BULL CITY BLACK THEATRE FESTIVAL
Through Saturday, March 24, various times and prices
Manbites Dog Theater, Durham
Walking into Manbites Dog Theater for the first weekend of the Bull City Black Theatre Festival, which continues this weekend, was bittersweet. You could feel the decades of Durham history, all the plays and improv shows and artistic gatherings, in the building. Manbites is closing after this season, leaving a progressive artistic legacy behind. As I waited to be seated, JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, one of the festival’s main organizers, approached each guest in the lobby with heartfelt greetings before a Friday-night staging of Dasan Ahanu’s play A Definition of a Hero. Holloway-Burrell embraced a few patrons while being timidly nudged by the front desk that it was five minutes until call time, and were the actors ready?
They were ready. Holloway-Burrell’s Black Ops Theatre Company has been creating spaces for African-American performers in the Triangle since 2015, and the Bull City Black Theatre Festival shows she won’t be letting up any time soon. In a world that is telling more and more actors (and hip-hop artists, for that matter) that Atlanta is the go-to hub if they want to succeed, Holloway-Burrell and her amazing crew of directors, stage managers, volunteers, and of course, actors, showed that high quality theater is thriving right here in the Bull City.
One of my favorite aspects of the festival was the talkbacks, in which engaging conversations about featured plays were fostered between the audience, cast, and crew. This isn’t what I have normally experienced at PlayMakers or DPAC. Often one pays for the art, absorbs the art, and then leaves, perhaps commenting with your friends later or tweeting about it to the world.
Not at this festival. Holloway-Burrell told the packed house at Manbites how art, especially black art, needs to be discussed and dissected in community. I saw in this packed house a very eclectic audience that represented the diverse population in the city of Durham.
I also saw a wide array of reactions to the plays, with people laughing, gasping, and snapping at very different points. But the discussions brought everyoneaudience, actors, writers, and the stage crewto the same level. In each presentation, the audience not only experienced an amazing work of art, but also left with a fuller interpretation from the black hands that built it.
Holloway-Burrell opened the space with a prayerlike gesture, giving thanks to those within the community that gave it the ability to have its own theater festival. Saying to Black Poetry Theatre founders Church Da Poet and Dasan Ahanu that her work was “built on their backs,” she was also surprised and pleased on Saturday to see a mentor of hers from North Carolina Central University, theater department chair Stephanie Asabi M. Howard. I learned how many of the heroes that reside within our community go unsung. But the Bull City Black Theatre Festival shows that Durham is more than ready for the opportunity for the biggest stage.
In addition to more amazing art to digest this weekend, there will also be a variety of chances to get involved and learn. Black Ops aims to educate and inform our community through workshops for playwrights, actors, and improvisers. This weekend also features one discussion with PlayMakers’ Kathryn Hunter-Williams and another with Monét Noelle Marshall on her recent, impactful show Buy My Soul and Call It Art. There’s lots on offer for anyone who wants to write the next James Baldwin play (not that anyone will ever equal James Baldwin).
The Bull City Black Theatre Festival is meeting the increasing need for theater artists of color in Durham to work in nontraditional formats. As Church Da Poet proclaimed during his talkback, “We don’t do theater like other people. We do theater our way.”
I left feeling invigorated about what is to come for the Durham arts community and for the festival itself. As the monumental Manbites gives way to a renewable energy company for the booming Bull City, there is no doubt that the black theater community has plenty of renewable energy of its own.