In 1989, when the first National Black Theatre Festival sang, danced and drum-beat its way into downtown Winston-Salem, the company that produced it, the N.C. Black Repertory Co., was already 10 years old.

The brainchildren of Larry Leon Hamlin, the success of both entities took a lot of people by surprise. With expectable ups and downs, both have grown steadily over the ensuing 30 and 40 years.

When Hamlin, a beloved and charismatic leader, died in 2007, many folks wondered if the theater company and the festival could survive without him.

But the spirit of black theater prevailed when Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Hamlin’s widow, along with a dedicated group of volunteers and staff hoisted its banner high and kept the festival growing and thriving.

“The festival is Larry’s baby. Larry birthed the baby. Larry had the vision for the baby,” said Nigel Alston, N.C. Black Rep’s executive director and longtime NBTF supporter. “In large measure, why it has continued is because of Sylvia. She’s very quiet. She doesn’t want or seek the spotlight, but she is the person ‘behind the green curtain,’ making it all happen.”

Sprinkle-Hamlin is president of the board of N.C. Black Rep and executive producer of NBTF. She was born in Winston-Salem, has a master’s degree in library science from Clark Atlanta University and is director in the history of the Forsyth County Public Library system.

The festival, which operated in the red its first year, is now one of Winston-Salem’s biggest magnets for tourist dollars.

“In 2015, the hoteliers reported that the National Black Theatre Festival generated at least 3,300 hotel room nights; in 2017, they reported an increase to about 4,200,” said Marcheta Cole Keefer, director of marketing and communications at Visit Winston-Salem. “From a tourism perspective, the economic impact of the visitors that are staying in our hotels are generating approximately $8 million.”

Ten thousand people attended the first NBTF. Sixty thousand are expected this week.

The first festival

Hamlin met with Maya Angelou, the renowned poet, author and professor at Wake Forest University, to get her support and advice before the first festival.

“Dr. Angelou played a major part,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said. “She said, ‘If you bring celebrities down, it will bring the crowd.’”

Angelou became the first festival chair and brought the celebrities: Her friend Oprah Winfrey emceed the opening-night gala. Among the others were playwright August Wilson, Lou Gossett Jr., Esther Rolle, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Della Reece, Roscoe Lee Brown, Cecily Tyson and Moses Gunn.

In later years, Denzel Washington came, along with Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

A Reidsville native who had an acting career throughout the U.S. before returning to N.C. to start the Black Repertory Co., Hamlin traveled throughout the country to find plays for the new festival.

And he bagged 17 of them.

N.C. Black Rep did “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” in the Stevens Center. NUCLEUS Theatre, based in New York and Los Angeles, did “Stepping into Tomorrow” at Winston-Salem State University. A young actor named Lawrence Evans was in that along with Attallah Shabazz and Yolanda King, the elder daughters of Martin Luther King Jr.

The only real obstacles, Sprinkle-Hamlin said, were some people’s lack of faith that it would happen — and fundraising.

Sara Lee (now Hanesbrands) and the now-defunct USAir are the only companies that stepped up with significant donations for the first NBTF.

“But the volunteers came through for us, and the New York community was very supportive,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said.

Vendors heard about the festival through the grapevine, and just showed up. Now they pack the Benton Convention Center throughout the fest.

“That first festival was unique,” she said. “For the first time, vendors were burning incense, and people were playing drums. It was a real African festival.”

N.C. Black Rep

“Larry came here the end of May in 1979 and had his first N.C. Black Rep production the beginning of June,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said. The two met at a gathering of black professionals where she was networking for her cosmetics business and he was selling tickets to the show, “Sizwe Banzi Is Dead,” by Athol Fugard, a South African playwright.

“When I left that night, I had 60 tickets to sell,” she said, laughing. “And I sold them, too.”

Looking to strengthen the professionalism of N.C. Black Rep, Hamlin took a trip to New York in 1982 to audition actors for a play he was doing at the old Arts Council Theatre on Coliseum Drive. That’s when Evans met him.

“I got cast,” Evans said. “And came down to Winston-Salem with seven other actors. The first night it snowed about an inch, and they canceled the show.

“That was in January or February of 1983, and then I started coming back and was in ‘Ceremonies of Dark Old Men’ that fall, and more New York actors started coming down.”

“We had singers and dancers and musicians here,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said. “But not so many professional black actors.”

With no permanent rehearsal space, they practiced in churches and nightclubs, until they got an office in the old Arts Council building in and started rehearsing there.

“Larry painted the walls lavender, and everybody thought that was really strange,” she said. “And I used to ride around with all the props in my car.”

Purple and black would become the official festival colors, and organizers now exhort, “Put on your purple and black, because the festival is back.”

Hamlin also coined the term “marvtastic,” which has been adopted by theater-lovers.

These days

Although money is still tight, donors have increased and early donors have increased their giving.

“Even when we haven’t had money, we have done things right,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said.

For the first time in many years, N.C. Black Rep is producing the opening night show, “Jelly’s Last Jam,” a big song-and-dance-filled spectacle that features one of the show’s original Broadway stars, Stanley Wayne Mathis. Artistic director Jackie Alexander is directing.

N.C. Black Rep is also producing “Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will, Mon,” a Jamaica-themed adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, directed by Ted Lange, of “Love Boat” fame.

Throughout the years, the dependence on celebrity has decreased, and the interest in theater has increased.

But the fans still love their stars, and the stars keep coming. NBTF leaders limit it to those with a background in theater, not only film.

This year will feature actors Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory as celebrity co-chairs.

Avery has starred in many productions on stage and screen. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple.” Gregory is the only artist in NBTF history to headline three times, including “My Heart Is Crying, Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story” in 2001.

Evans has performed and cast productions in theaters across the country and has been seen in television series, including “All My Children,” “One Life to Live,” “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order” and the film “The Devil Wears Prada.” In 1991, Hamlin appointed Evans as the celebrity and travel coordinator for the festival.

“That was the year they did ‘Blues in the Night’ with Obba Babatundé, Freda Payne and Carol Wood,” Evans said. “So Larry said, ‘Make airline reservations for those people,’ so I said, ‘Oh, OK,’ so I made them, and he said, ‘Make some more.’

“Larry said we can get our own celebrities.” And they did.

This year’s festival will present dramas, comedies, musicals, choreoplays and multi-media productions. The shows will include celebrity performances throughout the week, featuring such actors as Vivian Reed, Michael Colyar, Mariann Aalda and Thembi Mtshali.

Other celebrity guests will include Tony and Emmy-winner Leslie Uggams, Tony Award winner André De Shields, Lamman Rucker, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Keith David, Ledisi, Geoffrey Owens, Hal Williams, Brian Stokes Mitchell and more.

But wait, there’s more

“Monday is all about the gala,” Evans said. “We roll out the purple carpet, and there’s a fun Hollywood feel. And it’s very African. It’s like the opening festivities of the Olympics.

“But starting on Tuesday, bam! that’s when everything opens, and it’s all about theater Monday through Saturday. It’s an actor’s dream. They want to see theater.”

There’s a free film festival every morning of the fest, an International Colloquium for scholarly exploration of black theater, workshops, readers theater. All free.

Tanya Pinkins will star in a staged reading of a play about Angelou that N.C. Black Rep has commissioned from Nambi E. Kelley, 8 p.m. July 30 at the Byrum Center, WFU. Admission is free.

TEENtastic events include a dance contest and workshops.

“We are trying to bring more and more young people into the fold,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said. “We have a lot of young people in ‘Jelly’ and in ‘Tweflth Night.’”

Back to the future

In the program of the first festival in 1989, Hamlin wrote: “If black theatre is to survive and exist in America in the next 10 years we must act now to strengthen and ensure its cherished dreams of longevity. The isolation and fragmentation of black theatre must come to an end, since they only serve to weaken and prevent the progress of American Theatre as a whole.”

If the steady growth of the NBTF is any indication, Hamlin’s vision has become a reality. Every other year for the past 30 years, veterans and newbies of black theater have flocked to what they have come to call “Black Theater. Holy Ground.”

“On the national level, the theater festival came along at just the perfect time,” Alexander said. “The festival became the meeting place for black theater that held it together. When I was in acting school, it’s all I heard about. Lawrence was telling every actor that he knew about it.”

Alexander has been artistic director of N.C. Black Rep since 2016. He is an award-winning actor, writer, producer and director and the former artistic director of the Billie Holiday Theatre in New York.

“Now it’s about making it permanent, about sustainability,” Alston said. “There are some intangible things that you may miss if you’re not on the inside. It is the largest festival in Forsyth County. It’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz. It takes an incredible number of people and relationships to make it work.”

Alston has been on the fundraising committee since 1993 and a co-chair of fundraising with Mayor Allen Joines since 2007. He is a motivational speaker, Dale Carnegie trainer, meeting facilitator, retreat leader and a columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal.

Throughout the year, N.C. Black Rep produces black theater classics, up-and-coming African American writers, and at least one world premiere each season.

N.C. Black Rep has reinstated a Living Room theater program that harkens back to its early days. Sprinkle-Hamlin said that theater-goers have been asking when the next one will be.

The company has commissioned a documentary film on the history of NBTF that, in addition to using archival material, will include footage of this year’s festival.

“We call celebrities now, but in a few years, when this film comes out, they will be calling us,” Alexander said. “There is no greater thing in theater than the National Black Theatre Festival, and this film will remind people of that.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do the film so badly is that we are starting to lose icons of the theater — like Charles Weldon who died this year — and they’ve all been here. ... When I played the trailer at a theater conference in Raleigh last week, at least one young man was in tears.

“One of our goals is to take a play to Broadway. People will start coming to the festival because of what they know about the company.

“I also think we are poised to grow. When I look at Larry’s vision, we have accomplished a lot — but not half of it.

“He dreamed BIG.”

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lfelder@wsjournal.com (336) 727-7298 @LynnFelder

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