NBTF Jelly's Last Jam

The audience watches “Jelly’s Last Jam” during opening night of the National Black Theatre Festival on Monday at the Stevens Center in Winston-Salem.

The trumpets and trombones of the Carver High School band blasted first, followed quickly by the drum-beats of the Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble, and the National Black Theatre Festival was off to its 16th start in 30 years.

The biennial festival, founded in 1989, opened Monday and wrapped up Saturday night with parties in the Marriott Winston-Salem, the Embassy Suites, Corpening Plaza and many of the downtown streets in between.

Shouts of "Black theater Holy Ground," "Put on your purple and black, because the festival is back" and "Marvtastic!" rang out in the hotel lobbies, theaters and streets throughout the week.

"I think we were very ambitious in our goals, and I think we met them," said Jackie Alexander, artistic director of the N.C. Black Repertory Co. that produces the festival. "Theater companies from across the country met and made plans to collaborate and share our resources moving forward. 

"The energy was great. There were so many new faces and a lot of young faces, and we feel great about getting them involved in the festival."

N.C. Black Rep announced a new award at this year's festival: the Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin Rolling World Premiere Award. Every two years, the Black Rep Co. will select a new play to produce. After it has been produced in Winston-Salem it will be produced by at least two more companies. The first play, "Maya" by Nambi E. Kelley, will be presented here in May 2020,  followed by productions at the Hattiloo Theatre in Memphis, Tenn., and the Ensemble Theatre Company in Houston, Texas.

A big draw

Officials from the N.C. Black Rep say they will not have final numbers of tickets sold or people attending for a couple of weeks but that tickets sales were the highest they have ever been, and a number of shows sold out before the festival had begun.

Marcheta Keefer, director of marketing and communications at Visit Winston-Salem, said that her organization will call hoteliers soon to get a final room count.

"Early reservation indications, however, reported strong bookings hovering around the 4,000-4,200 hotel room night pick-ups," Keefer said. "And they were booked earlier than previous festivals.

"The total estimated economic impact of the festival is approximately $7.5 to $10 million. This is hotel room nights, plus estimated visitor spending at restaurants, retail, etc. for the week."

A typical day started as early as 9 a.m. with workshops, a reader’s theater of new works, a poetry jam and The International Colloquium, and ended past midnight most nights with parties spilling out of the hotels into the streets.

The NBTF Film Fest was held mornings at Aperture Cinema on Fourth Street and the Central Library on Fifth Street. For the last three nights of the festival, an Old School Block Party with live music ran past midnight at Corpening Plaza.

"It's a revival. It's a family reunion, and it's a paah-tee! It was round the clock," Ramona Harper said. "I started in the morning and went into the next day. There's a sense of connection and joy that I just never expected. It was an amazing experience. It completely took me by surprise."

Harper, a theater critic from Washington, D.C., attended the festival for the first time this year. She came with a dual purpose: to attend the festival and to attend the American Theatre Critics Association conference that was being held here to coincide with the festival.

A retired career diplomat who has visited 49 countries and has seen a lot, Harper said that she has never seen anything like NBTF.

"I drove down on Sunday to get the whole thing, and I am so glad," she said. "I went to the first press conference, the gala, the whole cultural context.

"The accessibility of the celebrities was so real. I could feel Andre DeShields' pulse as he went through the receiving line at the gala. They gave of themselves, encouraged the next generation of performers and mentored the youth."

Dr. Faith Thomas is the mother of Colby Christina, a three-time celebrity teen co-chair for the NBTF's TEEN-tastic program, most of it held at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds.

"The festival places emphasis on how critically important the arts are for our children," Thomas said. "I experienced increased excitement from the parents and children this year. The new fashion show provided a twist."

With fashions from Christina's Hopeway line and from vendors at the festival's market, the fashion show was theatrical, with a Broadway flair, Thomas said. Christina is a college sophomore.

Christina and Khalil Middleton were the queen and king of the event, and Khalil's brother, Qaasim, an "American Idol" finalist, emceed.

Thomas said that if you put your children in some kind of arts program, encourage them to get a good education and take them to church, you will have good kids.

"That's a message that has been handed down to me for generations," she said.

Besides the teen events at the fairgrounds, Queen Nana Malaya Rucker, "The Dancing Diplomat," ran the Youth Celebrity Project Tuesday-Friday at the Embassy Suites. There were workshops for young people in dancing, storytelling, singing and acting.

Making an impact

Gabrielle Lee, who plays Bricktop in "Bricktop: Legend of the Jazz Age," is a performer based in New York City. This was her first time at the NBTF.

"And how lucky am I to be here as an entertainer!" she said. "Performing-wise, it's an honor. I'm making history myself."

Lee's show, presented by the Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewsburg, W.Va., was the first production in the newly renovated Reynolds Place in the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts. The Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, which owns the center, has invested about $2.4 million to upfit the space and assure sound isolation between it and the Mountcastle Forum on the second floor.

"Reynolds Place is definitely meeting our expectations!" said Christine Jones, senior vice president of facilities and chief operating officer of the Arts Council. "The venue is warm and intimate, the acoustics superb, the site lines great and the state-of-the-art technology enhances the performance on stage."

"I felt like it was the appropriate play for that space," Lee said "Everything seemed so fitting." 

Lee said that she was enjoyed her first festival: "The gala, the opening, and the people embrace you. The locals are so friendly and the restaurants and the drivers."

The only thing that Lee didn't like about the festival is that she didn't have time to see more shows, but she did see "Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne," a 10:30 p.m. show.

"This is like a homecoming," she said. "My old friend Darryl Reuben Hall is doing 'Dinner With Booker T.' in the same building as me." The Milton Rhodes Center contains three theaters, so three shows were occurring at the same time.

Robert Sokol, a theater critic who freelances and writes for the San Francisco Examiner, said that being at the festival took him out of his comfort zone, and he likes that.

"I'm feeling a little overwhelmed and intimidated in terms of my cultural competence," Sokol said during a session on diversity and inclusion at the Theatre Critics' conference. "While I don't consider myself — as a gay man — to be part of the patriarchy, my eyes keep getting opened more and more, and I see how much further I need to go.

"What I'm appreciating is that, in the context of the theater, we have a common language, and so we can start to see what else we have in common."

This year was Eileen J. Morris' 15th NBTF. Artistic director of the Ensemble Theatre Co., Morris has presented seven plays at the festival. This year, it's "Front Porch Society" at Hanesbrands Theatre.

"When I come to the festival, I am rejuvenated, and I can take that energy into the next six months," Morris said. "It drives me to do what I do. When people see the work, they can get an idea of what we can do."

Morris said that theater professionals are often working in regional isolation, but the festival brings them together, "And you have a network."

Vendors

The Vendors' Market in the Benton Convention Center is one of many aspects of the festival that began spontaneously and has become an institution. Vendors, hearing through the grapevine about the impending first festival in 1989, showed up and started selling their wares. Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, now the festival's executive producer, gave one of the the volunteers a credit card machine to start collecting fees from the marketeers. 

Now vendors take up several rooms in the convention center, selling Afro-centric art, clothing and more.

Regina Jackson from Dallas, Texas, has been bringing her Sultry Touch Collection of rayon batik, Irish linen and African mud cloth clothing to the festival for many years, she said.

"A lot of my regular customers come back," she said, "which I do appreciate."

Steve Payne from Atlanta has brought his D.W. Appeal graphic T-shirts for four years. On Friday night he said that sales had been a little slow, but he was hopeful business would pick up on Saturday, traditionally his busiest day. 

More than 1,200 volunteers helped usher, drive VIPs, staff information booths and perform other tasks. A youth parade was held on Tuesday morning and a closing day parade on Saturday morning.

More than 30 professional theater companies from throughout the country and one from South Africa, presented more than 130 performances.

"The National Black Theatre Festival is, indeed, Winston-Salem’s largest festival/special event," Keefer said. "The positive economic impact it generates is undeniable, and the festival has other tangible benefits. The caliber of incredible talent this festival attracts and acclaimed performances it consistently generates reinforces how we position and strongly brand Winston-Salem as a true city of arts, innovation and aspiration."

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lfelder@wsjournal.com

(336) 727-7298

@LynnFelder

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