Sunday, August 19, 2001

Black theater festival organizers aim higher

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — At 5 a.m. on the first Thursday of August, Don Sherman headed his cherry red van southeast from Cincinnati. Eight hours later he and Annie and Linda Hilson arrived in Winston-Salem for the final days of the National Black Theatre Festival.

        They were on a mission.

        Mr. Sherman and his committee, which includes the Hilson sisters, are organizing Cincinnati's third Black Theatre Festival.

        While the first two festivals barely registered on the local theater scene, this time he's looking for a higher profile. It's being called the Midwest Black Theatre Festival and it has a built-in attention-grabber. It's long been scheduled for the first two weeks of April 2002, coincidentally marking the anniversary of this year's civil unrest.

        “I want the festival to involve the entire theater community,” says Mr. Sherman. To that end he's putting out a call this month to local and regional directors, playwrights, designers and theater companies.

        “It's a black festival, but let's take the blinders off. There hasn't been a connection between black and white companies. I'd like that to change.”

        At the national festival, the Cincinnatians networked morning, noon and into the night, at midnight readings and poetry jams. They checked out the performances that had the best buzz.

        “We're looking for new ideas,” Annie Hilson explained over a recent lunch.

        “We want to know what people around the country and around the world are thinking,” Mr. Sherman added. “I'm interested in the workshops and training sessions. What can we bring back?”

        They, like everyone else, fell in love with festival hit The Jackie Wilson Story (My Heart is Crying ... Crying), an entry from Chicago's Black Ensemble Theatre. In the lead role, Chester Gregory II's performance carried enough voltage to light up the rest of North Carolina along with Winston-Salem.

        How they'd love to lure the revue to Cincinnati.

        They also took note of the jubilant atmosphere, “which is what we want,” says Mr. Sherman. “We want to make people feel like they want to come.”

        He dreams of some name guest stars and it would be wonderful, he notes, if one show “could be presented downtown.” The festival will again be based at Arts Consortium, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this season in the West End.

        The National Black Theatre Festival takes over Winston-Salem for one week every two years. Productions are staged in theaters all over the city, on campuses and in community settings.

        This year's schedule included history and hip-hop theater, domestic drama and musical salutes, but it was dominated by artists telling their own stories.

        Winston-Salem prides itself on its arts awareness. The main thoroughfare, University Parkway, carried signage declaring it “Black Theatre Festival Boulevard” through the course of the festival, which brings $6 million to $8 million into the local economy.

        Despite the city's spirited support and an influx of thousands of visitors, these are hard times for black theater, sighs festival organizer Larry Leon Hamlin, artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company.

        The proliferation of African-American companies that were founded 20 years ago are history. Two years ago New Jersey-based, Tony Award-winning national flagship Crossroads Theatre had to temporarily close its doors.

        The last decade, says Mr. Hamlin, has been about “creating agendas for survival. We should have kept the warrior attitude. Even I got a little slack,” he admits. “Things were looking good.”

        This year they were looking tight. Two weeks before the festival opened it was carrying a $300,000 deficit. By the opening night gala that had been reduced to $75,000 and Mr. Hamlin expected to make up the remainder by the end of the week.

        It was no accident that this year's theme was “Holy Ground.”

        It's Mr. Hamlin's conviction that it's past time to stir up people's passion for theater.

        “Some people say I sound like a preacher,” Mr. Hamlin says mildly. Not true. Everybody says he sounds like a preacher. He did what he set out to do. This year's festival felt like a gathering of true believers.

        What they truly believe is that the arts change lives. Throughout the week people — famous and not — told their stories.

        Actor/director and ex-convict Charles Dutton thrilled a crowd of attentive listeners when he told his own story, how he accidentally took an anthology of black plays into solitary confinement. He came out, formed a prison theater company, completed a two-year college degree course and went on to Yale's drama program.

        “Passion, desire, spirit — these are rough commodities to come by,” Mr. Hamlin says, looking out over the audience Mr. Dutton has swept up in his conviction.

        Now re-newed spirit has to be maintained. Mr. Hamlin says theater may survive but cannot thrive without it.

        “This is our passion. That's the message I'm trying to get out,” he says. “Theater is blessed. It's a place where we all gather. We have to respect it, care for it, love it.”

        For information and to volunteer for Cincinnati's upcoming Black Theatre Festival contact Don Sherman at (513) 981-0668. A Web site is expected to be up by the end of the month at


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