Remembering Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the National Black Theater
I first spoke to Larry Leon Hamlin in April 1989 when Hamlin’s magnificent creation, the National Black Theatre Festival had yet to launch and he was known as “the Dreamer”. Then, much to everyone’s amazement, the beginning of August 1989 saw Hamlin on CNN, chatting with Oprah Winfrey in Maya Angelou’s living room before the grand launch of the first NBTF in the USA and his dream had become big time reality.
I saw the videos of Larry’s triumph when he came out to my hometown of Honolulu, Hawaii, the following March 1990 for our Black History Month Dramatic Residency Program.
Of course, the first festival ended up $100,000 in the hole and Hamlin was still “the Dreamer.” Only this time dreaming how he was going to pay his bills, let alone find the bucks to do his next festival in 1991 in Winston-Salem.
But, “L.L. Cool” Hamlin, paid his debtors, raised another serious chunk of cash, rallied his supporters and went on to see the likes of Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Lou Gosset Jr. and Billy D. Williams stepping up to take a turn being the Festival’s Honorary Chairman over the course of the next 18 years. Shining bright, shining short, you burn the candle at both ends it all ends in the middle and we lost our brother in 2007.
At the beginning of 1990, Hamlin temporarily left the life of a black theater producer in Winston-Salem (where he was the director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company to spend a couple of weeks in Honolulu’s public schools doing his one man Black History play “A Celebration of Black Heroes”).
This was the real Hamlin, going out into the trenches to fight the good fight to teach our children the truth about black folk in Babylon and he rose to the challenge.
Over the course of two weeks, Hamlin did 16 performances for over 8,000 children. He stood up there on the stage in cafeteria’s, all by himself in front of 400 8 and 9-year-olds and changed characters from Toussaint to Malcolm X with barely a pause. Keeping the attention of kids that age is a serious proposition, especially for two or three shows back to back.
Starting the National Black Theater Festival in 1989 was Hamlin’s way of preserving black community theatre across the USA, for this was at the end of eight years of Ronald Reagan and unrelenting attacks on all things black. The list of black theater repertories had fallen into a tail spin of closures. Hamlin rallied the troops to gather nationally and bring the visibility of black American movie stars to black theater was a real celebration of black resistance to the white man and played a major role in saving black theater in the United Snakes of AmeriKKKa. (Remember now, the NBTF is held every two years in, of all places, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. About 20 minutes away a massacre occurred in Greensboro circa 1979, where the KKK gunned down five demonstrators in broad daylight.)
In “A Celebration of Black Heroes” Hamlin spoke of Imhotep, the near deity of medicine and so many, many other fields of science from Africa’s Nile Valley, a great black leader. Through Toussaint L’Ouverture, the leader of the only successful slave revolt in history in Haiti. To Malcolm X the fiery revolutionary vs. MLK Jr in a “what if” meeting took place between the two from Malcolm’s razor sharp perspective. And of course, there was the immortal “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr.
The NBTF revived more than a few fading careers of black American performers. I remember seeing Dick Gregory do his first stand up comedy show in 20 years. Of Della Reese and her cabaret show that helped her to T.V. stardom via “Touched by an Angel”. Too many stories about how the NBTF helped keep alive the dream of black theater in the USA by motivating young artists to step up and challenge the status quo.
All of this thanks to Hamlin, who spent his dramatic training years under the curator of the Langston Hughes Estate, “doing his time” under a white man. Hamlin may have grown up in the heart of Ku Klux Klan country but he could handle the white man’s culture because he was out there, with his music tastes as well.
Back in 1989 when Hamlin announced his intent to produce a National Black Theatre Festival, most people expected it would be held in New York City, which is home to the famous black production companies.
So it came as more than a little shock to hear that the NBTF would be held in…Winston-Salem, North Carolina? That’s right, a little town in the heart of redneck country, but it’s Hamlin’s hometown, where Angelou lived and was surrounded by universities with first rate theaters within 15 minutes driving distance.
Angelou was the godmother to Winfrey, herself with a degree in dramatic education, and Angelou getting Winfrey to the launch of the NBTF brought even CNN to a town otherwise best known for its cancer sticks, Winston and Salem cigarettes.
To understand Hamlin, one had to participate in the festival, for it wasn’t just about the theatrical productions–but a real celebration of blackness, with readings of new plays directed by professionals, def poetry slams until the wee hours and reggae and jazz bands rocking the hotel lobbies until late. Of course, the vendors came in droves for middle-class black folk from around the country with money to spend sold out the hotels for miles around, and just walking the booths with so many kinds of black culture from the motherland and the America’s was definitely a must do.
Hamlin didn’t sleep much, if at all, during the week long festival, wearing his dark glasses and chain smoking, no time to sleep with this much going on. Hanging with the stars and living the high life for a very intense week, like I said, a celebration of black resistance to the white man in the time of Reagan. Hamlin “The Dreamer”, sitting there with Denzel, Sidney Portier, Lou Gossett Jr. or better yet, Pam Grier aka Foxy Brown in the room next door.
I didn’t actually make it to my first NBTF until 1995, returning in 1997 and then for our honeymoon as Hamlin’s guests in 2001. I was able to bring Hamlin back to Honolulu in 1996 for an updated “Celebration of Black Heroes”, more African-centered and lively than before.
Before coming to Hawaii again in 1996, Hamlin had been a creative producer for a national tour of a black theater production and when casting found the lead just couldn’t handle the role Hamlin had to go on tour to do it himself. His tour gave birth to Papa C.W. Brown, from Black Mud, Mississippi, gray haired old man storyteller and master of ceremony who tied all the other characters together in “A Celebration of Black Heroes”.
He knew white folks both up north in the big city and down south in the heart of white supremacist North Carolina, so he could pull off a national black theater festival in little old Winston-Salem, the actual birth of which was a lobbying miracle for a black man with a pony tail… a way… a way… a way down south in Dixie.
It seemed every NBTF was a struggle to finance for Hamlin had to keep up the profile, bringing in heavy hitters to draw serious national attention to the cause and producing an A-List of top black plays. Our last festival in 2001 saw Bill Duke and Charles Dutton step up to the plate with over $50k to pay the bills and the festival survived another nail biter.
The toll had to be paid and all those cancer sticks finally caught up with Hamlin right as the 2007 National Black Theater Festival was supposed to start. With Hamlin on his deathbed the late Garland Lee Thompson, Sr. held it all together, the show must go on, in memory of another great departed brother.
You can see Hamlin in action at Hawaii’s public schools in 1996 with his one man show “A Celebration of Black Heroes” soon to come on Youtube, a ThomasCMountain Production/Andwele Gardiner documentary.
Thomas C. Mountain is an independent journalist in Eritrea, living and reporting from here since 2006. See thomascmountain on Facebook or best reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
ADDENDUM:This article was modified and corrected from its original form on Aug. 9. It was brought to YES! Weekly’s attention in an email that there was a grave factual error in this article. Previously, the article alluded to an incident occurring in Winston-Salem in 1979. That incident was actually the Greensboro Massacre and it occurred in Greensboro.