world works. Never an ingenue, she could deliver a withering quip with the flick of her slender manicured hand. It always landed.
When not playing a “sassy mama” role, such as her memorable Wilhemina in Celeste Walker's eponymous comedy; or ultra-confident Eve in Pearl Cleague's What I Learned in Paris ; or swanky beauty pageant rep Eloise in Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; The African Mean Girls Play – her last performance just two months ago – Ward could effortlessly switch gears and dive deep and deliver a knockout punch that moved us to tears, as did her multi-faceted Rose in August Wilson's Fences, a crown jewel in the Ensemble rep. Her indomitable Rose earned Ward another nomination as Best Actress in our Houston Theater Awards in 2016.
She had won Best Actress in 2013 for her signature performance as Grace Dunbar in Pearl Cleague's warm comedy The Nacirema Society. The review stated, “Matriarch Grace Dubose Dunbar (Detria Ward, in a wickedly hilarious portrait that falls somewhere between Auntie Mame and a vaudeville Medea) oversees the 100th anniversary of Montgomery's prestigious Nacirema Society with its swanky debutante ball. Nacirema (American spelled backward, in case you wanted to know) is the creme de la creme of Montgomery, Alabama, African-American society. Grace runs the gala with the precision of a drill sergeant wearing dress gloves. Nothing will go wrong, as long as she presides. She wouldn't stand for it, and nobody would dare counter her commands.”
An alumna of Texas Southern University (a B.F.A. from the theater department, naturally), she joined the Ensemble family in 1984 and immediately starred in Don Evans' It's Showdown Time, a free-spirited adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ensemble's founding artistic director George W. Hawkins. She had found home. You may also have heard her musically fragrant voice presiding over halftime shows at Texas Southern University football games, or recently as the gracious pre-performance host at the Ensemble.
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But once you saw her on stage, you never forgot her. I imagine her waving a leopard-print scarf our way, wishing us well in that throaty voice, and giving us a sly wink over a turned shoulder. Imagine what she can teach the angels!
She once said, “I'm so blessed to be a performer.” Ms.Ward, so were we.
Her memorial service and funeral arrangements are pending.
Here's a photo album of her time on stage, courtesy of the Ensemble Theatre.