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Hamlin was irrepressible, indomitable and incorrigible

by Mark Burger

Larry Leon Hamlin died June 6 at the age of 58.

Hamlin was the founder and artistic director of the NC Black Repertory Company and the National Black Theatre Festival.

He was a showman in every sense of the word, an impresario of good times who loved talent and loved presenting it. You couldn’t separate Larry from the festival and, indeed, the NC Black Repertory Company essentially became the festival. And Larry, truly, was the festival.

When he created an award for producers of importance in black theater, he named it after himself. That was Larry.

He was indomitable, irrepressible and, at times, incorrigible. Creative people tend to be.

Before I covered my first National Black Theatre Festival in 1999 for the Winston-Salem Journal, I was warned by some people there about Hamlin. That he was elusive. That he was evasive. That he was difficult.

As the years went by and I covered subsequent festivals, I realized that most of those people who had warned me would never think to attend the festival themselves, even as an observer or – more importantly – as a journalist. Some would schedule their vacations around it. Others would simply avoid it. What a shame. There’s no event in the world that compares to the National Black Theatre Festival.

Me? I loved covering it. It entailed long shows (and, sometimes, long delays), late nights and deadlines past the 1 a.m. mark. In fact, I usually took my vacation after it ended.

Many an evening during the festival I would go back to a late-night party after filing my stories. There was an energy and an enthusiasm that were palpable, and who wouldn’t want to plug into that? (And if the drinks were free, so much the better!)

No one loved theater more than Larry Leon Hamlin.

Yes, he could be elusive and evasive, and, yes, he could be temperamental. He could also be warm, witty, complimentary and generous. Deep down, I think, I understood him – and he understood me. My knowledge of black theater and especially black cinema is what endeared me to Larry.

“I like you,” he once told me, “because you revel in the obscurities.”

It wasn’t a putdown. I have leveled many a celebrity in my day by bringing up a past project seemingly forgotten. Some, perhaps, were best left forgotten.

Richard Roundtree, whom I interviewed at a festival some years ago – much to my great pleasure – has undoubtedly answered more questions about Shaft than he’d care to remember, but hardly anyone, he said, ever asked him about Game for Vultures, a 1970s apartheid thriller in which he co-starred with Richard Harris. Not only did I know the film and his character’s name (Gideon Marunga, just for the record), I even quoted a few lines from the film.

The late Paul Winfield admitted that he wasn’t asked very often about Twilight’s Last Gleaming, a 1977 political thriller directed by Robert Aldrich – which happens to be one of my favorite movies. It wasn’t one of Winfield’s, I’m sorry to say, although he was flattered I like it so much – and he shared some great (if not altogether complimentary) stories about leading man Burt Lancaster.

Discussing Cotton Comes to Harlem and Gordon’s War with Ossie Davis, who directed both, was a chat I’ll never forget – especially since his wife Ruby Dee was sitting with us. It’s hard not to feel small among such giants.

In the 20th century, the great acting couples of the stage could be counted on one hand: Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee.

To be able to meet and interview these people, and in a sense to thank them for their work, was (and is) one of the great benefits of what I do.

Periodically, between festivals, Larry and I would get together for lunch – as much because we enjoyed each other’s company as it was part of my beat. We’d talk about the festival, past and present, and he talked a lot about himself, of course. Larry was one of Larry’s favorite topics.

He respected the fact that, with me, if he made an off-the-record comment, it stayed off the record. More often than not, it was Larry blowing off a little steam. I could understand that, and I appreciated his candor. Sometimes I agreed with his grievances and sometimes not, but there was always a shared regard between us. The respect we shared for theater and the performing arts was a mutual one.

The National Black Theatre Festival will continue without Larry Leon Hamlin. This year it will be held from July 30 through Aug. 4. Who knows? It may attain even greater levels of success and popularity in the future, but it won’t be the same without Larry.

He was a one of a kind, and we don’t meet enough of those in our lives.

One of the most venerable arts institutions in the entire state, never mind the Piedmont Triad, the Little Theatre of Winston-Salem hosted a wine-tasting and silent auction last Saturday at Wine Merchants Gourmet in Winston-Salem.

The theater has weathered its fair share of financial hardships over the last few years, but with the help of the community and thanks to the (truly) herculean efforts of its staff, volunteers and board, the theater is doing its best to chip away at pre-existing debts and maintain a solid financial footing. Some of the proceeds from the event would benefit the Little Theatre and its many programs.

“So far, so good,” said Mark Boynton, attorney-at-large (and large-at-attorney), the outgoing president of the Little Theatre’s board of directors. “We are still facing a deficit, but we’ve exceeded our goals in single-ticket sales and our patron campaign. There’s still a ways to go, but we’re very proud to be where we are compared to two years ago.”

One of the reasons, said Boynton, is that “our relationship with the Arts Council of Winston-Salem has improved dramatically. I can’t say enough about the effort they’ve put into working with us.”

Executive Director Norman Ussery, who will celebrate his first anniversary with the theater in September, said that the theater has been involved in nearly two-dozen different productions since he came aboard last year.

“We’ve got a better idea of what works and what doesn’t – we’ve done just about everything,” he said with a laugh. “We’re trying to involve as many people from the community as we can. That’s what it’s all about, and whatever I have to do to get us there….”

Expect some fireworks this Fourth of July when the Little Theatre brings back the summer musical. This year it’s The Full Monty, which opens July 6 at the Arts Council Theatre under the direction of Jamie Lawson.

The show is being produced in association with the Community Theatre of Greensboro – yet another example of community cooperation (and saving a few bucks by pooling resources) – and the production will open at the Carolina Theatre on July 20 after completing its Winston-Salem stint.

E-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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