Since 1989, the event has showcased the best in African-American theater and has served as a launching pad for new productions. Over the years, an extraordinary camaraderie has evolved among the artists, critics, and patrons in attendance; it was commonplace last week to see participants laughing, hugging, taking pictures, and exchanging contact information while discussing a reading or a play. But the joyous atmosphere was threatened by storm clouds: This year, the NBTF faced serious financial obstacles that threatened its survival, according to festival founder (and Black Repertory Company artistic director) Larry Leon Hamlin. With funding sources having reduced support, the festival was faced with a $300,000 deficit.
"I said I would not cancel the festival," reports Hamlin. "Black theater is strong, and we will survive." By the first day of the festival, $210,000 had been raised, and Hamlin gave assurances at an opening day press conference that the additional $90,000 needed would be raised by week's end. Opening day also included some more upbeat notes, as when the festival co-chairs--actors André De Shields and Hattie Winston--led the assembled participants in an uplifting performance of "Lift Every Voice And Sing." All told, the NBTF presented 35 full productions and 37 readings of new works. Following is a sampling of all that the festival had to offer.
Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater presented The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart is Crying, Crying), written and directed by Jackie Taylor. The tangled story of Wilson's life--the womanizing, the chicanery of an unscrupulous manager--was accompanied by concert-level performances of the soul singer's greatest hits by Chester Gregory II. A slim, muscular performer, Gregory wore a conch shell in his hair, did full splits, and slid about shirtless and on his knees, in every way evoking the singer's legendary sex appeal. Another excellent musical performance was Sandra Reaves-Phillips' one-woman tribute to The Late Great Ladies Of Blues & Jazz. Conceived, written and performed by Reaves-Phillips, the show evokes the spirits and songs of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington and Mahalia Jackson. (The writer/star has been thrilling audiences with her Ladies for the past 21 years but says that this will be her farewell tour of the show, as she intends to try her luck in film and television.)
The Dance On Widow's Row, which was given a reading at the 1999 festival, has since been staged by the New Federal Theater in New York, and that was the production seen at this year's festival. This hilarious piece by Samm-Art Williams tells the story of four rich widows searching for husbands but having a hard time of it because of a strange jinx: The men they marry always die. Rhyme Deferred, a creation of Kamilah Forbes performed by Hip Hop Theatre Junction from Wheaten, Maryland, tells the story of two brothers--both rappers, one famous and the other not. Forbes' contention is that rap is a pure means of communication that has been corrupted by music-industry commercialization. The ensemble cast of the show gave powerful performances.
Harriet's Return is a gripping play offering a glimpse at the real Harriet Tubman, as opposed to the legend who ferried slaves to freedom along the famous underground railroad. Denise Burse-Fernandez, guided by director Saundra McClain and working with a strong script by Karen Jones-Meadows, gave a moving performance in the title role. She revealed to us a woman disappointed that she never had children, a woman who returned to the South after her underground railroad excursions to find her husband married to someone else. Cryin' Shame, a riveting and often funny drama by Javon Johnson, was presented at the NBTF as directed by Adleane Hunter for the Black Artists Network Development and Kosmond Russell Productions out of Los Angeles. Its cast included Dick Anthony Williams, Art Evans, Malcolm-Jamal Warner, Bill Brown, Tamara LeSeon Bass, Lewis L. Sanders, and Christopher Richardson. Set in 1985 in a store in Anderson County, South Carolina, the play involves the audience in the mundane, day-to-day business--and the surprising personal lives and problems--of a group of numbers runners.
The Further Adventures Of Gussie Mae In America, written and performed by Letitia Guillory and presented by Harlem's National Black Theatre, was a captivating, one-woman tour de force. Guillory was already on stage and in character as the audience entered the theatre. Sitting in a rocking chair on a porch, she greeted us as the ancient grandmother Gussie Mae, welcoming us to her backyard; it seems the audience members are passengers on a stalled Greyhound bus, so we've got some time to spend with Gussie Mae. And it was time well spent as Guillory--using poetry, dance, and drama to portray a wide variety of characters--guided us through the character's family history from the days of slavery to the 1990s.
Another one-woman show at NBTF was Back Home, written and performed by Dale Byam and directed by Charles St. Clair, originally produced at Arizona State University West. Byam contends in this show that many Caribbean immigrants do not feel welcome in this country and have a hard time adjusting to life here. (She also tells us that immigrants from Haiti are denied access to this country while Cuban criminals are allowed entry.) Easily moving among various island accents, Byam deftly portrayed several characters, including a nanny who cries when her kids do not recognize her and a male, Jamaican cab driver in New York trying to pick up a fare.
Lillias White: From Brooklyn To Broadway was a brief but highly entertaining look at the career of the multiple-award-winning singer and actress. White told stories of growing up in Bedford Stuyvesant and being encouraged by her grandmother to sing on the dining room table after big family dinners. She had the audience cheering as she performed songs from the Broadway shows in which she appeared--e.g., The Life and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.
Members of the Creative Arts Team (C.A.T.) from New York University were on hand at the festival to point out the telltale signs of relationship abuse as they presented Minus One, which is normally performed in New York junior high and high schools. The play is about five teenage girls in a singing group and how they are affected by men who are emotionally, verbally, and/or physically abusive. The show is divided into segments, each one revealing a bit more of the storyline; after each segment, moderators discuss with the audience of adults and children what is going on so far.
Not all the shows on view at the festival were as strong as those mentioned above; indeed, a few of them sent audiences to the exit doors. Overstuffed with monologue after monologue, Black Women's Blues--performed by Vanessa Bell Calloway, Dawn Lewis, Wendy Raquel Robinson, and Aloma Wright--was a particular disappointment. Anne-Marie Woods proved to be something of a magician in her one-woman show Waiting to Explode: Each time she went behind a partition to change outfits and characters, she caused more of her audience to disappear, many of them no doubt turned off by Woods' abundant use of foul language and sexual references. Wright from America was a disjointed, boring piece written by Willard Simms and performed by Tommy Hicks; billed as an account of the life of author Richard Wright, the play barely even explains to the audience what the man wrote, except for a brief mention of Native Son. And Hot Snow--all about the life of Valaida Snow, a trumpet player jailed by the Nazis during WW-II--obviously needs to be workshopped further: The play has two many drawn-out scenes and doesn't focus enough on Snow's period of incarceration.
In addition to all of the above, the festival offered colloquiums on such topics as "Theater in Society: Old and New Challenges." Meanwhile, visitors could ogle celebs like Charles Dutton and Cicely Tyson, or just go shopping. Vendors came from all over the country to offer Afrocentric items including paintings, sculpture, clothing, jewelry, and costume pieces.
For more information on the National Black Theatre Festival, which will next be held in 2003, visit the website www.NBTF.org.