Holy Ground that’s Marvtastic: Black Theatre Is for Everybody at the National Black Theatre Festival

DCMTA's Ramona Harper recaps the 16th National Black Theatre Festival, held July 29-August 3 in Winston-Salem, NC

The National Black Theatre Festival was over-the-top for the 65,000 ticketholders who descended upon Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the City of the Arts and Innovation, July 29 through August 3rd. Since 1989, the city has been the center of the galaxy for Black theatre with its star-studded biannual National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF), hosted by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, now celebrating its 40th year.

2019 National Black Theatre Festival Co-Chair Margaret Avery. Photo courtesy of the National Black Theatre Festival.
2019 National Black Theatre Festival Co-Chair Margaret Avery. Photo courtesy of the National Black Theatre Festival.

The festival grew out of the passionate desire and visionary leadership of their late founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, to gather Black theatre companies from around the country to share ideas and to promote the “Marvtastic” – the greatest and best of all that is marvelous and fantastic in African American theatre art. “Black Theatre Holy Ground” is the reverent shout-out of the NBTF, the world’s largest Black theatre festival.

The NBTF presented some 130 productions on stages all over the city with classic plays, musical tributes and new works by 25 professional and 5 collegiate Black theatre companies. It featured a glittering opening awards gala, daily performance-enhanced press conferences, workshops and seminars, an international colloquium of theater academics, new playwrights’ readings, youth performances, a Black indie film fest, career networking auditions, an international vendors market, Shakespeare in the Park with a Jamaican twist, a festival parade and block party, NBTF Fringe, and poetic spoken word in midnight jams.

The first Grand Dame of the NBTF, Maya Angelou, made Winston-Salem her home for the last 30 years of her life and suggested to Larry Leon Hamlin that, “If you bring celebrities, people will come.” She was right. The National Black Theatre Festival has had luminaries such as Oprah Winfrey, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis serve as Co-Chairs. This year, Academy Award nominee Margaret Avery, most notably Shug in The Color Purple, and Chester Gregory, recording artist and Broadway virtuoso, best known for his performance as Jackie Wilson in The Jackie Wilson Story, co-chaired this exciting six-day extravaganza.

Singer/actress Leslie Uggams and playwright Pearl Cleage were among the honorees recognized for their outstanding contributions to Black theatre. Other theatre royalty, including Andre DeShields, this year’s Best Featured Actor in a Broadway musical for Hadestown and Brian Stokes Mitchell, Best Actor in a Musical in 2000 for Kiss Me Kate, were among an array of well-known performers who support the NBTF by mentoring aspiring young actors who attend their inspirational talks and receptions.

Here are a few highlights among the dozen productions I attended during the festival:

Bricktop: Written by Cathey C. Sawyer and performed by Gabrielle Lee, Bricktop tells the story of Ada “Bricktop” Smith, a West Virginian and cabaret performer who went from Chicago to Harlem to become the “Doyenne of Café Society” in Paris in the 1920s and the early days of the Jazz Age.

Gabrielle Lee as Ada
Gabrielle Lee as Ada “Bricktop” Smith in ‘Bricktop’ at the National Black Theatre Festival. Photo by Bruce Chapman.

How I Learned What I Learned: Wali Jamal performs in August Wilson’s autobiographical one-man play about the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and his life growing up in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

Looking for Leroi: The power of protest in Black theatre is the central debate between a young theatre intern (Tyler Fauntleroy) and playwright Amiri Baraka (Kim Sullivan) in Larry Muhammad’s script. Their tete-a-tete is an intellectual’s delight that goes straight to the heart of W.E.B. Du Bois.

Anne & Emmett:  Janet Langhart Cohen, veteran TV journalist, wrote and produced a story that captures an imagined conversation between Anne Frank (Hannah Church) and Emmett Till (Enoch King), both victims of racial hatred. “To help me understand and articulate the need to find tolerance and harmony in the world rather than hate,” Cohen writes, “I have turned to an imaginary vision of two historic and tragic victims of institutionalized terrorism.”

Women of Soul: Chicago’s Black Ensemble stages a spectacular musical show of nearly two dozen songs that span decades of gospel, R&B, and blues sung by soulful female singers crossing racial lines to include blue-eyed soul. The finale is a tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

Soul Man: The music of the ’60s brings back memories of an era of great social upheaval in the US with the West Coast Theatre Troupe’s smash hit musical production created by Director Nate Jacobs and choreographed by Donald Frison.

While I was at the festival, the Winston-Salem Journal interviewed me for an article, “16th NBTF Wraps on a High Note.” Author Lynn Felder, who captured my enthusiastic response to the non-stop energy of the festival, quoting me:

“It’s a revival. It’s a family reunion and it’s a paah-tay. It was round the clock. I started in the morning and went into the next day. There’s a sense of connection and joy that I just never expected. It completely took me by surprise… The accessibility of the celebrities was so real, I could feel Andre DeShields’ pulse as he went through the receiving line at the gala. They gave of themselves and encouraged the next generation of performers and mentored the youth.”

The National Black Theatre Festival is a one-of-a-kind experience that’s not to be missed when it returns to Winston-Salem in 2021.

The National Black Theatre Festival ran July 29 through August 3, 2019, at multiple venues in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Contact the NBTF for information about the 2021 festival by phone at (336) 723-7907, email info@ncblackrep.org, or go online.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

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