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A unifying force in Black Theater

by Keith Barber

The National Black Theatre Festival celebrates its 20th anniversary in the City of the Arts

For “Mississippi” Charles Bevel, the road to the National Black Theatre Festival proved to be long, winding and serendipitous. Bevel, one of the cast members of Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues, said he had been waiting 10 years to come to the festival, which is being held this week in Winston-Salem. Held on a biennial basis, the National Black Theatre Festival is celebrating its 20 th anniversary as one of the premier events in American theatre. In the vernacular of event organizers, Winston-Salem will be transformed into “Black Theatre Holy Ground” this week. Each one of the black performers at the 2009 festival has a story to tell. The case could be made that Bevel’s is one of the more fascinating stories at this year’s event. In his mid-forties, Bevel received a guitar as a present after a trip overseas. Without any formal training, Bevel began composing blues songs almost immediately. “I found the music just came out of me,” Bevel said. Remarkably, two years later, Bevel signed a contract with A&M Records and cut an album. But LA life wasn’t for him, so he moved back to the Midwest. Then Bevel was invited to come to the Denver Center Theatre Company by legendary blues singer Ron Taylor and musical anthropologist Dan Wheetman. Taylor and Wheetman had composed a 45-minute piece on the blues, and the center asked Bevel to develop it into a two-hour musical revue. Director Randy Myler came on board and put together a cast, and after a brief run in Denver, Crossroads Theatre in New Jersey contacted the producers. Crossroads decided to send Ain’t Nothin’ to the New Victory Theater in New York. Once again, a combination of good fortune and hard work elevated the show to new heights. After witnessing a performance of Ain’t Nothin, a representative of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts asked if the show could take the stage at the prestigious arts venue. “That’s how we got to Broadway,” Bevel said. The magical run of Ain’t Nothin’ lasted nine months and ended with four Tony nominations. “It was an exciting thing to be in the mix that quickly,” Bevel said. During the national telecast of the Tony Awards, the show suffered its first setback. “During the Tony nomination process, as a musical if you’re nominated, you get to perform one of your numbers for a national TV audience,” Bevel explained. “We had the choice spot — the last musical number for the night — but they cut our number and we didn’t get to perform.” But the setback transformed into a blessing. Because of the Tony Awards snub, late night talk shows like “The Late Show with David Letterman” asked the cast of Ain’t Nothin’ to perform on their telecasts. The resulting publicity has helped keep the show alive on a touring basis. “The thing just refuses to die,” Bevel said. “We’re doing a history of black music in America, from Africa to the mid-1960s. From that perspective, it’s a phenomenal show.” Bevel said the most difficult challenge in the creative process was knowing what to leave in the show and what to leave out. “It’s a compelling piece in that sense,” he said. “It brings up historical stuff; it’s just a piece that resonates with every kind of audience.” Bevel is sure to find a receptive audience at the National Black Theatre Festival this week. “It’s a different piece in the sense that it’s not just people standing up and doing songs,” Bevel said. “The intent was to do a musical narrative history of black music in America, and to show its connection to pop music and even country music. There are people who don’t know the connection between black street musicians and popular music today.” Bevel pointed out that the bluegrass banjo has an African history and the bending of the strings in the blues to recreate the human voice is evident in traditional African music. “It’s not just music, it’s history,” he said. Bevel said the historical element of the show is “profoundly important,” and certainly relevant to the premier black arts event in the nation, which, according to event organizers, will be attended by more than 60,000 people with a resulting economic impact of $8 million on Winston-Salem’s economy.

Zora takes the stage

Jerome Preston Bates said he’s seen a lot of growth at the National Black Theatre Festival over the past two decades. Bates, the artistic director of Zora, which chronicles the life of influential African-American author Zora Neale Hurston, said he recalls attending his first festival in 1991. He remembers how the presence of major celebrities like Maya Angelou, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey helped elevate the festival’s profile. Although screen actors are not as prevalent at this year’s festival, Bates commended the work of festival founder Leon Larry Hamlin to unite the theater, television and motion picture actors’ communities. “I’ve seen this festival from three different perspectives: as an actor, a writer and a director,” Bates said. “This is the place people long to be. It has grown to that and that says a lot about the dream of Larry Leon Hamlin. He planted the seed of the tree and the tree now branches out

and continues to grow. That’s the beauty of the festival.” Zora presentsthe life of titan of black literature who blazed a trail for futurefemale African-American writers, Bates said. “What we get to see is whowas Zora and how she addressed the triumphs and the tragedy of herlife,” he said. “She died penniless and shamed and even her booksdeclined in sales. What we’re looking to tell the audience, we want topresent the history of her life because most people know her books butthey don’t know her.” Television actor Kim Brockington plays Zora.Brockington has attended the festival since 1991, when she did aone-woman show titled Letters for the New England Negro. “Itwas amazing — a spiritual experience,” Brockington said. There’ssomething about performing a play for a mostly African-Americanaudience, Brockington said. It’s an opportunity she relishes. “I’veperformed for white audiences primarily, but performing it for mypeople is an honor,” Brockington said. “There are some things in theplay only black people will get. The spirit of theater and black folks,it’s just wonderful.” The spirit of the Harlem Renaissanceflows through the performance, Bates said. “We get a chance to hear,and feel and see her thoughts of the Harlem Renaissance,” Bates said.“We get to witness history and how Zora triumphed over all theobstacles in her life, even how she dealt with the decline in herlife.” Brockington said her responsibility in her performance isweighty, but one she’s proud to have. “I try to be a vessel for Zora,”Brockington said. “That’s a huge responsibility because I want to be astrue to the character as I possibly can. I want the audience to knowher better when they leave. People love her dearly, and they come tosee her. For those who don’t know her, I want them to get to know herand find a deep respect for her.” Other actor have portrayed Hurston,but Bates said Brockington brings added spiritual depth to thecharacter. “Kim brings passion, power, authority and emotion,”Bates said. “Kim literally lives and breathes this character. Kim hascaptured the spirit of this woman. This is not an actress acting. Thisis someone speaking about their life.” Brockington, who portraysFelicia Boudreau on “Guiding Light,” said she is thrilled to beperforming for the first time at the festival.

ABOVE: The Amun RA Theatre from Nashville, Tenn., will performBefore the People Came at the MC Benton Convention Center inWinston-Salem on Wednesday at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. in conjunction with theNational Black Theatre Festival.

“Itkeeps getting better and better and better,” Brockington said. “One ofthe main aspects I like is the poetry midnight jam. You can’t pull meout of there because I love poetry and I love all the new voices andeverybody can perform something. That’s the spirit of the festival.It’s such a wonderful thing.” Malcolm Jamal Warner of “TheCosby Show” fame, hosts the poetry jam. Other components of thefestival include workshops, a reader’s theater of new works, a filmfestival, a youth celebrity project, a vendor’s market, TeenTastic andthe International Colloquium. Celebrities in attendance will includeKim Wayans, Ella Joyce, Lamman Rucker, John Amos, Kim Brockington,Melba Moore, Janet Hubert and Margaret Avery, to name a few. “Sylvia[Hamlin] should be commended for keeping this going and keeping itgoing at top speed,” Brockington said. “It’s just as great if notgreater than my first festival. It’s become a highlight for so manypeople across the entire country.”

Wistera, Hope and The Story of this Place

Although it’s called the Black Theatre Festival,this biennial gathering of African-American artists draws creativepeople from all over the nation working in a variety of mediums. KwameDawes, the poet in residence at the University of South Carolina, willpresent his multimedia productions titled Wisteria and Hope during the festival. [For complete performance listings, see page 20.] Wisteria and Hope aretwo separate pieces performed back to back. Their only connection isthat Dawes wrote and performs spoken word readings for both andcomposer Kevin Simmonds wrote all the music, said Dawes. Wisteria isbased on interviews Dawes conducted with African-American women inSumter, SC in 1995. Ten years later, the poems were published in a bookcalled Wisteria. Shortly before the book’s publication, Dawes met Simmonds, a PhD candidate at the university. Simmondshad the idea of putting music to Dawes’ words. He then brought togetheran ensemble of African-American musicians and singers, many of themgraduate students from the university. The first performance of Wisteria washeld in 2005 at the Columbia Museum of Art and later toured Europe,where it received rave reviews. The BBC even did a one-hour documentaryon the project. Dawes has served as one of the organizers ofthe festival’s International Colloquium since the mid-1990s. He saidhe’s looking forward to performing at the festival for the very firsttime. Dawes has served as one of the organizers of the festival’sInternational Colloquium since the mid-1990’s. He said he’s lookingforward to performing at the festival for the very first time. The Hope project began when Dawes was approached by the Pulitzer Center to write a journalism piece on HIV AIDS in Jamaica. “The initial plan was not for me to be writing poetry, but as I always do, I write poetry about my experience,” Dawes said.

Zora,a one-woman play about the legendary black author Zora Neale Hurston,dramatizes the triumphs and tragedy of a Harlem Renaissance writer whoachieved notoriety but died penniless and shamed. (courtesy image)

Zora, a one-woman play about the legendaryblack author Zora Neale Hurston, dramatizes the triumphs and tragedy ofa Harlem Renaissance writer who achieved great notoriety but diedpenniless and shamed.

Later, Simmonds came onboard to compose the music and photographer Josh Cogan traveled toJamaica and followed the path of the story. The Pulitzer Center hiredtop-notch web designers to put together a multimedia website. “Themission of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is to bringinternational news stories to an American audience,” Dawes said. “Theydo that through innovation — one of the great innovations of thisproject was poetry. It’s off the beaten path for journalism, but thisis probably why we were nominated for an Emmy.” Dawes praised thegenius of Simmonds for his ability to arrange singers and musicians “tocreate a wonderful tableau of stories that have emerged from the workI’ve done.” “The African-American audience looking to connect withtheir legacy will enjoy Wisteria,” Dawes said. “And those whowant to understand the human face of an international tragedy will beable to come to that in the beauty of Hope.” Artist Kianga Ford’s exhibit The Story of this Place 34X52X40 isthe result of a collaboration between the festival and the SoutheasternCenter for Contemporary Art. “It’s a way of bringing visual artstogether,” Ford said. “The work is specifically tied to a place. Wecreate dramas where the audience gets to walk through the landscape,walk in and around the characters and have a conversation.” Fordspent the past several months having impromptu conversations withpeople on the street, doing archival research on the history of thecity and physically studying various locations in Winston- Salem. Fordthen narrowed her focus to a specific area and created fictionalcharacters based on conversations and research that she performed. “Thisis site-specific audio narrative,” she said. “I compare it toenvironmental listening.” The National Black Theatre Festival willshowcase 25 to 30 black national and international theater companieswith over 100 performances throughout the festival, which closes onSaturday.

ABOVE: Lady Day At Emerson’s Bar & Grill, a production ofTennessee State University’s theater company will perform at HanesAuditorium on the campus of Salem College at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. onSaturday.

Schedule

Wednesday, Aug. 5 Before the People Came M.C. Benton Convention Center, Lower Level 1 p.m. and 3 p.m.

The Heiress NBTF Fringe 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Black Angels Over Tuskegee Salem College, Hanes Auditorium 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope UNCSA Stevens Center 8 p.m.

Reunion in Bartersville K.R. Williams Auditorium 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

The Obituary WSSU, Anderson Center 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Aunt Rudele’s Family Reunion WSSU, Anderson Center 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Single Black Female Wake Forest, The MainStage Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Nora Cole’s Voices of the Spirits In My Soul Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Dar He: The Lynching of Emmett Till Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Revenge of a King UNCSA, The Thrust 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Sweet Mama Stringbean UNCSA, The Catawba 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Through the Night Salem College, Shirley Recital Hall 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The Return Arts Council Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Jim Beckwourth: The Black Mountain Man Reynolda House Museum of American Art 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

A Rose Among Thorns: A Tribute To Rosa Parks Reynolda House Museum of American Art 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Extremities Summit School, Loma Hopkins Theatre 3 p.m. & 4 p.m.

The Unsung Diva Salem College, The Drama Workshop Theatre 8 p.m.

Music For One Hand Clapping Salem College, The Drama Workshop Theatre 8 p.m.

Thursday, Aug. 6 Storytelling Festival M.C. Benton Convention Center, Lower Level 10 a.m. & 3 p.m.

National Youth Talent Showcase M.C. Benton Convention Center, Lower Level 12 p.m.

Mad At Miles: A Black Woman’s Guide to Truth NBTF Fringe 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope UNCSA Stevens Center 8 p.m.

The Return Arts Council Theatre 8 p.m.

Single Black Female Wake Forest, The MainStage Theatre 8 p.m.

I Am Who I Am K.R. Williams Auditorium 8 p.m.

Womyn With Wings WSSU, Anderson Center 8 p.m.

Black Man Rising WSSU, Anderson Center 8 p.m.

Bananas Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 8 p.m.

Speak Of Me As I Am Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 8 p.m.

In the Continuum UNCSA, The Thrust 8 p.m.

Ascension UNCSA, The Catawba 8 p.m.

Nappy Journeys salem College, shirley Recital Hall 8 p.m.

It Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues Reynolds Memorial Auditorium 8 p.m.

Who Will Sing For Lena Reynolda House Museum of American Art 8 p.m.

Zora Reynolda House Museum of American Art 8 p.m.

A Handsome Woman Retreats summit school, loma Hopkins Theatre 8 p.m.

Wisteria & HOPE: The Poetry of Experience salem College, Hanes Auditorium 8 p.m.

The Unsung Diva salem College, The Drama Workshop Theatre 8 p.m.

Music For One Hand Clapping salem College, The Drama Workshop Theatre 8 p.m.

Friday, august 7 National Youth Talent Showcase M.C. Benton Convention Center, lower level 11 a.m.

Who Will Sing For Lena Reynolda House Museum of American Art 3 p.m.

Zora Reynolda House Museum of American Art 3 p.m.

Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues Reynolds Memorial Auditorium 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

A Handsome Woman Retreats summit school, loma Hopkins Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

The High Priestess of Dark Alley Wake Forest, The Mainstage Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

The Sty of the Blind Pig Arts Council Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Black Voices: The Hidden Bruises M.C. Benton Convention Center, North Hall 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Halley’s Comet UNCsA stevens Center 8 p.m.

I Am Who I Am k.R. Williams Auditorium 8 p.m.

Womyn With Wings WssU, Anderson Center 8 p.m.

Black Man Rising WssU, Anderson Center 8 p.m.

Bananas Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 8 p.m.

Speak Of Me As I Am Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 8 p.m.

In the Continuum UNCsA, The Thrust 8 p.m.

Ascension UNCsA, The Catawba 8 p.m.

Nappy Journeys salem College, shirley Recital Hall 8 p.m.

The Resurrection of Alice RJR Black Box 8 p.m.

The Shaneequa Chronicles: The Making of a Black Woman RJR Black Box 8 p.m.

Wisteria & HOPE: The Poetry of Experience salem College, Hanes Auditorium 8 p.m.

The Breach salem College, The Drama Workshop Theatre 8 p.m.

Celebrity Reception Marriott Hotel 10:30 p.m.

saturday, aug. 8 I Am Who I Am k.R. Williams Auditorium 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Ain’t Nothin’ but the Blues Reynolds Memorial Auditorium 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Womyn With Wings WssU, Anderson Center 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Black Man Rising WssU, Anderson Center 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Bananas Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Speak Of Me As I Am Wake Forest, The Ring Theatre 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

In the Continuum UNCsA, The Thrust 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Ascension UNCsA, The Catawba $37 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. A story of Ruth and Jacob and how their relationship is tarnished with rape, secrets, birth and death.

Nappy Journeys salem College, shirley Recital Hall 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Who Will Sing For Lena Reynolda House Museum of American Art $40 3 p.m. & 8 p.m.

Zora Reynolda House Museum of American Art 3 p.m & 8 p.m. The life story of Harlem Renaissance legend Zora Neale Hurston.

Halley’s Comet UNCsA stevens Center 3 p.m. & 8 p.m. An 87-year-old man recounts his life of world wars, youth, nuclear bombs and fast food through Halley’s comet.

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