To months before 60,000 black playwrights, costume designers, stage managers, and performers descended on Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the National Black Theatre Festival suffered a tragedy. Its founder, artistic director, and producer, Larry Leon Hamlin, passed away. Held every other summer, the Festival is an unrivaled networking opportunity for black theater professionals from around the country to showcase their talents and share resources. “He set the stage,” says Gerry Patton, the executive director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Co., which hosts the weeklong Festival. “And he would be the first to insist that the Festival is larger than any one person.” The show must go on.
Founded in 1989 to revive black theater across the country, the National Black Theatre Festival exists to create a platform of support to ensure an artistic legacy in the community. Black theaters had been operating in a vacuum: there was limited knowledge of what other companies were doing, little funding, and few resources. The need to share resources and obtain wider exposure was so great and constantly growing that the continued existence of these companies depended on their working together.
“Everything here is a team effort,” says Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, the Festival’s 2007 producer and the founder’s widow. Choreographer and director Mabel Robinson is the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Co.
Last year’s Festival showcased 117 performances from 35 companies over six days. The number of companies has nearly doubled since the Festival’s inaugural year. The Festival pays for the performers’ travel and hotel accommodations, as well as a fee that is negotiable based on the size and type of production a company will be performing, but generally ranges from $5,000 to $40,000. Interested parties submit a formal letter of introduction along with a DVD or VHS tape of a completed play to the Festival’s selection committee. Word-of-mouth references also help.
Exposure can be life changing. Daniel Beaty was on his way to law school after his one-man show, Emergence-SEE!, failed to turn a profit. The Festival leaders heard about Beaty through word-of-mouth and extended an invitation, paying him $8,000 to perform his 90-minute play about a slave ship rising from the waters in front of the Statue of Liberty. After the performance, Beaty received steady bookings from black theater producers who were in the audience that night or later heard about the show. And last year, he received a special citation at the Obie Awards, which recognize off-Broadway talent. Even more talent was spotted when The Black Ensemble Theatre of Chicago performed The Jackie Wilson Story: My Heart Is Crying, Crying. Chester Gregory II, the star of the play, went on to appear in Broadway productions of Hairspray and Tarzan.
Good deeds don’t come cheap, but they don’t have to break the bank either. Rather than relying on business loans or investments, the Festival continues to operate through fundraising from the private and public sector as well as corporate and institutional grants. In 2007, grants received ranged from $10,000 to $150,000. The largest came from