Aspiring actors and playwrights get inspired at National Black Theatre Festival

by Jordan Green

Joan J. Njie paced the floor in the Womble Carlyle Gallery of the Milton Rhodes Arts Center in front of a semicircle of seated actors running through a final rehearsal of her play, It’s In the Book.

About a dozen people, an audience tending towards middleaged, well-coiffed African-American women, filtered into the gallery.

Njie asked them to wait in the atrium, noting that it was still five minutes until showtime, and she still needed to work out some kinks with the actors.

The six-day National Black Theatre Festival, which concluded in Winston-Salem on Aug. 3, featured more than 40 productions, ranging from marquee dramatization of singer Jackie Wilson’s life to poetry and dance. For many, the thrill of the National Black Theatre Festival is spotting celebrities, such as actor Ralph Carter, part of the cast of the 1970s television sitcom “Good Times.” Ticket prices for many productions ranged from $25 to $45, but the readings were free.

“Because there’s such a demand, playwrights always look for other venues, including theaters and galleries,” said Njie, who is based in Durham. The reading gave her an opportunity to gain exposure for her play, for which she is seeking a commercial publisher and a producer. For former students of the Drama Club at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, NY, the reading provided a chance to hone their craft, enhancing their experience of rubbing shoulders with mentors.

Associated Artists of Winston-Salem came through at the last minute as a host for two events on July 31, including a 12:30 p.m. reading of It’s In the Book. Kenthedo Robinson, the drama instructor at Boys and Girls High School, presented his play, The Heartbeat of the World, at 5:30 p.m. Associated Artists had publicized the readings with an e-mail blast the night before.

Once the actors were ready, Njie summoned the audience into the gallery. Most of the actors portrayed books, wearing various types of headgear to cue their respective genres — a padded jester hat for Humor, a graduate cap for How-To, a military fatigue cap for Nonfiction and a white lace head covering for Inspiration.

“It isn’t a full-fledged production,” Njie informed the audience, setting the scene in a local library and adding that the actors hadn’t seen the scripts until the night before.

Njie portrayed Claribel Bookworm, a librarian whose abiding love for books gushes from a deep well of emotion. She played the part to the hilt, tittering with nervousness in exchanges with Shatique Brown. The Boys and Girls High School alum played Mr. Illiteracy, who represents the forces of hard-nosed pragmatism in his threat to shut down the library if the circulation numbers don’t improve. For their part, the anthropomorphized books are experiencing an existential crisis about being unread and ignored; if the library isn’t shut down altogether, they might wind up exiled in a warehouse. The actors animated their characters with appropriate personality — disdainful pride for How-To, dignified sweetness for Inspiration, fumbling blitheness for Humor and meek intelligence for Nonfiction. Njie’s clever dialogue showed them progressively recognizing their self-worth through a mutual appreciation of each one’s important roles.

After the reading, Brown said he was thoroughly enjoying the festival, and was still buzzing from seeing Chester Gregory in The Jackie Wilson Story, which he said “re-sparked something in me to make me want to entertain.”

It was Robinson’s eighth visit to the festival. “I remember the first time coming and how encouraging and exciting it was to be here,” he said. “It’s so important for these young actors. They get a chance to really meet people who are doing the work — real movie stars, dancers and singers. It’s important for them to see that there are other people who have the same desires in life.”