BWW Review: THE END OF THE ROAD: 2019 NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE FESTIVAL
THE END OF THE ROAD... THE 16th BIENNAL NATIONAL BLACK THEATRE FESTIVAL
The 16th biennial National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) has come to an end. It is now a memorable entry in the "Black Theatre Holy Ground" history book. This year marked NBTF's thirtieth anniversary. What a spectacular week of plays, readings, short films, spoken word poetry, a gala, and a parade of stars...truly the crème of the crop of theatre festivals. One of the aspects of the festival that impressed me the most is the community support given by the city and citizens of Winston-Salem. The mayor, J. Allen Joines, attended and participated in the opening gala. Many of the restaurants catered to patrons by extending their business hours. Chartered/Metro buses transported theater-goers to the various event locations making it convenient to enjoy the moment without worrying about how to get there. It was truly a collaborative effort...the meeting of the minds. None of this would have been possible without the visionary, the late Larry Leon Hamlin, who started the festival in 1989. And, a bucket load of kudos goes to his widow, Lady Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin. She is truly the nucleus that keeps this well-oiled machine running. And to the leaders and executive team of the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre that host the NBTF...hats tipped to Artistic Director, Jackie Alexander and Executive Director, Nigel Alston. And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the volunteers who eagerly shared hospitality and devoted countless hours to make this enormous event a success.
As I mentioned, one of the highlights of the festival is the Broadway-style stage plays. Such great talents gracefully and skillfully showcased their fine acting abilities on the main stages throughout the city. I can truly say that each could earn a shot on Broadway, a great testament to the theater companies, producers, playwrights, and directors working behind the scene to develop such works of "excellence". Although I wasn't able to see ALL the plays...which would have been an impossible feat because of all of the activities available, I had the opportunity to attend several that were entertaining and made significant impact:
- Jelly's Last Jam: Jelly's Last Jam, presented by The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, directed by Artistic Director Jackie Alexander, was the inaugural play that followed the gala. By the way...Charlotte native, Ashanti Smith was the assistant director. Jelly's depicted the "highs and lows" of the self-proclaimed inventor of jazz, Jelly Roll Morton (DeWitt Fleming, Jr.). Great dancers and musicians showcased Jelly's musical genius that influenced the Chicago, New Orleans, and New York entertainment scenes. Although Jelly's life ended tragically, no one can deny that his impact on the African American music cultural was significant and noteworthy. Great dancers and musical renditions.
- Blood At The Root: Based on the Jena Six case, that occurred in Jena, Louisiana...this energetic cast passionately brought to life the story of six young men who were arrested for the assault of a white student. It disclosed racism from several aspects...from the school officials who implied through their actions that authority prevails over justice! And from the disparity of students...from both races (Caucasians and African Americans). The actions of racism was displayed by the noose that hung from a tree, which signified lynching--a very dark period in American history and the prohibition of the Black students to even sit under the tree. The racial injustice of the judicial system was a factor, through the inequality of the process...strenuous handling of the case that caused destruction of the lives of six young BLACK men, based on a high school fight that normally would have warranted out-of-school suspension instead of a jail sentence. This was a great awareness piece presented by North Carolina Central University.
- Looking For Leroy: Presented by New Federal Theatre, Looking for Leroy, is a debate/conversation between a young theatre internist name Taj (Tyler Fauntleroy) and LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka (Kim Sullivan). It contrasts two diverse philosophies on Black Theatre...from two different generations. Both individuals shared interesting perspectives in literature and music; yet, they viewed the progression of theater through different lens. Baraka is commissioned to write a play about W.E. Dubois, whom he described as "the most dangerous man in America". Taj's motive is to solicit feedback from Amiri (whose work he studied intensely) concerning a play he has written. After spending time with the playwright, he grows bored of his eccentric ways and decides to quit. Finally, Baraka reveals that he read Taj's play and gives the young internist his "blessing". He encourages him to take the theatrical baton to the next level. Engaging; yet, a lot of dialogue to digest in a short period of time.
- Anne & Emmett: First, I have to salute Janet Langhart-Cohen for her brilliance in pairing together these two historical teenagers...Anne Frank (Hannah Church) and Emmett "Bobo" Till (Enoch King). Both prominent figures' lifespans was shortened by equally traumatic; yet diverse circumstances. Anne Frank, a victim of the Holocaust, who journaled her experiences in what is historically described as the most popular diary of all times, Anne Frank's Diary (1942 - 1944). Anne Frank died at age 15 of Typhus in the Bergen-Blesen concentration camp. Emmett Till, the only son of Mamie Till, was lynched at age 14, in Money, Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The play illustrates a fictitious conversation between the two based on the premise that if they recounted their tragedies, their lives would be remembered. Although some of the moments were painful to watch...it was a very powerful depiction of two teenagers, on two different continents, brought together by untimely deaths. The play ended with a quote from Elie Wiesel that stated, "To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." I truly enjoyed the presentation of these two lives and the impact they made of the world. Great storytelling and acting.
- Cowboy: Cowboy, produced by The Layon Gray American Theatre Company, is the old western depiction of Bass Reeves (Tommie J. Moore), a freed slave who was the first African-American United States Deputy Marshal. The plot of this awesome production took us on a rollercoaster ride of twist and turns that kept us on the edge of our seats. With strobe lights and gunfire, it set the stage for a "Dodge City-like" saloon encounter with cowboys and an Indian (Clinton Faulkner), too. I loved the action and the execution of the storyline. It was perfectly cast, as well. It was one of my favorites.
- Reunion In Bartersville: Produced by the Black Spectrum Theatre Company, Return In Bartersville dramatized the 50th high class reunion of classmates in a town in Texas. An unexpected classmate (Gil Tucker) enters the picture (thought to be deceased), and opens up a Pandora's Box filled with lies and deception. Each one of the characters brought their own set of issues that created an atmosphere for drama and comedic encounters. This play was another one of my favorites. Great actors, great story-line, and great execution.
- Berta, Berta: A controversial love story, presented by The Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Berta, Berta was hot! Passionate! Steamy! "After committing an unforgettable crime, Leroy (Benton Greene) is granted one final wish; a change to make amends with his long lost lover Berta (Bianca LaVerne Jones)." With an air of toxicity, this production gives a glimpse of what could happen when a "forbidden love" grows dangerous. Yet, the danger in it seemed to fuel the passion between these two. What we won't do for love. Great passion between the actors and a very entertaining story-line.
- Natural Woman: An Aretha Story: Produced by Blake Vision Entertainment, Natural Woman is a wonderful tribute to the Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. Depicted as the "older" Aretha (L'Tanya "Sugarlips" Shields) chronicling her life in a letter/journal, this production illustrated a "younger" Ree (Natasha Brown) with her childhood growing pains and her tumultuous evolution into adulthood. Each stage of Aretha's life was undergirded by chart-topping songs like R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Rock Steady, Pink Cadillac, Ain't No Way and of course the title song, Natural Woman, that had the audience reminiscing on our own life's journeys and the impact each songs made on our lives. Sort of like, "Where were you when Aretha sang____!" chronicles. I believe Ms. Franklin would be so proud of how these two ladies who passionately and professionally sang her songs and depicted her story. I truly enjoyed this production and I hope it will be seen on Broadway and on tour in the future. Kudos to the producer, Mr. Blake!
And there you have it...my wonderful and spectacular theatrical experience at the 16th biennial National Black Theatre Festival. I hope to see some of these productions grace the stage of Broadway or receive Tony Awards someday...they are truly worthy of the honor. I am eagerly waiting for the 17th biennial NBTF in 2021. Each time I attend this great mecca, I walk away mesmerized. Truly, this is Black Theatre Holy Ground. Another "well done" affair...I tip my hat to Queen Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin and everyone involved in making this production a huge success. So proud to be a African American who loves the Performing Arts.