BWW Review: OPENING DAY: 2019 NATIONAL BLACK THEATER FESTIVAL at Winston-Salem, NC
The Star-Studded Opening Of The 2019 National Black Theatre Festival
When the stars come out...there is magic in the air. That's exactly how the opening day of the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) in Winston-Salem felt...majestic and magical. As the originators and attendees declare..."This Is Holy Ground!" NBTF is "taking over" the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina this entire week, July 29-August 3. You will see a "sea" of exuberant attendees... who have traveled from near and far to celebrate Black theater...at its very best. Established in 1989, the festival is a lifelong dream and manifestation of its founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, a.k,a. "Mr. Marvtastic". His wife, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, the executive producer, has gracefully and skillfully taken the reigns and guided this ship to a glorious experience of theater, music, film, dance...a full-blown explosion of The Performing Arts...accented in purple. This is the 30th anniversary of NBTF and the 40th anniversary of the theater company that started it, The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, led by Executive Director, Nigel Alston and Artistic Director, Jackie Alexander. The celebrity co-hosts of this year's festival is Margaret "Sug" Avery (The Color Purple) and Chester Gregory (The Jackie Wilson Story).
I have been in "awe" all day beginning with the noon-day press conference spearheaded by Media Relations Director, Brian McLaughlin. Celebrities and conference performers shared the podium to greet the press to include the incomparable actress/singer Leslie Uggams, who is the honoree of the Sidney Poiter Lifelong Achievement. Ms. Uggams was a child star who later starred in her own television show, The Leslie Uggams Show, in 1969. She was the only African American to host a network variety show since the Nat King Cole Show of the early 1950s. Other celebrities in attendance included: Keith David (Greenleaf), Ted Lange - the most famous bartender (The Love Boat), Petri Hawkins-Byrd - one of the most recognized bailiff (Judge Judy), Darnell Williams ("Jessie" All My Children).
The highlight of the press conference was seeing Andre De Shields, who is celebrating 50 years in theater and is the 2019 Tony Award winner for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical for his role as Hermes in Hadestown. Andre gave the press conference attendees a fourth phrase of his formula for success in addition to the three he gave during his Tony acceptance speech: "1) Surround yourself with people who eyes light up when they see you coming! 2) Slowly is the fastest way to get to where you want to be! 3) The top of one mountain is the bottom of the next, so keep climbing! 4) God created Black people and Black people created EVERYTHING!" He also led the audience in singing the Black anthem, Lift Every Voice And Sing. It was truly...magical.
Later that evening, the stars continued to shine bright at the formal gala, held at the Benton Convention Center. As is customary, the gala opened with a parade of stars, preceded by the beating of African drums, the rhythm of African dancers, and an African dancer of stilts. Some of the honorees for the evening was as mentioned before, Ms. Leslie Uggams (Sidney Poiter Lifelong Achievement Award), Art Evans (Living Legend Award), and Pearl Cleage (August Wilson Playwright Award).
The opening night play, which directly followed the gala, was the Tony Award winning stage play, Jelly's Last Jam, the story of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz better known as, Jelly Roll Morton.
What a "full" and "fabulous" day I have experienced. I am excited about the rest of the week festivities that include stage readings - one being a world premiere of the upcoming production, Maya, by Nambi E. Kelley, theater industry workshops, film showings, youth activities/showcases, spoken word, Broadway-style plays...and so much more. I am truly like an exuberant kid on Christmas morning, waiting to open my gifts. I am glad to be a part of this giant entertainment mogul, we call "The Performing Arts". We are indeed on "holy ground".