Finally, after months of anticipation, one of Winston-Salem’s premier events, the National Black Theatre Festival, begins today. The biennial festival is chock-full of performances, programs and events that define black theater at its finest. It serves as a homecoming for theater professionals as well as an introductory platform for stars-to-be. This is the 16th festival, evidence of the success and staying power of what can only be described as a gem in the crown of the City of Arts and Innovation.
The festival begins at 5:30 p.m. with an opening gala at the Benton Convention Center, where festival honoree, Leslie Uggams, will receive the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award, along with other award winners. With a career that has spanned stage, TV, movies and music — including many solo albums to her name and both Tony and Daytime Emmy awards — she more than deserves the honor.
The first of six performances of the classic play “Jelly’s Last Jam” will commence at 9 p.m. at the Stevens Center.
But those are just a couple of the many highlights. The festival consists of more than 100 productions by more than 30 professional theater companies, including one from Cape Town, South Africa. The festival also features workshops, seminars, vendors, events for teens and a film festival.
Many of the performances will be in the Stevens Center, but festival goers will also be welcomed in venues at some of our major higher-education campuses, including the UNC School of the Arts, Salem Academy and College and Winston-Salem State University. The 240-seat black box theater being completed in the Milton Rhodes art center will also be used.
Films will be shown in Aperture Cinema and the auditorium of the Central Library.
NBTF truly is a city-wide event.
The festival always brings a higher level of energy to Winston-Salem, as well as a healthy dose of glamour as visiting luminaries mingle with local fans and hard-working volunteers.
“You will see some familiar faces among our celebrity guests,” Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, the executive producer of the festival and widow of festival founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, told the Journal last month, “and a few first-timers such as Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin on the popular ‘Cosby’ show, and R&B recording artist Ledisi.”
The festival also boosts Winston-Salem’s economy, as festival-goers dine and shop throughout town and stay in local hotels.
“The happiest time of my year is when my board looks at the occupancy taxes after the National Black Theatre Festival,” Richard Geiger, president of the Winston-Salem Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Journal earlier this year. “It has helped establish Winston-Salem as a destination for art, theater and African American culture. It has an incredible impact on the economy and culture of Winston-Salem.”
We have the late Larry Leon Hamlin, a playwright, actor and producer, to thank for organizing the first festival in 1989 and inspiring the talented individuals who continue to make it such a special event. We wish he could see how “marvtastic” it has turned out to be.
The festival continues through Aug. 3. It just doesn’t seem long enough.
For a full schedule of events, go online to https://ncblackrep.org/all-2019-nbtf-events/