The National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Left to Right: Art Evans, André De Shields, Michael Colyar, Keith David (Photo Credit: Walt Unks)
*In part one of a seven-part travel series, Gwendolyn Quinn explores the charm, beauty, and elegance of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a southern city with a rich African American history and heritage. In this series, Quinn shares her impressions of the National Black Theatre Festival, arts and culture, lifestyle, and cuisine.
With an estimated population of more than 250,000 residents, the town of Winston-Salem is part of the North Carolina Piedmont Triad, which includes High Point and Greensboro. The city is also known as “Twin City” because of its dual heritage as the “City of the Arts and Innovation,” and “Camel City,” as a home of the tobacco industry and the R.J. Reynolds Company. The fifth most populous city in North Carolina, Winston-Salem is tied with Charlotte for the highest rate of small business growth.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina is the home of many African American pioneers, innovators, legends, next-generation leaders and institutions. Most were born there or moved there and contributed significantly to its rich heritage and culture, including the late Dr. Maya Angelou, Melissa Harris-Perry, Pam Grier, Rolonda Watts, Jackée Harry, Ray Agnew, Josh Howard, and brickmaker George Black. It is also home to Winston-Salem State University, one of eleven historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina.
Ted Lange at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Walt Unks)
These facts contribute to one of the city’s success stories, the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF). This year, the 40th Anniversary of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC) coincided with the 30th NBTF and was branded as “40/30.” Produced by the NCBRC, the 16th biennial global theater celebration (is held every other year; the “30” refers to the number of years in existence) was held from July 29 through August 3, 2019, and featured celebrities from Broadway to Black Hollywood. These included Leslie Uggams, Ted Lange, André De Shields, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Keith David, Tonya Pinkins, Harold Wheeler, Lamman Rucker, Geoffrey Owens, Bill Cobbs, Woodie King, Jr., Ledisi, Michael Colyar, Art Evans, Darnell Williams, Ebony Jo-Ann, Hattie Winston, Barbara Montgomery, and other extraordinary talent from the theater, film, and television communities.
Ledisi at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Walt Unks)
The Roots Of The National Black Theatre Festival
Founded in 1989 by Larry Leon Hamlin, who passed away in 2007, the National Black Theatre Festival is the largest African American theater festival in the world. The NBTF is a living example of how to preserve and build legacy, culture, and tradition into an American institution. The story of the NBTF is one of the most untold and underrated stories in American theater history.
Often called “Black Theatre Holy Ground,” the NBTF is “an international celebration and reunion of spirit,” says Nigel Alston, Executive Director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. “This is where Larry lived, and the reason the festival is here. We bring in [theater] companies from across the country and have expanded it internationally.
“It’s holy ground because this is the place where everyone comes to get rejuvenated and emboldened; spirits are rekindled here,” Alston continues. “It’s akin to going to church, for those that go to church, or if you don’t go to church, it’s that spiritual feeling that you have. It’s something on the inside that you feel that you can’t explain and, when you go back out into the world or back home, it’s different, you have your battery charged, and you’re ready to go back and do it until you come back two years later and start all over again.”
Nigel Alston, Executive Director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
Alston works closely with Hamlin’s widow, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, who is the executive producer of the National Black Theatre Festival and president of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company board. Alston recalls meeting the Hamlins when he and his wife became season subscribers with the North Carolina Black Repertory Company in 1979, the same year the theater company was founded. In 1993, Alston became a member of the theater’s fundraising committee; years later he served on the board and then became an interim executive director until his current full-time appointment in November of 2015.
Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Executive Producer of the National Black Theatre Festival and widow of Larry Leon Hamlin (Photo Credit: Walt Unks)
A little black girl magic happened during a conversation in 1988, when Larry Hamlin returned to Winston-Salem from Providence, Rhode Island, to be near his father when he became ill. During that time, Hamlin decided to start the festival, he talked with Dr. Angelou, who lived in Winston-Salem and was a professor at Wake Forest University. She agreed to be the first co-chair of the festival. Dr. Angelou then enlisted notable friends, including Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Browne, Moses Gunn, Beah Richards, and others, including actors with whom she had worked on the 1961 production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks. They were among the first group of celebrities that attended the festival. At that time, no one could have predicted the magnitude of the inaugural festival. Seventeen companies came and participated, and more than 10,000 people attended. Since that time, the NBTF has been on the rise. That project marked the beginning of a long-live association for Hamlin and Dr. Angelou, who was committed to the organization with hopes of bringing a museum to the city.
A Celebration Of Black Theatre Arts
According to Alston, the 2019 festival attracted an estimated 50,000-60,000 attendees with an economic impact of $7.5 to $10 million, and a 30-year economic impact of more than $230 million to the community and the state.
The celebration included more than 100 theatrical performances and more than 20 performance venues throughout the city, 20 partnering hotels, as well as the National Black Theatre Hall of Fame and Museum. The pop-up museum featured exhibits from five black theater companies: the North Carolina Black Repertory Company; the Black Ensemble Theatre in Chicago, IL, the Ensemble Theatre in Houston, TX; the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in Sarasota, FL; and the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn, NY.
The National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala with Co-Chairs Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
On July 29, the National Black Theatre Festival kicked off the 2019 season with a star-studded Opening Night Gala at The Benton Convention Center’s Salem Ballroom. Led by NBTF celebrity co-chairs Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory, it featured a procession of more than 40 stars and a line of West African drummers and dancers.
Entertainment Legend Leslie Uggams receives the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
The awards ceremony presented honors in nearly 20 categories. Tony Award winner Leslie Uggams received the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award, which was presented by Uggams’ longtime friend, Tony Award winner André de Shields.
A longtime attendee of the festival, Uggams summed up the tribal love and sentiments of the distinguished and influential group of African American creatives earlier that day at the festival’s opening press conference. “I’m so happy to be here, forget being honored, [I’m] just [happy] to be here,” she said. “The energy in this place, and what I love so much is we tell our stories, and it’s important that we see these plays because we are reflected in the works of these wonderful new playwrights [and] old playwrights. It’s an opportunity for me to see people that I admire, love, and adore; whether they are directing now, whether they are in front of the camera, whatever they are doing.
Bill Cobbs at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Walt Unks)
“I’m looking at Bill Cobbs,” as Uggams continued, speaking directly to the 85-year old veteran character actor of screen and stage. “You have no idea what you mean to us, and I want you to know how much you mean to me. I have to tell you when I was growing up, there were only a few people that were doing it, and Bill was one of the great ones that did it.”
Playwright Nambi E. Kelley receives the Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin Rolling World Premier Award, presented by Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
Other honorees of the National Black Theatre Opening Night Gala included the Apollo Theater’s executive producer Kamilah Forbes, who accepted the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award; award-winning playwright and novelist Pearl Cleage received the August Wilson Playwright Award; actress, and playwright Nambi E. Kelley was presented with the inaugural Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin Rolling World Premier Award and was commissioned by the North Carolina Black Repertory to write Maya, the theatrical production about Maya Angelou; and Michele Shay accepted the Lloyd Richards Director Awards.
South African Actress and Playwright Thembi Mtshali receives the Living Legends Award at the National Black Theatre Festival Opening Night Gala (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
Special Recognition and Living Legends Awards were also presented during the evening. South African actress and playwright Thembi Mtshali was one of four honorees to receive the Living Legends Award. The Black Spectrum Theatre Company in New York City was presented with the Theatre Longevity Award. There were also honors in the categories of costume, lighting, and scenic designs; and stage management, among others.
The National Black Theatre Festival presents the Opening Night performance of North Carolina Black Repertory Company’s “Jelly’s Last Jam” starring DeWitt Fleming, Jr. as “Jelly Roll Morton;” and Stanley Wayne Mathis as the “Chimney Man.” (Photo Credit: NBTF)
Following the awards ceremony, the celebrity procession continued a few blocks from the Benton Convention Center and led guests to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts Stevens Center for the Opening Night performance of George C. Wolfe’s classic Jelly’s Last Jam. The North Carolina Black Repertory Company production co-starred Stanley Wayne Mathis as the “Chimney Man,” who originated the role of “Jack The Bear” on Broadway. The three-time Tony Award-winning musical is directed by North Carolina Black Repertory Company Artistic Director Jackie Alexander. What made this production of Jelly’s Last Jam special was the presence of four original cast members from the 1992 Broadway musical, including Savion Glover, Tonya Pinkins, Keith David, and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who later joined the Broadway run.
Navigating The Festival
For the 2019 season, the National Black Theatre Festival invited 30 black theater companies to present for the mainstage. Twenty-five regional theater companies and five black college and university theater companies produced a mix of musicals and plays. A New York Black college theater company declined the offer to present at the NBTF festival, due to North Carolina’s controversial 2017 law that restricts the use of public restrooms by transgender people (Governor Roy Cooper signed the bill requiring transgender people to use the public restrooms that matched the gender on their birth certificate).
The National Black Theatre Festival presents the University of Louisville’s production of “Mountaintop” starring Xavier Harris as “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” and LaShondra Hood as “Camae.” (Photo Credit: NBTF)
The festival featured something for everyone. In addition to the Larry Leon Hamlin Solo Performances Series and the NBTF Film Fest, which screened 20 shorts and feature films, there were daily theater productions scheduled at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. These featured a series of musicals and plays including sold-out performances of the Layon Gray American Theatre Company production of Cowboy; Stage Aurora Theatrical Company’s Dinner With Booker T; Blake Vision Entertainment’s Natural Woman: An Aretha Story; SitMyAssDown Comedy Productions’ Gettin’ Old Is A Bitch…But I’m Gonna Wrestle That Bitch To the Ground!; and the North Carolina Black Repertory Company’s Jelly’s Last Jam. Other buzz and noteworthy performances included the University of Louisville’s The Mountaintop, North Carolina Central University’s Blood at the Root, the New Federal Theatre’s Looking For Leroy; Black Spectrum Theatre Company’s Reunion in Bartersville; the Black Ensemble Theater’s Women of Soul; the Rayloc Group’s Michael Colyar’s Momma; and the Ebony Repertory Theatre’s Let’s Get It On – Here and Now, a musical tribute to Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross.
A series of readings included celebrity readings of Maya, the life of Dr. Maya Angelou, commissioned by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company from playwright Nambi E. Kelley and scheduled for a world premiere in 2020. For the first time, a screenplay/stage reading was presented with actors Lamman Rucker and Lisa Arrindell on a new project, Albert and Paul, the working title of a film that explores the professional and personal relationship of Albert Einstein and Paul Robeson.
Vanessa Bell Calloway and Ebony Jo-Ann at the National Black Theatre Festival (Photo Credit: Lia Chang)
The schedule also featured the Garland Thompson Sr. Readers’ Theatre of New Works series, featuring “New Plays at High Noon” and “Theatre Conversations at Midnight,” curated by Garland Lee Thompson, Jr., which highlighted fifty stories of women from across the globe, with topics ranging from identity as a transgender woman to domestic violence to sisterhood. The 50in50 series included some of the festival’s top female talent, including Vanessa Bell Calloway, Ebony Jo-Ann, Lisa Arrindell, Michele Shay, Bianca LaVerne Jones, Starletta DuPois, Rhodessa Jones, Mariann Aalda, Monica White Ndounou, and Zenzele Daniels.
The NBTF Fringe program highlighted works by the next generation of theater creators. There were daily workshops, led by top actors and theater professionals with topics ranging from “Master Acting/Auditioning” to “Getting Butts in the Seats” to “Everyone’s A Critic.” And those interested in some retail therapy could visit the International Vendors Market at the Benton Convention Center, where more than one hundred black vendors were selling their goods and services. The youth track of the festival included the Youth/Celebrity Project, the National Youth Talent Showcase, and TeenTastic.
For festival attendees who wanted to explore Winston-Salem’s black heritage sites, Cheryl Harry, art and cultural curator of Triad Cultural Arts Center, hosted a city tour visiting Old Salem and other significant and historically African American landmarks, including the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, NC.
Memories & Memorabilia
To commemorate the 40/30 anniversaries, the National Black Theatre Festival presented two limited edition items for resale. The NBTF partnered with Carolina’s Vineyards & Hops, an African American-owned local winery, which created an NBTF limited Signature Wine Series featuring a White Blend with popular grapes of Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio; a Red Blend, dry and mixed with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec; and a Sparkling Semi-Sweet Wine. The wines were available for purchase at local restaurants and numerous festival venues. There was also 500 limited edition commemorative coins struck featuring the 40/30 logo on one side and Larry Leon Hamlin’s image on the other. The collector’s item was also sold at various locations throughout the festival.
The National Black Theatre Festival assembled more than 100 volunteers to assist at the weeklong schedule of events and activities. One of the most coordinated and organized support divisions of the festival, the volunteers took pride in their work and raised volunteerism to a new level. While many are residents, some are out-of-towners who scheduled their summer vacations during the festival to be of service to the festival guests.
Executive Director Alston, a former Dale Carnegie trainer, describes his proudest moments during the festival’s 40/30 anniversary. “It’s the joy that you see on people’s faces,” he said. “It’s the experience that you have and the memories that have been created that you can see happening while it’s happening that maybe others can’t. It’s the excitement and the sharing of pictures. Part of [the joy is] walking around and talking to people and shaking hands and [asking], ‘How are you doing?’ and ‘What did you see last night?’ I enjoy hearing about those experiences.”
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Gwendolyn Quinn is an award-winning media strategist and consultant with a career spanning more than 25 years. She covers entertainment, travel, and lifestyle news. Quinn has contributed to NBCNews.com/ NBCBLK.com, ESSENCE.com, Black Enterprise, and Huff Post. Contact Gwendolyn Quinn at [email protected]