Black Fest '97: Founder Tells All

News   Black Fest '97: Founder Tells All This year, the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre Company plays host to the 5th Biennial National Black Theatre Festival Aug 4-9 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Larry Leon Hamlin, the Executive/Artistic Director of the Company, also serves as the producer and Artistic Director of the Festival. Hamlin is also the founder of the event, which began in 1989.

This year, the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre Company plays host to the 5th Biennial National Black Theatre Festival Aug 4-9 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Larry Leon Hamlin, the Executive/Artistic Director of the Company, also serves as the producer and Artistic Director of the Festival. Hamlin is also the founder of the event, which began in 1989.

The Festival showcases Black Theatre companies from all over the country. It offers a Readers Theatre Series of new works, workshops, seminars, and recognizes the achievements of Blacks in theater, with special awards to Producers, Directors, Playwrights, Living Legends and Lifetime Achievement Awards.

The National Black Theatre Festival fills a void, which had long existed for Black Theatre companies all over this country. Recalling why he first undertook this huge project, Hamlin stated, "I was writing an article on 'Black Theater in the South', for a magazine called 'Southern Living.' I was interviewing the different companies. I was overwhelmed at the troubles they were having and I became interested in how other Black theaters in the country were fairing. So, I continued to research and profiled those companies and basically heard the same screams of pain and frustration. As I finally researched it in New York, I realized that within the last 10 years--at that time--New York had lost a great many of their Black theaters and surmised that, by the year 2000, if the trend continued, at that alarming rate, then we wouldn't have any Black theater to be celebrating."

"But, what also overwhelmed me, was the fact that there are so many Black theaters in America. I thought there were about 50 and I discovered there were over 250. And, yet we didn't know each other. There was an atmosphere of complete isolation. That was something that truly had to be addressed, because many of us were having the same problems--financial, administrative and management. Many of us were not familiar with long range planning, as it relates to financial objectives." On the other hand, he continued, "There were some of us who were very successful. Now, if we could help those that were not -- somehow strengthen their organization -- then Black theater becomes stronger."

"I contacted the theaters and asked what they thought of getting together as a festival. The goal was to perform at night, but strategize during the day and create an agenda that would allow for the continuity of Black Theater for generations to come. All the theater companies agreed to come and support the festival. I then contacted Maya Angelou, told her the situation and asked her if she would be the first Chair. She said she would and she'd lend her resources and contacts. Maya brought in celebrities like Cicely Tyson, Roscoe Lee Brown, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Louis Gossett, Jr., Antonio Fargas and Melvin Van Pebbles." "It all started with Maya and her contacts in '89. We wanted to get acute national media attention. Foundations denied us money by citing, no professionalism in Black theater. However, after the '89 Festival, when the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times, etc. came down and wrote excellent reviews -- that was one myth we knocked out right away."

"We focused the Nation's attention on Black Theater; put up our best works, 17 great shows by 17 great companies. We brought out our Black film and TV stars, who came out of Black Theater. They showed their support and the media came the way we needed it to come. The media recognized our festival, as we celebrated our triumphs and discussed our failures. What was most important was we came together as a family -- a unit. We came to the festival as a reunion, a celebration of spirit."

"'89 was a great success. We never thought the general public would come. We only thought theater people would come.

Why biennial? "We decided to do this every 2 years, because it's a tremendous undertaking--the organizational skills, expertise, manpower needed and the money. In 1997 it will cost $1.5 million, but in '89 it was $500,000. Each festival has increased in cost. Then, too the number of attendees and celebrity participants has shot off. Celebrities call us to ask if they can come. Everyone on TV and film wants to be here, because it's home. It's where they came from."

The Festival has created a communication network for Black Theaters around the country. In fact, as of '93 the Festival embraced international theater companies. Hamlin explained, "We have what we call the 'Global Black Theatre Movement' happening. We have connections with our brothers and sisters in Africa, Brazil, Cuba, etc. We have the 'International Colloquia' -- where theaters and scholars come together to discuss international prospectives on Black Theater. This year we're looking at the 'Black Family on Stage.' How do you deal with it in Africa, Cuba, Bermuda or Jamaica. So, we're going to look at that and decide how each one of us deals with the Black family.

While Hamlin decides the Festival focus, he admitted, "The idea comes from me listening to the concerns discussed at the last festival in '95. At that festival our focus was Black Women.

Debbie Allen is the Chairperson for this year's Festival and it promises to be an incredible event. I'll fill you in on more of the details tomorrow.

-- By Linda Armstrong
Special Correspondent

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