It's a conversation with some of the most brilliant minds of our time," says Avery Brooks, describing the National Black Arts Festival for which he is serving as artistic director for the second time. The ten-day celebration begins in Atlanta June 28 and coincides with the celebrations surrounding the Centennial Olympics in Georgia's capital. The African-American festival features over 1,500 international artists participating in music, dance, film, poetry, folk arts, performance art, the visual arts, literature and, of course, theatre.
When it comes to the latter, that conversation takes on a compelling urgency, says Brooks, himself an acclaimed teacher, musician, director and actor who recently starred on Broadway in the monodrama, Paul Robeson, and is currently starring in T.V.'s "Deep Space Nine." "People ask me what is the story of our literature and our theatre, and I quote James Baldwin in Sunny's Blues: "The story of how we suffer and how we are delighted and how we make triumph. . . . There isn't any other tale to tell and that tale has . . . a new depth in every generation."
Helping to redefine those issues over the American centuries is a line-up of plays that includes Having Our Say, Emily Mann's adaptation of Bessie and Sadie Delaney's epic memoir; The Confessions of Stepin Fechit, starring Roscoe Orman as the actor who came to represent racial stereotype; The Huey P. Newton Story, Roger Guenveur Smith's one-person show about the co-founder of the Black Panther Party; Marian McLinton's The Ghost of Summer, starring Obba Babatunde as Cool Papa Bell, the legendary baseball player; and Laurence Holder's Zora Neale Hurston, which traces the rise and fall of one of the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. Brooks describes the theatrical fare of the festival as "biopsies of our time," each revealing the state of health or disease of America's culture as it confronts the legacy of slavery and racial relationships. Having Our Say is an elegiac remembrance of the power of God, family and community in the face of such adversities, while The Confessions of Stepin Fechit is an attempt to understand the particular pressures and context of one man's choices, namely Lincoln Perry, who first provided comic relief as the shuffling, lazy, dim-witted servant of the early movies. "There is a tendency to pass judgment from the outside," says Brooks. "But it humbles us all to realize what some of us have had to do to survive."
That conversation becomes more highly charged in the sixties when the fast-talking Huey P. Newton appeared out of the Bay Area to serve notice to an anxious America that Stepin Fechit had been long replaced by Molotov-cocktail-wielding, gun-toting revolutionaries bent on taking their piece of the American Dream. "It shows that we are shaped by many historical forces," says Brooks, "and that that the African-American community is not monolithic, able to produce both Martin Luther King and Newton in the same decade."
Just as Baldwin and Hurston captured the African-American story for their generations with bruised, if lyrical, grace, so Brooks hopes to illuminate people of all races through NBAF's stages. "It is, finally, about epiphany," says Brooks in his sonorously elegant speech. "A celebration of a people and a spirit moving through history to illumination."