The Party Begins
’13 NBTF to offer wide range of choices and lots of starpower
Nearly 40 theater companies from cities across the United States, Canada and the Caribbean will converge on Winston-Salem later this summer. Over the course of six days, they will stage plays, musicals and dramatic readings for eager audiences who will come from near and far and continue to cement this city’s reputation as “Black Theatre Holy Ground.”
With the pomp and pageantry of a Broadway opening, organizers announced Monday the full slate of productions chosen for the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival, which will make the City of the Arts its own from July 29-Aug. 3.
“The selection committee goes above and beyond every festival,” Festival Director Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin said from the makeshift podium in the Garden Terrace of the downtown Embassy Suites.
The committee, which includes both local and national veterans of the world of theater, undertook the task of selecting the ’13 NBTF slate soon after the 2011 festival ended. A reputation built over the years on quality and excellence has made the NBTF a hot ticket for playwrights, actors and producers. The committee whittled down the hundreds of productions that were submitted to create what Sprinkle-Hamlin says is a festival that has something for everyone.
Musical theater fans can choose among several options, including “The Marvin Gaye Story (Don’t Talk About My Father Because God Is My Friend)” from NBTF favorite The Black Ensemble Theater; COAH Entertainment’s spirited “The Evolution of Black Gospel Music;” and “Soul Crooners,” a Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe show that will feature more than 40 hits from the ’70s.
“The Eve of Jackie: A Tribute to Jackie Wilson” has been selected for the coveted Opening Night Gala show. Written and performed by Chester Gregory – the singer/actor who sprung to Broadway stardom after playing Wilson in another production at the 2001 festival – the show revolves around Wilson’s last solo concert before his 1975 onstage heart attack that rendered him comatose for close to a decade.
Gregory was on hand Monday to tout the show and perform a portion of the Wilson classic “Reet Petite.”
“The (NBTF) literally changed my life,” the Gary, Ind. native said, before recalling a story about the late Larry Leon Hamlin, who founded the NBTF in 1989. In 2001, as Gregory was breaking NBTF box office attendance records, Hamlin predicted that Gregory would be the darling of Broadway and would be unable to attend the 2003 NBTF because of his many commitments on the Great White Way. As usual, Hamlin was right.
“The words we speak are very, very powerful,” Gregory told the dozens assembled for the kick-off event.
The NBTF has a strong edu-tainment tradition, mixing entertainment with history and learning. The tradition continues this year, perhaps stronger than ever. The stories of Paul Robeson (“Speak of Me as I Am”), Emmett Till (“The Ballard of Emmett Till”), Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (“Adam”) and Barbara Jordan (“A Rendezvous with Destiny”) will be among those brought to life.
Productions for young adults include “Secrets of a Black Boy,” in which five young black men from Toronto, Canada will critically examine the many stereotypes associated with them, and “Singleville,” which is being billed as “‘Sex and the City’ meets ‘Girlfriends.’”
The always popular celebrity offerings are plentiful. Actress Debbi Morgan, best known for her trailblazing role on “All My Children,” is bringing her one-woman show, “The Monkey on My Back;” Tony winner Tonya Pinkins (one of the festival’s celebrity co-chairs) will sing, reminisce and interact with audiences in “Tonya Pinkins Unplugged;” Lillias White, another Tony winner, is returning to the festival to bring to life the story of a music legend in “Big Maybelle: Soul of the Blues;” and actress/comedienne Kim Coles will stage her one-woman show, “Oh, But Wait … There’s More.”
Notables like Andre De Shields, Wendy Raquel Robinson, Tommy Ford, Rain Pryor (Richard’s daughter) and Pauletta Pearson Washington (Denzel’s wife) will also star in productions, as will Ralph Harris, who performed scenes from his “MANish Boy” at Monday’s kick-off.
The autobiographical one-man show is a window into the Pennsylvania native’s ups and downs. Though Harris is best known for his roles in the series “On Our Own” and movies like “Dreamgirls,” he said being in front of a camera doesn’t hold a candle to standing on a stage.
“There is nothing like performing live,” said Harris, a noted stand-up comic who hosts TV One’s “My Momma Throws Down.”
The starpower will also be high voltage at the festival’s Opening Night Gala, where a slew of awards will be handed out to those who found stardom both on the stage and behind the scenes. Longtime NBTF supporter Hal Williams of “227” and “Sanford and Son” fame will receive the top honor, the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award. Other honorees will include Emmy winner S. Epatha Merkerson and acclaimed custom designer Paul Tazewell, a UNC School of the Arts alumnus.
Festival officials have stepped up efforts this year to make tickets available to eager theater fans around the world. Tickets went on sale at www.nbtf.org on Monday, just hours after the kick-off.
In addition to the productions, the festival will again offer a barrage of workshops, panel discussions, parties and children’s events, most which will be free to the public, but Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke wants local residents, especially, to give something back to the NBTF in return for all it gives the city.
“Show (your support) with your dollar bills,” she said, urging residents to snatch up festival tickets in abundance.
A full schedule of productions is also available at the NBTF web site. For more information, call 336-723-7907.