Party-goers celebrated the legacy of Larry Leon Hamlin on Saturday.
The North Carolina Black Repertory Company, which Hamlin founded in 1979, held its annual Marvtastic Bash at the Benton Convention Center. While the evening of food, dancing and entertainment is a fundraiser for next year’s National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) – a biennial showcase of some of the world’s best black stage productions that Hamlin created in 1989 – it is also a grand celebration of the larger-than-life theater icon who passed away in 2007. Sept. 25 would have been Hamlin’s 64th birthday.
“We remember him as a visionary who knew that in order to save black theater throughout the African diaspora, there had to be a way for the companies to come together to dialogue and to showcase the best of the best,” said Elwanda Ingram, a member of the Black Rep Guild, a volunteer and fundraising board.
Wende Walker, the Black Rep’s marketing coordinator, read a tribute to Hamlin penned by Perri Gaffney, a writer/actress whose “The Resurrection of Alice” was such a success at the 2011 NBTF that the Black Rep recently staged it as a fundraiser. Hamlin’s son, Larenté Hamlin, read a message from Hamilin’s mother, Annie “Mama Marvtastic” Hamlin Johnson, who was unable to attend.
The more than 300 attendees were encouraged to honor Hamlin’s legacy by supporting black theater, a cause dear to him. The Black Rep promoted two of its December productions: Samm-Art Williams’ “The Last Class-Five Letter Words” and its popular staging of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity.”
The Bash’s silent auction featured about 100 donated items, everything from pieces of art to handbags. Even tickets to the 2013 NBTF Opening Night Gala, which retail for $255, were on the auction block.
The event was truly “marvtastic,” a term Hamlin coined that means ”nothing greater or better than.” The color purple, a favorite of Hamlin’s, could be seen in the lights that shone on walls and in the attire of many attendees, who enjoyed a buffet dinner that included made-to-order Steak au Poivre and shrimp and grits. The evening ended with many attendees tearing up the dance floor.
Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Hamlin’s widow and head of both the NBTF and Black Rep Board, said community support has been essential to the survival of her husband’s vision.
The Bash, she said, was inspired by “Black Rep Night” in the 1980s, when supporters would hold house parties on or near Hamlin’s birthday. Hamlin would attend each event to recruit Guild members.
Sprinkle-Hamlin said the NBTF, which attracts thousands of theater- and party-goers to Winston-Salem every two years, has done more than just electrify the theater world. She credits her husband’s vision as one of the factors that have contributed to the revitalization of the city’s downtown.
“He would be really proud to see what’s happening in Winston-Salem downtown now and he would be right in the center of it,” said Sprinkle-Hamlin.
Sprinkle-Hamlin and other Black Rep leaders are currently picking the productions for the 2013 NBTF. A long fundraising process, which will include appealing to corporate donors, must also take place before the curtain rises. Though a record number of tickets were sold in 2011, the NBTF still depends heavily on donations.
Black Rep Executive Director Geraldine Patton said that though the line up changes for every NBTF, it always brings an array of high-quality productions for a price that is a mere fraction of a Broadway ticket. She said that’s thanks to community support, both donations and the 1,500 people who volunteer for the NBTF.
“These are the people that stick with us through thick and thin, that we depend on and rely on to be there for us, and they show up year after year,” she said.
Dr. Eric Sadler is among those loyal supporters. He has been a volunteer and ardent supporter since the NBTF was started. He’s now a member of the Marvtastic Giving Society and the Black Rep Board and still volunteers at places like venue ticket booths during the NBTF. The popular local dentist has also lent his services to NBTF performers in need of oral health care.
“I believe in the Festival, and I want to see it carry on for years to come.” he said.
Those were the sentiments shared by all the attendees, whose support is the best birthday gift they could give Hamlin.
“Happy birthday, Mr. Marvtastic Larry Leon Hamlin,” said Ingram. “We love you. We miss you, and are continuing to ensure that black theater, this holy ground, is for everyone.”