“It’s exciting. It’s fun. And you don’t go to bed at all.” Director’s assistant Carolyn Jones is describing the National Black Theatre Festival, a biennial gathering of international and African-American playwrights, actors, theater companies and scholars. For six days, artists and audiences both go ’round the clock, from early morning storytelling festivals to midnight new play readings, trying to cover the world of Black performance.
The National Ensemble Theatre’s production of Images, with which Jones is affiliated, is going to the festival. The 13-person cast, under the direction of Herman LeVern Jones, performs their kaleidoscopic collection of Black poetry and prose dating from the Harlem Renaissance to the present, Aug. 8 at 8 p.m.
Fortunately, it’s not that far a trip: The nation’s oldest and largest Black theater festival doesn’t take place in New York or Los Angeles.
It’s going on right now, about 90 minutes away, in Winston-Salem.
This week, an estimated 45,000 theatre devotees will spend about $7 million as they converge for the eighth such festival since 1989.
When founder Larry Leon Hamlin, the artistic director of the N.C. Black Repertory Company, interviewed Black theater practitioners for an academic article in the mid-1980s, he was disturbed by what he found. “There were 250 Black theater companies in America,” he recalls. “They had never come together. They didn’t know each other existed. And they all had the same problems.”
Black companies through the South were sending out “these screams of pain,” he remembers. “And at the same time, New York City was rapidly losing its Black companies.”
“Something had to be done,” Hamlin says, “to ensure that there was going to be Black theater in the United States–to ensure its continuity.”
Maya Angelou, the festival’s first chair, was instrumental in getting Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee involved. The first festival featured 17 companies doing a total of 31 shows.
This year, more than 30 companies and theater artists will give more than 100 performances during the festival’s six days. Shuttle busses will criss-cross Winston-Salem, taking festival-goers to venues at N.C. School of the Arts, Wake Forest University, downtown’s Sawtooth and Stevens Center, and the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art.
The famous will be in attendance. In addition to his one-person show Love and Other Social Issues, Malcolm-Jamal Warner of TV’s The Cosby Show will host a midnight poetry jam. Radio personality Tom Joyner broadcasts his Morning Show there on the morning of Aug. 8.
Meanwhile, theater scholars from Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria and the U.S. will debate “Black Theater as Resistance” in an international theater colloquium.
The grandmaster of North Carolina storytellers, Jackie Torrance, will host a storytelling session, also the morning of Aug. 8. That night, Tony award-winning singer Lillias White presents the second installation of her autobiographical musical cabaret, From Brooklyn to Broadway II.
Festival standout shows will consider everything from Thelonious Monk to hip-hop, Louis Armstrong to doo-wop; from Neil Simon to gritty inner-city verities. In the midst, testimonies from August Wilson, Lena Horne, Lynn Manning and the Yale School of Drama abound.
Small wonder Carolyn Jones concludes: “You go out, and then you come back renewed with more theater–charged up.”
A sampling of the shows on tap: (For further information, consult www.nbtf.org, or call (336) 723-7907.)
Wednesday, Aug. 6
Mama (through Thursday). St. Louis’ Unity Theatre Ensemble adapts the novel by Terri McMillan (Waiting to Exhale), in which a feisty survivor raises five children on her own.
Monk. New York’s Laurence Holder stars in a one-man show exploring “the musical power and passions” of jazz composer Thelonious Monk.
Free Jujube Brown and A Tuff Shuffle: Backstage with Louis Armstrong. A young writer accidentally kills a cop in the opening hip-hop theater work, while Triad Stage’s Preston Lane directs a jazz biography in the second one-act.
Yesterday Came Too Soon…The Dorothy Dandridge Story (through Thursday). The winner of the 2001 Beverly Hills/Hollywood NAACP Theater Award finds the actress in her dressing room on the night of her last performance in 1965.
Doo Wop Shoo Bop (through Saturday). The Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago’s sparkling musical tribute to the fabulous soul singers of the 1950s and 1960s, including The Shirelles, The Platters, Dinah Washington and Jackie Wilson.
Barefoot in the Park (through Saturday). An all-star cast gives Neil Simon’s newlywed comedy a whirl.
Big Butt Girls, Hard-Headed Women. Rhodessa Jones’ observations while serving as artist-in-residence at the San Francisco City Jail, led to this 1989 work and Friday’s Medea Project: Theatre for Incarcerated Women.
Thursday, Aug. 7
Euripedes’ Medea and Pandora’s Trunk (through Saturday). Robinson Jeffers’ poetic adaptation of the murderous Greek myth. On the same bill: A woman attempts to trace her birth mother back through items left in an old trunk, in a retelling of Pandora’s Box.
First Contact. Hip-hop playwright, poet and performer Aye De Leon remounts her one-person show, Thieves in the Temple: The Reclaiming of Hip Hop, from its premiere at last year’s Hip Hop Theater Festival in New York. After that, The OG and the B Boy, Kamau “Pitch Black” Abayomi’s hip-hop musical.
Friday, Aug. 8
Storytelling Festival. Jackie Torrance and other North Carolina storytellers cast their spells.
Weights (through Saturday). Lynn Manning’s autobiographical one-man show tells how he was blinded by a deranged drunk at 27–and how he found the light afterwards.
Love & Other Social Issues (through Saturday). Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s one man-show features his poetry and commentary on “life, love and transition.”
The Piano Lesson (through Saturday). Jamaica, N.Y.’s Black Spectrum Theater production of the August Wilson classic.
Saturday, Aug. 9
Like Sun Fallin’ in the Mouth. Yale School of Drama and Raleigh’s Herman LeVern Jones Theatre Consulting Agency set the myth of Icarus in the ghetto of modern-day Oakland. Yale’s first presentation at the NBTF.