Larry Leon Hamlin: From Footlights to Fame
Barksdale, Robin, Black Masks
(This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 1989 issue of Black Masks.)
Mustering all his courage, Larry Leon Hamlin at age six made a modest break into the theatre world with the recitation of a few lines of poetry. However, being on the stage so thrilled him he had to be coaxed off long after his part in the class's presentation was done. "When I went on the stage, I saw all of those lights and how bright and pretty they were, especially the footlights. They were green and blue and yellow," recalls Hamlin, now the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC) and producer of the National Black Theatre Festival [NBTF]. "I said my poem and everybody applauded. I thought, 'This is nice.' I didn't want to leave the stage. When we were finished we went back to the classroom but I kept thinking about those lights, so I asked to go to the bathroom. I went down this long hall with lots of doors....I went through one of the doors and ended up back in the auditorium with the lights. They were still on and they were so pretty. I walked down front. Then I just put my hands out and grabbed them. They burned my hands and I was just holding them in my clutches and screaming. Nobody told me they were hot!"
It was a painful start, no doubt, but Hamlin says the event set the course of his life: theatre literally made a burning impression on this Reidsville, North Carolina youngster, starting a love affair that still continues. Today, years and many theatrical experiences later, the theatre holds that same kind of magnetism for Hamlin. It is his home, his world, and there's nowhere that he would rather be.
The small town of Reidsville was hardly known as a hub of artistic cultivation particularly during the time Hamlin was growing up. But it did have some Black theatre that provided the catalyst that Hamlin needed for his trek into the theatre business. "In the little town of Reidsville, the play was the thing," says Hamlin. "There usually were two major Black productions staged each year. That was the social event of the year for Black people. My mother also was somewhat of an actor herself. She had a very good reputation in the city. She was my director."
Later, when he decided acting would be his future, Hamlin left Rockingham Community College and headed north to sow his acting oats. After testing the waters in such locales as Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, he landed at Rhode Island's Brown University, where he got his first opportunity to direct. From there, Hamlin spent several years in New York acting and directing. His career was budding.
But late in 1978, family obligations forced Hamlin back to his native North Carolina. His brother was dying and his father suffered a debilitating stroke. "My mother and sister were here [in Winston-Salem]. Our family always felt that one of the men in the family would have to stay here to take care of them," Hamlin explains. [My brother] was here so I had the freedom to roam the country. Once he died, I felt I had to come back at least for a couple of years."
Once back in North Carolina, it became apparent to Hamlin that he would have to seek some means of support. "Doing theatre in North Carolina was not in my professional plans. The events really led me here," Hamlin points out. "I looked around and I [said], 'Okay, I've got to work.' I asked around and there was no Black theater in this state....I did a study and found that the community was interested in supporting a Black theatre company."
Now, a little more than ten years later, New York's loss has been Winston-Salem's gain. Hamlin's quest for work eventually gave birth to the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, recognized as one of the leading Black theatre companies in the country. But it was a rocky start at best for the theatre company because people knew little about Black theatre. "Those first years were extremely trying and frustrating," Hamlin recalled. …