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The National Black Theatre Festival hits W-S

by Mark Burger

The National Black Theatre Festival is gearing up for yet another week-long celebration of live performance and late-night revelry. Every two years it sweeps into Winston-Salem with the force of a cyclone – albeit an artistic and festive cyclone. There’s something for everyone at the festival: the Midnight Poetry Slam, the International Vendors Marketplace, the Readers’ Theatre, the film festival and more than 100 different performances. It’s especially nice to see younger people at the festival and it’s also very nice to see more white faces at the festival. Good theater needn’t be a whiter shade of pale; it just needs to be good! “I can state very honestly and without hesitation that this festival is really going to offer something for everybody,” promises Brian McLaughlin, the media relations director (and ace troubleshooter) for the festival. “It runs the gamut – from children’s productions and traditional theater to the new and cutting-edge,” McLaughlin says, “and we’re hoping that the Piedmont Triad, as usual, embraces the festival.” The festival has never really had a theme – its purpose and intent speak for themselves. As a result, each festival has had its own identity. Perhaps that’s one of the secrets to its continued success. Another, undoubtedly, is the informal atmosphere of the proceedings. It’s one big party. In many ways, it’s a family reunion. Many of the actors on hand have worked together before, and quite a few started out together. Just eavesdropping on some of the old war stories is like listening to a chapter from the history of black theater. The opening-night gala is at the MC Benton Convention Center. The co-chairs of this year’s festival are Hal Williams (Private Benjamin, Hardcore, “227”) and Vanessa Bell Calloway (Crimson Tide, Love Don’t Cost a Thing), both of whom are long-time festival favorites. They will lead the celebrity procession to the Opening Night Gala and the awards presentation. The opening-night performance at 9 pm in the Stevens Center will be Movin’ Man, Glynn Turman’s autobiographical solo show, in which he examines a career that took him from Harlem to Hollywood. Turman’s many film and television credits include “Cooley High”, Attica, Gremlins, Deep Cover, “A Different World” and “The Wire” – and at a previous festival he and I talked about the classic B-movie JD’s Revenge, in which he plays a college student possessed by the spirit of a dead gangster. Not only did I quote lines from the film, but so did he! Turman was also married for a time to Aretha Franklin, so he’s had quite a show-biz life. Turman premiered Movin’ Man at the Crossroads Theatre Company in lovely New Brunswick, NJ – where yours truly grew up (no plans to go back any time soon). A celebrity reception will follow the performance and, knowing the festival as I do, the festivities are likely to go on until the wee hours. A lot of familiar faces will be on hand: Ted Lange (erstwhile Isaac of “The Love Boat”), Janet Hubert (herself a former co-chair of the festival), Dick Anthony Williams (The Deep, The Jerk, A Woman Called Moses), T’Keyah Crystal Keymah (“In Living Color,” “That’s So Raven,” “Cosby”) and many more. Although best known for their film and TV work, all of them have extensive experience in live theater – and many have performed at the festival in years past. The six-day festival runs July 30 through Aug. 4 at various venues throughout Winston-Salem. Of course, this will be the first year without the festival’s founder and figurehead, Larry Leon Hamlin (who died in June), but I think it’s safe to say that his legacy is ensured. Whatever the hurdles and hardships, the show must go on. That’s how Larry would have wanted it. This marks McLaughlin’s fourth festival. “It’s really a special challenge to make it bigger and better this year,” he says, “and I think we’re going to do it.”

For more information about the festival, see nbtf.org.

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