The National Black Theatre Festival is referred to as “Holy Ground” by the artists; actors, directors, and producers who participate because it’s like a mega size family reunion and spiritual fellowship. The family comprises Black Stars from Hollywood, Broadway, Television and fans who love what creator Larry Leon Hamlin called a “Marvtastic” experience. For Winston Salem, NC it’s big revenue. Millions of dollars pour into the sundry theaters, hotels, restaurants, and other establishments with the influx of theater enthusiasts from across America, South Africa and other countries. Even the Mayor, Allen Joines, takes part attending the gala, plays and this year attended the free Reading Series. Celebrity coordinator Lawrence Evans said “The focus is to showcase black theater and production companies. There are so many components going on starting with our Purple Carpet Gala Night; from there its non-stop and no way to see everything. At the center of it all are the plays and Celebration of the reunion of spirit.”
There are banners, street signs, and posters of the resplendent festival logo, colors purple, black, and gold surrounding African masks throughout all of downtown and venues across the city.
Black Stars of The Great White Way that debuted at Carnegie Hall was the Festival $250 Opening Night Gala offering along with dinner and an awards presentation honoring living legends, Robert Hooks Actor/ Negro Ensemble Company founder and 90 years young, Grace Jones, Audelco President . The youngest honoree was playwright Katori Hall (Mountaintop, Ruined).
In Black Stars… from the original Carnegie Hall all male cast were Andre De Shields, Maurice Hines, Norm Lewis (Executive Producer), and Larry Marshall. Also featured were, Obba Babatunde, Peggy Blu, David Alan Bunn, Jermaine Coles, Jeffrey Anderson-Gunter, Ebony Jo-Ann, Dawn Lewis, Melba Moore, Alyson Williams and because Television shows are on a summer hiatus stars, Jackee Harry (Let’s Stay Together on BET) Hattie Winston and Husband, Harold Wheeler (Music director of Dancing With The Stars on ABC), were in the ensemble.
There are always celebrity co-chairs. This year it was Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams (Angie and Jessie lovers on TV show All My Children). Debbi performed her one woman show reprised from 2013, Monkey On My Back, and sold her book of the same title.
Performers can launch or revive their careers, develop material with instant feedback from devotees and exhibit their hidden talents of genres that were unknown to the public. There is a domino effect that carries over from the festival throughout many regions with negotiations, contracts, and bookings happening for those in attendance.
Launched at NBTF 2003Chester Gregory a stand-out in Chicago Company’s The Jackie Wilson Story, the word spread about his dynamic talent, gravity defying splits, old school crooning, and charismatic presence. He went on to roles in Sister Act, and Mama Mia on Broadway and the revival of Dreamgirls at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, and national tour. His Eve of Jackie show presented this year and 2013 at the festival is touring currently.
Launched at NBTF 2005 in Emerge and See, Daniel Beaty has gone on to star in numerous one man plays that he wrote with guest appearances on Tavis Smiley and other shows. Recently he appeared at Lincoln Center in The Tallest Tree (about the life of Paul Robeson) and Harlem MIST in Mr. Joy which received standing ovations at this year’s festival.
Tommy Ford co-starred in a play, a film, and promoted his Children’s Books. The play from Los Angeles, The Dealership, included in the ensemble Dorien Wilson from The Parkers. His film, Conflict of Interest, in which he co-starred and directed (screenplay by Sojouner Collier) was in the Free Cinema Screenings in its 3rd year at the festival. This astute Artist also gave generously of himself to youth; toddlers to teens reading from his books and encouraging them to do and dream. He also gave away books that he had collected for children who might be unable to afford a purchase.
Rain Pryor reprised her 2013 Fried Chicken and Latkes presented by Barbara Ann Teer’s (Harlem) National Black Theatre. She also starred in a documentary film That Girl Is Crazy.
Stephanie Berry and Perri Gaffney two powerful actors with glowing reviews from the New York Times and many journals were double billed in 2009 in one act plays. Stephanie was a stand-out again this year in Repairing A Nation. Perri Gaffney promoted her new book ’The Business of Broadway’.
Stand Up Comic, (New Jack City, Women of Brewster Place) actor Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and Shakespearean actor brother, Timothy Stickney promoted their Theater Arts Program being offered at City College in New York. (August to October 2015).
HBO Weeds co-star Tonye Patano as a first time Celebrity guest VIP of the Festival was gracious as she perused the events and posed with fans and colleagues. She was a great support seeing shows and shopping in the vendors market.
Broadway star Lillias White, Fela, co-hosted a memorial tribute to Garland Lee Thompson
Ebony Joann did the only gospel number in Black Stars Of The Great White Way to rousing applause. Both ladies and Andre De Shields returned to New York to perform in The Wiz on Summerstage. Sandra Mills-Scott (A Maids Door) and Roscoe Orman (Fetch Clay) gave performances that were raved about and will likely still be talked about in future. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that celebrities Dawn Lewis, Barbara Montgomery, Lamman Rucker, Hattie Winston, Starletta Dupois, and Count Stovall participated in Panels on Soaps, Showbusiness, Actors Equity and Unions. These actors caringly revealed painful, private, and inspiring details to help aspiring industry professionals gain insight into the business of show business.
Petri Byrd bailiff and co-star on Judge Judy capped off the festival with a farewell soiree that has become the crowning event. He said ” I’ve been going since 1999. The closing night party started in Kimberly Purnell ‘s hotel room in 2001. Been getting bigger and better ever since. Last 2 took place at Ma’ati Spa on 707 n. Main Street . The owner, Maya Gilliam has generously donated her place for the party in ’13 and this year.” “Byrd” as he is affectionately called is one of the fan favorites at the festival and prized guests for his wit and vocal abilities which he shows off during appearances at the Midnight Poetry slam, first hosted by Helena D. Lewis and (Cosby’s) Malcolm Jamal Warner.
Forever gracious and loyal the stars return festival after festival occurring every other year on the odd year, the first week in August. The next National Black Theatre Festival planning is already underway scheduled for July 31st to August 5th 2017.
Thanks in part to Lawrence Evans, celebrity coordinator who works relentlessly through the off year to make things run seamlessly during the festival. A gifted actor and singer in his own right and CEO of a casting agency he somehow manages to give personal attention to every invited VIP. When asked the secret to his remarkable work ethic and personal touch he said, “It comes from my upbringing in Forest Mississippi. I was raised on a farm where we had to work”