The 5th Biennial National Black Theatre Festival kicked off yesterday, August 4, with an exciting, star-studded press conference, which definitely set the tone of this week's events. Founder and producer, Larry Leon Hamlin summed up the Festival as "an International celebration and a reunion of spirit."
Black theater companies from all over the country and international companies from South Africa, Europe, Bermuda and Jamaica have gathered together to share their craft, for this one week in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Debbie Allen is this year's chairperson and she sat on a two-tier dais with playwrights--August Wilson, Amiri Baraka, Ron Milner, Ed Bullins and Ntozake Shange. In addition to actors, John Amos, Janet DuBois, Ellen Holly, Barbara Montgomery, Glynn Turman, Anna Maria Horsford, Raeven Larrymore Kelly and Sculptor Donald Brown. Plus, several actors stood against the wall or sat in the crowd. Among those were Dick Anthony Williams, Hal Williams, Ebony JoAnn, Ethel Ayler and Ed Bernard.
Allen was quick to state, "This is about me coming home. This is where my heartstrings are -- in the theater. To see new directors, playwrights, actors and have an open forum. It's less about stardom for me. I come here very humble. This festival is something that's a living, breathing institution." (Allen is presently working with Steven Spielberg to produce the movie version of "Amistad"--to tell the real story of our ancestors journey to and lives in the U.S.)
Each celebrity had an opportunity to speak and each shared their feelings about the festival. DuBois shared, "this is an occasion I look forward to every 2 years. I am in love with this affair."
Wilson commented, "It's good to see so many theaters here and know that Black theater has survived. But, we need to move from the survival stage to prosperity."
Baraka fired-up the crowd when he animately explained, "As Black Americans, we can't be so busy being slaves, we don't take time out to get free. We need self-determination, self-reliance."
The most moving moment occurred when Turman spoke. "We've lost a lot of wonderful people this past year. Frances Foster, Cynthia Bel Graves, Madge Sinclair..." Allen joined him and they encouraged everyone to shout out names of this year's deceased. After five minutes of calling out names, Turman asked JoAnn, his co-star in "Do Lord Remember Me" to sing the choruses of two numbers from the show--"Bomb in Gilead" and do a field "Holler." Then, he called for a standing ovation. Everyone was visibly moved by this impromptu remembrance.
--By Linda Armstrong