The National Black Theatre Festival has long been known for its tributes to black entertainers of the past, and this year’s festival will be no exception.
The six-day festival — July 29 to Aug. 3 at various venues in Winston-Salem — will have tributes to, among others, Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Davis Jr., Lena Horne, Ada “Bricktop” Smith and Jelly Roll Morton. The festival will also feature a free staged reading of a play about the life of Maya Angelou in advance of its May 2020 official premiere.
“Jelly’s Last Jam” will be the opening night show and members of the original Broadway cast, including Savion Glover and Keith David, are expected to be at opening night.
This is the 30th anniversary of the biennial festival, and the 40th anniversary of the N.C. Black Repertory Company, which was founded by Larry Leon Hamlin, who died in 2007. For the festival, Hamlin always wore his signature color — purple — and threw around his catchphrase — “marvtastic.”
Hamlin’s widow, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, is now the executive producer of the festival.
“We have invited 40 celebrity guests, and 30 companies from 14 states and one from Capetown, South Africa, to participate in this historic event,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said. “All roads lead to black theater holy ground from July 29 through Aug. 3. Over 60,000 people are expected to visit our beautiful city.”
Actors Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory will be co-chairs of this year’s festival, and 18 awards will be given, including the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award, which will go to actress Leslie Uggams.
Other winners include Kamilah Forbes, a producer and actress who is receiving the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award; Pearl Cleage, a novelist and playwright who is receiving the August Wilson Playwright Award; Michele Shay, an actress and director who is getting the Lloyd Richards Director Award; and 14 more honorees. They will be recognized at the festival’s opening night gala July 29.
“You will see some familiar faces among our celebrity guests,” Sprinkle-Hamlin said, “and a few first-timers, such as Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin on the popular ‘Cosby’ show, and R&B recording artist Ledisi.”
Owens attracted national attention last year when The Daily Mail and Fox News seemed to belittle him for working at a Trader Joe’s, which some people viewed as “job shaming.”
Other events at this year’s festival will include the Black Rep’s production of “Twelfth Night — Or What You Will, Mon,” a twist on Shakespeare set in Jamaica with music inspired by Bob Marley, with three free showings at Winston Square Park Amphitheatre; “Words & Verses,” an updated version of the festival’s long-running “Midnight Poetry Jam” series; the national youth talent showcase; the adult-skewing one-woman show “Gettin’ Old is a Bitch ... But I’m Gonna Wrestle That Bitch to the Ground!” by comedian Mariann Aalda; and “48 Hours in Holy Ground,” in which six playwrights re-imagine several classic plays, including “For Colored Girls,” “Fences” and “Miss Evers’ Boys,” which will be cast, rehearsed and produced over a two-day period as an evening of shorts.
Jackie Alexander, the artistic director of the Black Rep, said that the anniversaries will be commemorated in a special way and that attendees shouldn’t be surprised if they see a film crew milling about during the festival.
“We’re going to be shooting a documentary on the festival, long overdue,” he said. “We’re going to capture this energy of the festival. Like I say, it’s the most unique event I’ve ever experienced.”
He recalled his first time meeting Larry Leon Hamlin, back in 2005, when he got a tap on the shoulder and turned around.
“He was dressed head to toe in purple!” Alexander said. “I was left speechless, and I was speechless for the rest of the week. It’s the most beautiful event, the energy ... I always say it’s everything society tells us black people are not, and we’re going to capture all of that on film and honor it.”