The National Black Theatre Festival has long been known for its tributes to black entertainers of the past, and this year’s festival will be no exception.
The six-day festival — running July 29 to August 3 at various venues in Winston-Salem — will have tributes to, among others, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton. The festival will also feature a free staged reading of a play about the life of Maya Angelou in advance of its May 2020 official premiere.
“Jelly’s Last Jam” will be the opening night show and members of the original Broadway cast, including Savion Glover and Keith David, are expected to be at opening night.
On Monday afternoon, about 200 people attended a lively presentation at the Benton Convention Center announcing details of this year’s festival. In keeping with festival tradition, the event was also a tribute to founder Larry Leon Hamlin, who died in 2007. His signature color, purple, was prominently on display, both in the decor and in the clothing of many of the attendees, and his catchphrase “marvtastic” was used several times during the hour-long event.
This is the 30th anniversary of the biennial festival, and the 40th anniversary of the N.C.Black Repertory Company, which Hamlin also founded.
“We have invited 40 celebrity guests, and 30 companies from 14 states and one from Capetown, South Africa, to participate in this historic event,” said Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Hamlin’s widow and the executive producer of the festival. “All roads lead to black theater holy ground from July 29 through August 3. Over 60,000 people are expected to visit our beautiful city.”
As was previously announced, actors Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory will be co-chairs of this year’s festival, and 18 awards will be given, including the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award, which will go to actress Leslie Uggams.
Other winners include Kamilah Forbes, a producer and actress who is receiving the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award; Pearl Cleage, a novelist and playwright who is receiving the August Wilson Playwright Award; Michele Shay, an actress and director who is getting the Lloyd Richards Director Award; and 14 more honorees. They will be recognized at the festival’s opening night gala on July 29.
“You will see some familiar faces among our celebrity guests,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said, “and a few first-timers such as Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin on the popular ‘Cosby’ show, and R&B recording artist Ledisi.”
Owens attracted national attention last year when The Daily Mail and Fox News seemed to belittle him for working at a Trader Joe’s, which some people viewed as “job shaming.”
To give the audience a taste of what to expect from the festival, the presentation included excerpts from three of this year’s productions — a dance routine from “Prideland: A Dance Adaptation of The Lion King,” by the Greensboro-based The Pointe! Studio of Dance & Elise Jonell Performance Ensemble; and songs by Zakiyyah Niang, from the Black Repertory Company’s production of “Jelly’s Last Jam,” and Sandra Dubose, from “Pooled: A Gospel Musical Drama.”
Other events at this year’s festival will include the Black Rep’s production of “Twelfth Night — Or What You Will, Mon,” a twist on Shakespeare set in Jamaica with music inspired by Bob Marley, with three free showings at Winston Square Park Amphitheatre; “Words & Verses,” an updated version of the festival’s long-running “Midnight Poetry Jam” series; the national youth talent showcase; the adult-skewing one-woman show “Gettin’ Old is a Bitch... But I’m Gonna Wrestle That Bitch to the Ground!” by comedian Mariann Aalda; and “48 Hours in Holy Ground,” in which six playwrights re-imagine several classic plays, including “For Colored Girls,” “Fences” and “Miss Evers’ Boys,” which will be cast, rehearsed and produced over a two-day period as an evening of shorts.
Jackie Alexander, artistic director of the Black Rep, said that the anniversaries would be commemorated in a special way, and that audiences shouldn’t be surprised if they see a film crew milling about during the festival. “We’re going to be shooting a documentary on the festival, long overdue,” he said. “We’re going to capture this energy of the festival. Like I say, it’s the most unique event I’ve ever experienced.”
He recalled his first time meeting Larry Leon Hamlin, back in 2005, when he got a tap on the shoulder and turned around. “He was dressed head to toe in purple!” Alexander said. “I was left speechless, and I was speechless for the rest of the week, it’s the most beautiful event, the energy... I always say it’s everything society tells us black people are not, and we’re going to capture all of that on film and honor it.”