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Article Archive/July 2011

Updated July 5, 2011

The National Black Theatre Festival -- Winston-Salem, NC
The Torch Has Passed!

Click to Enlarge National Black Theatre Pic!By Jay Whipple/Trend Magazine Online™

The National Black Theatre Festival is the brainchild of Mr. Larry Leon Hamlin (1948 – 2007) and was founded in Winston-Salem, NC, in 1989 with support and assistance from Dr. Maya Angelou (A Winston-Salem resident) who also served as the biennial event’s first Chairperson. They met by chance at an airport bar and after explaining his dream to her she replied that she would “support it as it were.” Ms. Angelou went a step further and invited her good friend – who she mentors – Oprah Winfrey to the first event in 1989 which drew over 10,000 attendees who were treated to 30 performances by 17 of the country’s top Black theatre companies. Their budget was $500, 000 -- which was a nice chunk of change back then -- and pretty impressive for a first event that targeted only a segment of the market. I founded the Minority Economic Summit in Charlotte, NC, in the early 1990’s and was only able to raise just over $5,000 for my first event. “Most people thought that I was crazy,” Mr. Hamlin commented in an article that appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Mr. Hamlin was a native of Reidsville, NC, which is located about 45 minutes from Winston-Salem, and grew up in the heart of tobacco country. In fact, his father worked for the American Tobacco Company founded by the Duke family (Duke University, Duke Energy) of Durham, NC. At one point in time their company was supplying 75% of the world’s tobacco. Larry Leon was the first generation of Hamlin’s to come off the factory floor according to the News and Record. He fell in love with the theatre shortly after uttering his first line in a play while in the first grade. After returning to that same stage shortly after the play-- alone – he hugged the footlights although they were still very hot from the play. It was on then; he had been bitten by the stage bug for life and with help from his mother he began to pursue his dream of acting.

Although acting was Mr. Hamlin’s true passion, he somehow ended up majoring in Business at the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Providence Rhode Island. This school was founded as a business school in the early 1900’s but today is well known for its culinary arts program and has produced such nationally renowned chefs as Emeril Lagasse (Mr. “BAM”) in 1978. After graduation and with his passion for acting still burning, he enrolled in theatre classes at Brown University – also in Providence, RI – and subsequently joined the school’s theatre company. Shortly thereafter he formed his first company (In the mid 1970’s) which was called Star Theater Productions while still in Rhode Island. He eventually realized that home was where the heart and family were and decided to move back south to Winston-Salem, NC, where his family now lived.

Click to Enlarge National Black Theatre Pic!It was during that time (The late 1970’s) when he began to scan the North Carolina market for Black Theatre and to his surprise it did not exist. So with just $2,000, a wing and a prayer, he founded the North Carolina Black Repertory Com-pany in 1979 in Winston-Salem, NC. His official title was company executive and artistic director which is a post that he held up until 2004. In addition to his executive duties, Mr. Hamlin also acted, directed, and wrote plays. His company, like many small theatres, struggled to stay afloat but managed to produce several local shows like the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior  celebration (February, Black History Month), and the famous Black Nativity (play) written by Black poet Langston Hughes (A Dream Deferred). His company also launched national tours as well as produced performances in the Caribbean.  These accomplishments would not have been possible had it not been for Mr. Hamlin’s well-known magnetic personality, flare, and passion for Black theatre.

It was in the mid 1980’s when Mr. Hamlin made an observation about the state of Black theatre nationwide after interviewing various companies. He noticed that due to the severe lack of capital, they were experiencing much pain and frustration because they could not produce the particular shows that they were passionate about. Even in New York – The theatre capitol of the U.S.  – Black theatres were closing at a rate that would have rendered them extinct by the millennium (2000). This is when he personally decided to take the bull by the horns and do something proactive to slow or stop the pending demise of Black theatre in the United States. After all, he did not see anyone else willing to make it happen so he adopted the phrase “if it is to be it is up to me.” Like the bible says, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Shortly thereafter, the idea of a national Black theatre conference emerged. He started by soliciting the support of some of the few successful Black theatre companies still afloat. His goal was to entice them to share their business experiences in hopes of building a core of successful Black theatre companies that would work together to develop an agenda for the group collectively.

His dream and subsequent hard work paid off in the form of a budget of $500, 000 to present the first Black theatre conference which they decided to promote as a festival in 1989. The group confessed that a festival sounded more fun than a conference. They were indeed right as their first event drew a very impressive attendance of more than 10,000, including Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Maya Angelou. Over the years their attendance, performances, workshops, celebrities, and budgets increased dramatically. In 1991 the number of performances grew to 45 and workshops doubled in numbers.  That same year, the festival attracted critically-acclaimed actors/directors/husband and wife Ossie Davis (1917 – 2005, Do the Right Thing; 1989) and Ruby Dee (American Gangster; 2007) to serve as co-chairpersons. Performances swelled to 76 in 1993 and in 1995 international troupes from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America joined the festival which attracted over 20,000 attendees. Renowned playwright August Wilson’s (1945 – 2005) play Jitney debuted in 1997, and corporate giants like US Airways, Sara Lee Corporation, and R.J. Reynolds signed on as sponsors as the festival’s budget skyrocketed to $1.5 million.

Click to Enlarge National Black Theatre Pic!The festival’s success spilled over into the next century which saw the performances increase to over 100 and attendance to 50,000 in 2001 and 2003. In addition, an awards gala, film festival, poetry jams, a market, and dozens of workshops were added which sharply increased the value of admission. Mr. Hamlin told the Winston-Salem Journal that “There’s something going on morning, noon, and night.”  The new century also ushered in more frequent high profile Black celebrities to the festival like Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night; 1967; My favorite actor), Cicely Tyson (Sounder; 1972), Leslie Uggams (Alex Haley's Roots; 1977), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X; 1992; My 2nd favorite actor), Angela Bassett (How Stella Got Her Groove Back; 1998), Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show; 1984 - 1992), and Malik Yoba (New York Undercover;  1994 - 1998).

The city of Winston-Salem was all smiles as their city became a mecca for Black theatre, celebrities, and they experienced a surge in economic growth to the tune of an estimated $15 million over a six-day period in 2005 which attracted over 60,000 attendees. Those dollars spilled over into the hospitality industry via hotels, restaurants, bars, tourist attractions, and auto rental companies.  As Mr. Hamlin would put it, “It was marvtastic.” Some critics are still scratching their heads wondering how he was able to attract such a high-profile venue to the south and Winston-Salem over theatre powerhouses like Los Angeles and New York. To be quite honest, I am quite baffled as well. As a Miami native who attended both junior and high school on Miami Beach - -home to many celebrities and entertainers – I applaud and revere him for his passion and dedication to his obvious God-given dream and talents. Unfortunately, Mr. Hamlin’s dream has been a bit deferred by his untimely passing on June 6, 2007, just before the opening of that year’s festival.  He was just 58 years old. The torch, however, has been picked up by his widow and Winston-Salem native Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin (Executive Producer), as well as his grown son Larente’ Leon Hamlin who handles the technical side of the company and festival.

The biennial festival and North Carolina Black Repertory Com-pany (NCBRC) remain highly successful as a direct result of the management team of H. Geraldine Patton, Executive Director and Mabel P. Robinson, Artistic Director. Together they manage the daily operations of the company along with the NCBRC Board of Directors in which Ms. Hamlin is the president of the board.

This year’s festival will take place from Monday August 1 (My birthday) to Saturday August 6, 2011. This year’s celebrity co-chairs are long-time celebrity participants T'Keyah Crystal Keymah (In Living Color; 1990) and Lamman Rucker (Meet the Browns; 2009). According to Ms. Hamlin, “It is going to be an excellent festival and we will give 110% to ensure its continued success. The shows will be so outstanding that it will be hard to select just one. We selected the best 34 productions out of 115 submissions and will have representation from 12 different states, Canada, and South Africa. I am extending a personal invitation to folks from the Queen City/Charlotte to make the trip up [as well as all other cities and towns].

In closing I would like to thank Dr. Maya Angelou -- who has been there from the very beginning – for her continued strong support.”

Click to Enlarge National Black Theatre Pic!

The 2011 National Black Theatre Festival will open with a vibrant parade of powerful African drummers and dancers followed by a grand and royal procession of more than 40 celebrities of television, film, and stage to include: Vanessa Williams (Showtime's Soul Food), Dorien Williams, Dawnn Lewis (A Different World, 1987 - 1993), Lou Myers (A Different World, 1987 - 1983), LaChanze, Ifa Bayeza, Kevin Mambo, Glynn Turman (Cooley High, my favorite movie, 1975), Hattie Wilson; Phylicia Rashad (The Cosby Show, 1984 - 1992), Hal Williams, Richard Lawson, Trezana Beverley (Tony Award winner, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf), Fabian Adeoye (Star of South African TV series Jacob's Cross), and a special performance by Tshidi Manye who is currently starring as "Rafiki" in the long running Broadway musical, The Lion King.

Want to go? Click here for this year’s (2011) full schedule. Click here to purchase your 2011 tickets. If you would like to arrange for round trip group ground transportation (Minimum 7 passengers) from the Charlotte area and between (I-85 North to Winston-Salem), email Queen City Tours and Travel for rates. Click here to arrange for air travel nationwide and overseas.

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