National Black Theater Festival: A Real Theater Feast!

By Mutima, Niamani | Black Masks, December 31, 1995 | Go to article overview

National Black Theater Festival: A Real Theater Feast!


Mutima, Niamani, Black Masks


National Black Theater Festival: A Real Theater Feast!.

During the first week in August, the square at the heart of Winston-Salem where the Adam's Mark hotel faces the Radisson Marque was the place to be for anyone interested in "theater with a flavor." Black theater artists, audiences and scholars flocked to this quiet North Carolina city for "An International Celebration and Reunion of Spirit." It was an impressive gathering with the feeling of a family reunion combined with a moveable theatrical feast.

Producer Larry Leon Hamlin painted a textured canvas for theater enthusiasts to explore with this years' offerings. The festival showcased an exciting sampling of the diverse theater work being done in Europe, the Caribbean, Africa and the United States. From the opening production of For Colored Girls, which was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, to the raw comedy sketch by the very talented London group, The Posse, to the fine performances of the "New Performers in Black Theater" series, the week-long menu of activities was almost overwhelming. From July 31 to August 6 audiences had ten performances each night from which to choose. In addition to performances, the festival offered a Readers Series of new plays, an international colloquium, workshops and panel sessions on a wide range of theater-related topics. The annual conference of the Black Theatre Network was also held there from July 28 - August 1.

The festival chairman this year was multi-talented Billy Dee Williams, who also opened a exhibit of his "Jazz Series" paintings at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston Salem. In true reunion spirit the "Living Legend" Awards presented at Monday night's opening dinner gala highlighted honorees who have made long-term contributions to the fabric of the performing arts in America. The press conference held the following morning was a good opportunity to hear some personal comments from the celebrities Hamlin had assembled.

Those present included Isabel Sanford, Marla Gibbs, Laurence Holder, Woodie King, Ed Cambridge, Nick Stewart, Ashton Springer, Joseph Walker and Leslie Uggams. All their remarks expressed the sentiment that, despite the oftentimes fragile careers of Blacks in the industry, their commitment to the theater community which supported them at the inception of their careers is still strong.

Leslie Uggams commented that as the "new kid on the block" the festival gave her a chance to see people and network. "Folks forget I am around. I love to do theater...and I do a lot of regional theater, but in general, there is not a lot of work for Black artists." Nick Stewart, the 85 year old legend who was the voice for Lightin' on Amos and Andy, spoke at length about his concerns for young people. "We need to teach our children a sense of identity and theater can do that." Veteran producer Woodie King commented that he intended to "make some deals" while he was at the festival. "Many of the actors who began their careers in theater and have now `flown to Hollywood" tell me they want to do a play. I tell them I have a play for them but I can't pay Hollywood salaries." Talented playwright Laurence Holder talked about his pleasure at seeing "happy smiling faces that include a lot of young people. …

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