From August 4-9 the only place to be was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where the 14th Anniversary National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) was held. It was absolutely glorious.
For theater lovers the event was like journeying to a theatrical mecca. The Reader’s Theatre, now in its 10th year, coordinated by Garland Lee Thompson of the Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop, provided multiple opportunities for hearing thirty new works of playwrights in play readings that occurred during the day and night. Celebrities like Hal Williams and Andre De Shields participated in these readings. This year’s Reader’s Theatre was dedicated to the memory of the late playwright John Henry Redwood. Redwood delighted audiences with magnificent plays including The Old Settler.
Companies from around the country performed thirty full productions including dramas, comedies, musicals, cabaret, youth, collegiate and hip-hop theater. However, theater companies from the New York area distinguished themselves this year, as they presented seven of the shows.
Broadway Diva, Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards recipient Lillias White had the headliner show which opened the festival. A native of Brooklyn, White’s show, From Brooklyn to Broadway II is a cabaret-style production. White kicked back, sang, danced and told the audience about her life.
The Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn presented the dramatic comedy Faith On Line written and directed by Joyce Sylvester. It is the story of siblings arguing over whether to sell their inherited Harlem brownstone.
Rome Neal from the Nuyorican Poets Caf‚ performed the one-man show Monk written by Laurence Holder and co-directed by Neal and Holder. The play was an in-depth look into the jazz pianist and composer’s life. Monk was presented by Holder/Neal Productions.
New Federal Theatre presented playwright Ron Milner’s Urban Transition: Loose Blossoms. Directed by Woodie King, Jr., the play vividly chronicles a family’s destruction. When a father is unable to work, his young son turns to crime to keep the family financially stable.
Black Spectrum Theatre, based in Jamaica, New York, gave a rousing performance of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. The production was directed by Bette Howard. “The Piano Lesson” focused on a brother and sister arguing over selling a piano which had been in the family since slavery. The production was absolutely incredible.
The Harlem-based H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players had two productions at the festival. American Menu, a brilliant AUDELCO Award-winning drama written by Don Wilson Glenn and directed by Ajene Washington, looked at racism in the South in 1968.
The other H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players piece was A Song for You…A Civil Rights Journey of a Negro Woman: Lena Calhoun Horne. The play is written and performed by Wendi Joy Franklin and directed by Leon Pinkney. The production took the audience on a journey through the childhood and career of this talented entertainer.
Theatrical professionals hailing from New York were also among the honorees at NBTF. Carl Clay, artistic director of the Black Spectrum Theatre, was given the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer’s Award. Bette Howard received the Lloyd Richard’s Director’s Award, along with Rome Neal. Playwright P.J. Gibson was given the August Wilson Playwright Award. Actor Adam Wade was honored as a Living Legend.
Actor Ralph Carter, also from New York, demonstrated his writing ability as The Reader’s Theatre performed his work called Grandma’s Hand. It is a story focusing on the relationship and love between five generations of women. The play demonstrated how supportive family could be and was filled with engaging humor.
The event, co-chaired by Malcolm-Jamal Warner and Melba Moore, was a gathering of the Black Theatre family at a homecoming that celebrity and noncelebrity alike look forward to attending every two years. Festival founder, producer and artistic director Larry Leon Hamlin has created a must-go event.
This year’s festival brought one up close and personal with stars including Barbara Montgomery, Richard Roundtree, Bill Cobbs, Diahann Carroll, Malik Yoba, CCH Pounder, Adam Wade, Andre De Shields, Hal Williams, Joseph Marcell, Ella Joyce, Maurice Hines, Mercedes Ellington, Kim Fields, RaeVen Larrymore Kelly, Kim Brockington, P.J. Gibson and many others. There was time to shoot a picture, get an autograph or simply talk.
There was so much to experience at the festival. It will be difficult to wait until 2005 for the next one.