Theatre has always been considered highbrow. For many, its mere mention still conjures images of women in white gloves and men in top hats dropping in for a matinee.
One of Larry Leon Hamlin’s goals was to change that image by creating theatre that all could relate to and productions that reflect all. Few of us in these parts had seen real, professional theatre (church plays not included, sorry) before Hamlin started his N.C. Black Repertory Company in the late 1970s.
And few folks outside of New York City have the opportunity to see the caliber of theatre that is presented during the National Black Theatre Festival, which Hamlin founded in 1989. The level of talent and artistry that will be in this city next week, July 29–Aug. 3, is simply mind-blowing.
Tony Award winning divas Lillas White and Tonya Pinkins will be in action. The velvet-voiced White will play blues legend Mabel Smith in the bio-musical “Big Maybelle,” while Pinkins, recently named one of “Broadway’s 25 Greatest Divas of All-Time,” will present the cabaret-style “Tonya Pinkins Unplugged.” Familiar faces from television and film will appear in many of the productions – Kim Coles (“Oh, But Wait … There’s More”), Debbi Morgan (“The Monkey on My Back!”) and Ralph Harris (“MANish Boy”) among them – but the rising stars, performers who are generating buzz around the nation and beyond, may be the ones to watch. They include Timothy Simonson, who plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in “Adam;” Joseph “Joe P” Palmore, who plays the lead role in the riveting “The Ballard of Emmett Till;” Chapel Hill resident Anita Woodley, whose breast cancer-themed “Mama Juggs” is dedicated to her late mother; and the cast of Canadian men who star in Darren Anthony’s “Secrets of a Black Boy.”
In short, if you spend Festival week merely walking through downtown or hanging out in the lobby of the Marriott, you are truly not opening the amazing gift that Hamlin gave us. Festival week makes our city electric, and we all love the positive energy it brings every two years, but let’s not lose our focus. The NBTF is about the celebration of black culture through the timeless art form of theatre. The best way to celebrate that is by sitting in a venue and watching the magic on stage once the lights go down.
So next week, go to a play or musical, some of which cost as little as $15, before you head downtown to hang-out. That way, you will truly have something to talk about to the old and new friends that you will surely run in to.
The performers coming to the Festival are far too talented to play to half-empty venues, and, most importantly, Mr. Hamlin worked far too hard to bring professional theatre to our backyard for us to sleep on this.
Tickets will be available during festival week at the Benton Convention Center and at performance venues before shows, if they are still available. Learn more about this year’s offerings at NBTF.org or in the special insert in this week’s Chronicle.