Family Celebrated At Fifth National Black Theatre Fest

Great change and renewal were in the air as the fifth biennial National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) convened in downtown Winston-Salem, N.C., on Aug. 4, for a week of plays, performances, readings, and seminars.

The theme this year, "The Black Family on Stage," was addressed at the opening press conference. "Where are your children?" was the question posed by child actor RaVen Larrymore Kelly. Tears flowed and emotions ran deep as the call for embracing youth and family were put at the forefront of the black theatre agenda.

Debbie Allen was the festival's honorary chairperson and was joined by many luminaries of stage and screen, including playwrights August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins; producers Barbara Ann Teer and Woodie King, Jr.; and actors Barbara Montgomery, Ebony Jo-Ann, Count Stovall, Rosanna Carter, Hal Williams, Hattie Winston, Tonea Stewart, Keith David, Marla Gibbs, Stephanie Mills, Todd Davis, Dick Anthony Williams, Glynn Turman, Anna Maria Horsford, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Theresa Merritt.

Larry Leon Hamlin, producer and artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre, shook up Winston-Salem officials with his announcement that he was looking into proposals from other cities interested in hosting the festival. In a separate interview with Back Stage, Hamlin said, "We're very happy that Richmond and Charlotte are interested. Right now we are in the exploratory stage. The cities would have to have at least 12 state-of-the-art performing facilities and a corps of 2,000 volunteers. Governmental and corporate sponsorship would be important. Perhaps even more important would be that the citizens of those cities be extremely supportive of the festival. We'd like a city where the theatres are not too far apart. The city would have to be kind to festival attendees."

Every two years, festival patrons pour eight million consumer dollars into Winston-Salem coffers. Hamlin said that his budget has grown from $500,000 in 1989 to $1.5 million today. He reported that the city's corporate community has been very supportive, providing for a third of the festival's budget. He explained, "We have been asked by a number of festival attendees if we would do this annually. We said we would not do that until we felt that there was a true need. As this festival gets larger and larger, we may be approaching that time."

The producer did concede that in 1999 the fest will be in Winston-Salem and continue to be there in odd-numbered years. Beginning the year 2000, and for subsequent even-numbered years, NBTF would be in another city, yet to be determined.

Awards and Living Legends

Veteran television and film actors, John Amos and Ja'Net DuBois, were the recipients of the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award. Amos, who has been honored at previous festivals with a day named in his honor, offered some thoughts on acting on the stage: "We get a chance to create illusion and when the audience buys into that, we get a charge. That can only happen in the theatre. The stage is for the actor. I'm grateful and proud to be an actor."

The Lloyd Richards Director's Award went to Shauneille Perry, who has directed over 100 plays, most notably "Black Girl," "Sty of the Blind Pig," and "Rasta." Writer Amiri Baraka received the newly renamed August Wilson Playwright's Award for his long list of dramas, among them "Dutchman," "Slaveship," and, most recently, "Primitive World." Ricardo Khan of Crossroads Theatre of New Brunswick, N.J., and Barbara Ann Teer of the National Black Theater in New York, garnered recognition as recipients of the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer's Award.

Living Legend honors went to actors Gloria Foster, Rosanna Carter, Ethel Ayler, Ellen Holly, actor-director-playwright Ernie McClintock, producer-directors Douglas Turner Ward, founder of the Negro Ensemble Company, and Yvonne Brewster, artistic director of the Talawa Theatre Company of London. Publicist, entrepreneur, and author Terrie Williams was honored with a Special Recognition award.

Talk of the Town

There were 26 productions in all and a performance schedule that had increased to 88 shows. That expansion was borne out when some shows, like Wilson's "Fences" and Judi Ann Mason's "Indigo Blues," sold out as early as Aug. 5 and 6. In contrast to previous years, the majority of plays addressed social and political issues, like homelessness, drug addiction, the challenge of living with a mentally disabling condition, racism, domestic abuse, and the impact of AIDS.

Celebrities were again a big attraction. The most star-studded cast was that of the National Black Touring Circuit's production of James De Jongh's classic, "Do Lord Remember Me," which featured Barbara Montgomery, Glynn Turman, Lou Myers, Ebony Jo-Ann, and Roscoe Lee Browne. Philip Hayes Dean's Los Angeles-based DAW Productions performed his one-act, "Dink's Blues," starred Dick Anthony Williams and Lincoln Kilpatrick. And television actress Karen Malina White created a one-woman tour de force in Pearl Cleage's "Chain," produced by RACCA's Theatre for Us.

Ella Joyce was featured in Wilson's "Fences," produced by Raleigh's HLJTCA Theatre. Broadway actor Andre de Shields starred in "Ghost CafÆ’," written by de Shields and Jim Mirrione and produced by Black Goat Entertainment & Enlightenment, Inc. of New York. Robert Gossett appeared in Judi Ann Mason's popular dream play, "Indigo's Blues," presented by the L.A. company, Mojo Ensemble. Television actor and Broadway composer Micki Grant starred in Harlem's H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players' production of John Henry Redwood's "A Sunbeam." Award-winning playwright Ntozake Shange returned to the festival this year with a new entry titled, "ellington is not a street," for the festival's New Performance in Black Theatre Series.

Atlanta's Jomandi Productions presented its original musical. "Hip 2: Birth of the Boom," where a collage of spoken word, rap, R&B, and dance related the struggles and hopes of black men. Thomas W. Jones II authored the work and led the ensemble cast of LeRoi Simmons, Mark Ford, Michael Howell, and Pedro Harris. Crossroads Theatre transplanted their production of Wilson's "Jitney," which enjoyed packed houses throughout its run.

This year there were only two youth theatre productions, the HLJTCA Theatre's "Blues" and the Negro Ensemble Company's "Sister Rabbit Takes Harlem," a folktale with original music.

State of Black Theatre

Wilson closed his keynote address with a look to the future. "Black theatre is like a chained giant. We have only glimpsed its power. Our talents have grown. We are breaking our chains as we affirm the values of ourselves."

NBTF producer Larry Leon Hamlin echoed similar sentiments at the closing press conference. He announced that he is starting a million-dollar endowment fund for black theatres so that they can help each other. "We have seen some theatres grow strong, like Jomandi Productions, St. Louis Black Repertory Theatre, Freedom Theatre (Philadelphia), the Ensemble Theatre (Houston), and Crossroads Theatre. We are receiving more funding than we have received in the past. We have proven ourselves."

Hamlin hoped that, "In the not-too-distant future we would like to see more Latinos and Asians here. I think that we'll branch out into a theatre of the world and all people represented. That's a goal because I think it's going to be Black theatre that's going to lead humanity in its proper direction of peace, harmony, and respect for one another.

"Certainly black people have shown much compassion. We are some of the most compassionate people in the world. We are extremely fair and just. I think that we can get the world to trust us."

The next festival is slated for Aug. 2-7, 1999, in Winston-Salem, N.C.

Jeanette Toomer's coverage of the National Black Theatre Festival will continued next week with a conversation with playwright August Wilson, who delivered the keynote address at this year's