Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins and NAACP Image Award winner Dorien Wilson have been tapped to serve as celebrity co-chairs at this year’s National Black Theatre Festival.
Officials from the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, which stages the biennial festival, joined forces with city leaders and community supporters for
the public announcement Tuesday, which served as the kick-off for the 2013 NBTF season.
“All roads lead to Winston-Salem, North Carolina on July 29–Aug. 3,” proclaimed Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, president of the NCBRC Board of Directors and the widow of the company and festival’s founder, Larry Leon Hamlin. “The stage has been set, and I’d like to personally invite everyone to join us. We are saving a seat for you on Black Theatre Holy Ground.”
Pinkins has graced the small screen on numerous occasions, including roles on “All My Children,” “24” and “As the World Turns,” and appeared in such cinematic hits as “Enchanted” and “Above the Rim.” Her Broadway credits include performances in “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Play On!” Despite her ample commercial success, the Chicago native says she has always dreamed of performing before African American audiences, so much so that when a friend asked her to take an offstage part in a production of “Pandora’s Box” at the 2003 festival, the veteran thespian jumped at the chance.
“I was dying to be a part of black theater,” Pinkins confessed. “I would have done anything to come, and literally, I did. It was so worth it.” Being surrounded by so many talented African American actors, directors and producers was an inspiration, said Pinkins, who returned to the festival in 2005 to perform a celebrity stage reading of “What Would Jesus Do?”
“When I came here it was like visiting a foreign country. Everything was so exotic,” she related. “It was truly the most thrilling theater experience I’ve ever had.”
Pinkins, who has also authored her own self-help book, “Get Over Yourself!: How to Drop the Drama and Claim the Life You Deserve,” told those who gathered at Embassy Suites’ Garden Terrace for the press conference that she can’t wait for the festival to arrive.
“I cannot explain how excited I am to be here,” Pinkins declared. “Theater is my first love. I think for most actors, we do the theater because it’s like a drug for us … it is the one place in show business where the actor is in control. It is the only place where we get to express ourselves fully.”
Wilson, an accomplished actor whose career spans more than 25 years and includes roles in “The Parkers” and two other network sitcoms and more than 75 plays, performed a one-man autobiographical show at the 2011 festival.
“Last year was amazing to me. I did ‘Unringing the Bell’ and it was very cathartic for me. My mom had just passed. I did seven different characters and they all had something they needed to release and let go in order to move on with their lives,” said Wilson, who just filmed the first six episodes of a forthcoming sitcom called “Trophy Wife.” “…Being able to write that was a turning point in my career, and being here at the festival was a huge part of it.”
In addition to serving as co-chair, Wilson, who is making his fourth NBTF appearance, will appear in the production “Love and Other Four Letter Words.” The actor said he got bitten by the acting bug as a sixth grader when his class did a production of “Hansel and Gretel.”
“As soon as I got onstage and got that first laugh …I was hooked,” he related. “… I am so pleased to be doing theater (again). It’s that immediate gratification. Anything can go wrong, and it does. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
True to NBTF form, the conference delivered some stellar entertainment, in the form of Chester Gregory, a singer and actor who performed a song from “The Eve of Jackie,” a celebration of the life of Jackie Wilson that is set on the night before the late singer’s onstage collapse. Gregory starred in “My Heart is Crying, Crying: The Jackie Wilson Story,” which remains the most successful production to ever be staged at the NBTF. The singer/actor has also appeared in Broadway productions of “Dreamgirls,” “Tarzan” and “Shrek: The Musical.”
“It’s such a wonderful experience,” he said of the NBTF. “The vision that Larry Leon Hamlin had has been so inspirational and beneficial in so many careers, including mine. I’m so grateful for the Festival and I will always be a part of it as much as I can.”
Gregory said Hamlin predicted his meteoric rise when Gregory attended his first festival in 2001, saying that Gregory would be unable to attend the next gathering because he would be too busy working on Broadway, and sure enough, when the 2003 festival rolled around, Gregory was making his debut performance in the Broadway production “Hairspray.”
Many of those on hand at the meeting paid homage to Hamlin and his larger than life vision for the six-day festival, a whirlwind showcase that this year will include approximately 120 performances and is billed as “a reunion of spirit.” For the more than 60,000 guests who are expected to attend and city residents alike, the 2013 festival will not disappoint, Pinkins promised.
“It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to celebrate black artists who are some of the most talented and unrecognized artists on the planet,” she declared. “Don’t miss it.”
The NBTF Box Office will open July 11. Officials will announce the full schedule of plays, musicals and special events in June. For more information, visit www.nbtf.org or call 336-723-2266.