Gala Celebrating New Federal Theater (44th Year) and Legendary Producer-Director Voza Rivers, A Class Act in the History of Black Theatre
Appearances and Performances by intergenerational stars showcased
Executive Producer Woodie King, Jr.’s event theme: Our History is Our Equity
By: Gloria Dulan-Wilson
Sunday, March 16 was truly a momentous occasion as the Black theatrical and entertainment community saluted, feted and showed their love for entertainment impresario Voza “Vo” Rivers, as well as celebrating the 44th Anniversary of The New Federal Theatre(1970) by Woodie King, Jr.
The who’s who in Black entertainment turned out for a gala cocktail reception, followed by a program rivaled only by the Academy Awards at the BMCC TriBeca Performing Arts Center. You might say that Sunday’s program was not just to honor these two wonderful men and their accomplishments, but a living lesson in Black history as well – as living legends, side by side with the spirit of their forebearers, presented their best to a captivated audience. It’s something that Black children the world over would learn a lot from, as example after example of triumph over trials and tribulations walked across that stage that afternoon.
Voza Rivers, who is generally known for his activities behind the scenes, has partnered with so many individuals and organizations over the past few decades, it would take more than a ceremonial program or a filmographical salute to truly encapsulate his impact. Though he softly goes about playing the unassuming man behind the scenes, he is truly the foundation and the glue that gets it started and keeps it together. Most people recognize Voza for the ever-present smile he displays and his quiet, soft-spoken manner when he is speaking with you. The epitome of speak softly, but carry a big stick – in which case Voza’s stick is that incredible creative genius of his to come up with concepts and then see them through to fruition. Generally speaking, if Voza’s stamp of approval is on an idea, production, concept, collaboration – it will not fail, and will be an inordinate success.
The event was co-hosted by Danny Glover, who has been a commanding presence on screen, stage and television for more than 25 years; Debbi Morgan, the first, and only thus far, African-American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress, now in the midst of her “standing room only” one-woman autobiographical show, “The Monkey on My Back!”; actor-writer-producer Robert Townsend, known as one of the “Godfathers of the Independent Film World”; and Tamara Tunie, who stars as Medical Examiner Dr. Melinda Warner on the drama series “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”, and who is Chair Emerita of the Board of Directors of the nonprofit Figure Skating In Harlem, and President of the Board of Directors of Harlem Stage/The Gatehouse.
The event kicked off with greetings from Cliff Frazier, one of the board members of The New Federal Theatre, and proceeded into high gear when Danny Glover and Debbi Morgan took their respective podiums to co-host the show. Then Robert Townsend suddenly appeared at Danny Glover’s podium to also co-host the show!! After being informed that he was not to come out until Danny Glover, who had a flight to catch, had actually made his exit, Townsend appeared to be comically confused as he walked back and forth – in a combination perplexed Groucho Marx/Woody Allen fashion – trying to decide whether or not he should leave or just hang around on stage until Danny actually left. And this comical charade kept up for the first portion of the program, keeping the entire audience in stitches – which, by the way, is the hallmark of Robert Townsend, the consummate comedian.
As it turned out, Danny Glover actually did have a plane to catch, and subsequently Townsend was able to “settle down” in his role as co-host of the evenings’ festivities.
The filmography of the life of Voza Rivers (produced by UniWorld’s Marjorie Clarke) was well-done, giving the highlights of Vo’s accomplishments over the years. Having started out at age 19 working with the late, great Roger Furman, of the Roger Furman Theatre in Harlem, and has steadily risen through the ranks becoming the Executive Director of New Heritage Theatre after Furman’s death in 1983. They were the first-ever Black production company to bring the plight of South Africans to the stage starting with the two-person performance of Woza Albert, featuring Mbogeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa.
Presentations from Congressman Charles Rangel, showing that Sunday, March 16, 2014 was now in the Congressional Record, followed by a citation from the City Council of the City of New York presented by Inez Dickens and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who had no award to present but wanted to acknowledge what a wonderful influence and impact Voza Rivers has had, and continues to have, in the City of New York.
Now these presentations, as meritorious as they were, took on a decidedly comical bent when Robert Townsend stood just slightly behind each of the presenters and mimicked them making exaggerated gestures as they were talking. And each time they turned around to see why the audience was laughing so uproariously, he stood there with a poker face as though nothing was happening. Though Councilwoman Dickens tried to stop him, she too became the target of his antics. Townsend then decided that while all the presentations were being made, Woodie King, Jr. might just as well come to the stage and receive his, too. King, who had been sitting in the back of the auditorium surveying the entire scenario, and had had no intentions of being part of the melee, was coaxed into coming up front to receive his accolades, as well as be part of the photo opportunities, along with awards designer and acclaimed Black artist Otto Neals.
However, the presenters, including Congressman Rangel as well as the recipients of the award, were not allowed to leave since Townsend had come up with one last duty, and that was to be the doo-wop backup behind the music for none other than the great Chuck Jackson. Townsend had them mimic him as he did a few classic moves reminiscent of “The Five Heart Beats.” Again, the audience roared with laughter.
Artist and living legend Chuck Jackson was performing his updated version of “Any Day Now,” and looking as if he had just started his career, as opposed to having been a veteran of the music industry himself for more than 40 years. He later performed a piece with the video of Dionne Warwick playing in the background, their voices harmonizing perfectly.
Performances by the Oscar-nominated Impact Repertory Theatre, founded by Jamal Joseph and Voza Rivers, was a tribute to Voza who partnered with Jamal who, after spending time in prison for his participation as a Black Panther, emerged even more dedicated than ever to bringing truth to his people, was given his first break by Voza. Joseph had a play he had written that he was trying to get produced; not only did Voza like the play but he gave him $500.00 of his own funds to help him get started. The impact of that act alone has led to a lifetime of friendship and collaboration between the two.
Both Rivers and Joseph believe that people should speak in their own voice, and the participants of Impact, who range in age from 6 years to young adulthood, write, produce and rehearse their own original work. They collaborate with each other to ensure that each artist is given respect and succeeds in whatever production concept they are working on. The results of their work have been phenomenal, and was more than adequately displayed in their stage presentations, which both opened and closed out the ceremony. Jamal concluded with a stirring speech when he exhorted the audience, as well as his fellow actors and writers, “We must tell the story of our people, their work and their accomplishments. We cannot leave it in the hands of others to do so. Voza, thank you so much for believing in me and for the advocacy of my work. I am because you are, and we stand tall from standing on your shoulders.”
Lloyd Williams, President and CEO of the Greater Harlem Uptown Chamber of Commerce and Voza Rivers co-founded Harlem Week, which initially started out as Harlem Day in response to a request from the late Percy Sutton to focus on the highlights of what was good in Harlem. The concept, which started in 1974 on the corner of 138th and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Blvd (aka 7th Ave), expanded from one day, to a week, and of course is now a month+ celebration of what makes Harlem great with 109 events – from entertainment, to business, to commerce, to the people who live and work in Harlem. His collaboration with Voza has taken him around the world – from South America, to Africa to Asia, and points in between. Somewhere in the midst of all the other projects they collaborated on, Williams and Rivers managed to also start a clothing store called Fabinacci, which was highly successful at the time.
Duma Ndlovu’s message had been taped earlier for the presentation that spoke of the long, and ongoing, collaboration with Voza, which will be further enhanced by a production they are currently working on about the Zulu Nation and their impact on South African culture and liberation.
Great performances included an excerpt from Debbi Morgan’s one-woman play, “Monkey On My Back!”; and a wonderfully animated performance by South African/Lesotho vocalist Tsiidi (seedee) Le Loka (“Rafiki” in the Lion King). Valerie Simpson, of Ashford and Simpson, who performed a medley of songs in tribute to Voza’s accomplishments, invited the audience to sing along to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch,” = make this world a better place – which is exactly what Voza Rivers epitomizes.
Woodie King, Jr., producer, writer, director, actor, has been the progenitor of the careers of so many wonderful actors, including but not limited to: Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Debbie Allen, Phylicia Rashad, S. Epatha Merkerson, Jackee Harry, Laurence Fishburne, Dick Anthony Williams, Taurean Blacque, Debbie Morgan, Robert Downey, Jr.; Garrett Morris, Lynn Whitfield, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ruby Dee, Leslie Uggams, Samuel L. Jackson, among others – and the list is growing. King tried to remain on the sidelines and allow the program to unfold as he had orchestrated it but Townsend kept calling him to the stage until he finally relocated himself in the front of the auditorium.
Also on hand to round out the accolades to both Woodie and Voza were Andre Robinson, who directed the evening’s event, and Valerie who served ably as producer.
Of course, Phyllis Yvonne Stickney, comedic actress, activist, educator, writer and one of the major underpinnings of the New Heritage Theatre, brought her own brand of comedy to the stage. Phyllis, who has been in collaboration as well as front and center from the time Voza came to the helm of New Heritage Theatre, has been behind the camera, in front of the camera, a mentor to rising talent and, of course, a leader in her own right.
Voza Rivers, in expressing his appreciation for the accolades, admitted that he actually came across Roger Furman by “accident.” He was taking a course in public speaking at what had been (at the time) the YMCA, after having been inspired by so many civil rights leaders of the day and wanting to overcome his shyness about speaking in public. He wanted to be able to make some contribution to the activities that were taking place around him and be able to address people on the issues of the day. The first day of the class Roger Furman happened to have been the guest speaker. He spoke of how he got started at the age of 19 in the basement of the Countee Cullen Library – wrote their own material, etc., about social issues, dealing with politics, etc. “Jamal mentioned 1500 artivist – not artists, but artivists – in the spirit of being what we call activists, which is important, but also artists was well.”
He thanked his South African Group – Duma Ndlovu, as well as Mbogeni Ngema, continuing, “Hopefully, with the help of City College’s Karen and Sharon, we’ll be able to bring the history of the Zulu Nation, which Mbogeni has just written.” Voza, whose interests don’t stop with Africa, is equally well-known – if not more so – in Japan, where, along with his corporate partner, Katsu Abe, has been packing Japanese theatres upwards of 32,000 people with his shows, plays, musical productions for the past 30 years. In addition to the above-mentioned productions, other successes include: Township Fever, Third Rhythm, The Tragedy of Macbeth, Bailey’s Cafe, Voices of Griots, The Huey P. Newton Story, Tierno Bokar, One Good Nerve,
Resurrection, Mr. Joy and Tearing Down the Wall.
He indicated, in closing, that in honor of Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday Celebration, he would be doing a series of productions of his most outstanding plays.
The theme of NFT’s 44th Anniversary Celebration is “OUR HISTORY IS OUR EQUITY.” And judging from the recent events, we are truly wealthy indeed.
(For additional information, more articles and photos of the event, please visit: www.ourtimepress.com. For information on Woodie King, Jr.’s New Federal Theatre, visit: www.newfederaltheatre.com).