As I lay on my couch, cuddled up to the last of Meta’s peach cobbler – my doggie bag from the previous evening’s dinner in Winston-Salem – it dawned on me I was back in NYC. I could hear the whistling of ropes and laughter of the baby girls jumping Double Dutch in an adjacent courtyard. Some of who could easily succumb to baby motherhood, if they never get the opportunity to see, touch, hear, and most importantly feel their own greatness. The same palpable greatness I experienced at the National Black Theatre Festival. The only physical remnant of the Festival was the peach cobbler I was about to devour. Suddenly, sadness came over me like lighting through a calm sunset sky. I began eating slowly, savoring the delicious concoction in my mouth, and the magical memories of the Festival it elicited in my mind.
The National Black Theater Festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was a complete and compassionate, illumination and examination of Black life via the theatre. The festival’s official commencement is an opening-night gala and awards ceremony that rivals the pomp and circumstance of any Hollywood red-carpet event. This gala is hosted by A-list celebrities like: Maya Angelou, Lamon Rucker (Meet the Browns), Wendy Raquel Robinson (The Game), and Ted Lange (Love Boat). There is also an opening night show that follows the Gala, which showcases the work of exemplary and award-winning talent, like Glen Turman, Lillias White, Sheryl Lee Ralph, etc…
There were daily press conferences supplying media and interested parties with information about the festival’s events. Over 40 plays were presented by theater groups and production companies from many states in the USA – even plays from as far as South Africa have been mounted. An assortment of complimentary theatre-related workshops was available to all. A prolific Readers’ Theatre coordinated by Garland Thompson senior and junior, was a definite standout in programming. As if this wasn’t enough, there were programs highlighting the talent of children and teenagers. Malcolm Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show) hosted a nightly Poetry Slam. The Festival’s vendors’ market had unique products like my Black Betty Boo tee-shirt, I had to wrestle away from my niece. This year’s festival (July 29 – August 3, 2013, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina), promises more – even a Film Festival to boot. For us artist, and those of you spiritually evolved enough to recognize the importance of the arts to human civilization, attending the festival is a must.
The festival had two major flaws: the six days need to be extended to 10 or more, and the absence of Caribbean playwrights saddened me. This absence has no reflection on the festival organizers. Instead, it speaks to the seemingly lack of significance the Caribbean community places on the theatrical experience. Many of us, only like the type of theatre that offers an opportunity to ‘laff till wi belly bus’. Caribbean communities must embrace the Theatre as a powerful medium, from which to transmit deep and transformative messages – a platform to continue illuminating and examining our lives. Most importantly, it is a part of our ancestral legacy and inheritance. We, like our African-American clan members, were born to tell stories via the theatre, particularly our own stories. History has taught us, how damaging it is when we allow others to tell it for us.
Socrates has said “the unexamined life is not worth living” – his prescription for the individual. The National Black Theatre Festival magnifies Socrates philosophy by illuminating, and examining the lives of African peoples throughout the Diaspora. This is an impressive feat, even by Socrates standards. Caribbean communities should take heed to this great example. The development of meaningful theatre projects in Caribbean Communities in the USA and abroad, will earn us a more powerful presence at the festival, and in the world at large. There is plenty in all our communities that merit illumination, and much needing serious examination. The most powerful way to accomplish this, is through theatre. I know Socrates and Larry Leon Hamlin (founder of the National Black Theatre Festival) will be the spiritual guides of all such theatrical examinations and illuminations. Hopefully, we all will pass – instead of passing for, anything less than the greatness both of their spirits (Socrates and Larry Leon Hamlin) still bestow upon us.
*As the spirit of Larry Leon Hamlin and Socrates would have it, following this article’s composition, Not About Eve: a play by an award-winning Jamaican playwright (Karl O’Brian Williams), produced by Braata Productions (Andrew Clarke), featuring three actors from the Caribbean (Ilana Warner, Stacy-Ann Brissett, and Sharon Tsahai King), has been accepted as a Main Stage production for the 2013 festival (running August 2nd and 3rd). A play from Bermuda (Misunderstood) is also being presented on the festival’s Main Stage. Tickets for Not About Eve, Misunderstood, and the numerous other plays being mounted at the 2013 festival could be purchased at www.nbtf.org.