By A. Peter Bailey
(Trice Edney Wire) – There was an educational, compelling, entertaining, exciting, “marvtastic” and thought-provoking feast of Black Theatre recently in Winston-Salem, N.C. Produced by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC), the 24th Anniversary National Black Theatre Festival, July 26-August 3, 2013, featured more than 40 performances of new and classical works by 32 performing companies and individuals from New York, California, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Florida, Texas, Maryland, Bermuda, Canada, and, of course, North Carolina.
Besides performances, events included a Youth Talent Showcase, Readers’ Theatre. In which plays were read to an audience of theatre professionals, scholars and the general public, a National Black Film Fest, a Midnight Poetry Jam, and a gala whose honorees included brilliant artists such as Chapman Roberts (Living Legend Award) and Richard Wesley (August Wilson Playwright Award).
For numerous young people in attendance, there was a Youth/Celebrity Project during which they had an opportunity to interact with celebrities and theatre professionals. The latter included Dawn Lewis (A Different World), Vanessa Williams (Soul food), Debbi Morgan (All My Children), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law and Order), Ralph Carter (Good Times), Darien Wilson (The Parkers), Ted Lange (Love Boat) and Paulette Pearson Washington (The Wilma Rudolph Story).
For a near-fanatical history buff such as myself, the festival’s highlight was its presentation of at least nine plays focusing on prominent persons in Black cultural and political history. This was a feast within a feast. The plays were: Adam: The Story of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Barbara Jordan: A Rendezvous With Destiny, The Eve of Jackie: A Tribute to Jackie Wilson, Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues, Speak of Me as I Am: Paul Robeson, The Ballad of Emmett Till, The Marvin Gaye Story (Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend) and Lady Patriot, the story of Mary Elizabeth Bowser, of whom probably 99 percent of this country are totally unaware. I found out about her when living in Richmond, Va. in the early 1990s. She spied for the United States during The Civil War from inside the Confederate White House. In 1995, the U.S. Government finally acknowledged her heroism and courage by inducting her into the U.S. Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.
A second highlight of the festival forum was seeing Black theatre chronicler, Mary B. Davis. Between the 1960s and 1990S, Mary B., as we called her, saw and photographed performers in nearly every Black play presented in the New York City metropolitan area and many plays in other cities. She probably has more Black Theatre photos than anyone else in the country.
A salute of thanks is due the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC) led by Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, widow of the festival’s legendary founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, Mabel P. Robinson, NCBRC’s artistic director, NCBRC staff, notably Lawrence Evans, who coordinated celebrities and travel, and the 1000 volunteers who made things happen so brilliantly in 2013. The next festival is scheduled for August 3-8, 2015. Save the Date!