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11 Sep 2015

Winston-Salem’s National Black Theatre Festival, “Kissed By Lightning”

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September 11, 2015 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Reynaldo Reception Hall

By Renée S. Gordon

“For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” –Psalm 134:3-4

Biennially, Winston-Salem, North Carolina hosts the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF).

The six-day event presents and preserves the legacy of African American theatre, honors outstanding members of the international theatre community and serves as a venue for the staging of new plays and a showcase for emerging artists. The NBTF is the flame kindled from embers that were first ignited on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and represents not only current creative excellence but also the courage, resilience and tenacity of a host of spiritual benefactors.

Song and storytelling were integral parts of African life for hundreds of years setting the pace for everyday tasks, marking celebrations and ceremonies and cataloging tribal history and traditions. Honor was given to those who excelled as musicians or storytellers but the activities were communal and were part of the adhesive that kept the community together and passed on the values and information that were needed to ensure survival.

With capture in Africa came a forced separation from your family, your tribe, your language, your religion and your customs and traditions. The captives were not permitted to carry any but the smallest personal items, usually hidden on their person. To counter this total loss, many found solace in the songs and stories they could carry undetected. On board the ship, the captives were required to dance for exercise and for the amusement of those who had enslaved them. There are records indicating that the captives often sang while they were chained below decks and I am certain that even then there were those whose voices, even in a foreign tongue, better evoked the sadness and longing of the group.

Individualism and creativity took on a new and more strategic dimension in the new land. The best artists not only gained the accolades of their peers but might also achieve preferment of place and favors in the form of food, money or a lightened workload. Blacks in the arts had to dance better, jump higher and fiddle faster than their white counterparts and remain on the cutting edge of creativity.

Once in the Americas storytelling and music served the same functions they had in Africa with the addition of the fact that performances were sometimes put on for the amusement of slave owners and their guests and an enslaved musician was highly valued. One of the earliest depictions of slavery includes a musician, the first documented execution in the colonies lists the individual as a slave fiddle player and we are all familiar with the pivotal character of Fiddler in Roots. Many times slave songs and stories were presented as works created solely by whites including the works of Stephen Foster and Joel Chandler Harris.

In 1816 , a free Black man named William H. Brown began presenting Sunday afternoon entertainment in his home on Thomas Street in NYC. Five years later, Brown partnered with James Hewlett and established New York City’s African Grove Theatre at Mercer & Bleeker. Plays were presented on the upper level of his house. The first production in the 300-seat theatre was “Richard III” and Brown is credited in 1823 with “The Drama of King Shotaway,” the first play written and produced by an African American. The African Grove Theatre’s actors comprised the first Black theatrical troupe with Hewlett as the first African American Shakespearean actor and the soon to be internationally famous Ira Aldridge as a member. The theatre was never well received by many Whites and it was torched in 1823.

Because no copies of Brown’s play still exist, William Wells Brown, no relation, is often cited as the first Black playwright. In 1856, he wrote “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.” Both “The Drama of King Shotaway” and  “The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom” relate aspects of the black experience and are the progenitors of a theatrical tradition that continues to thrive.

Post-Civil War professional black theatre was largely confined to minstrel shows. The first completely black production to be shown in a legitimate Broadway Theater was “Clorindy, the Origin of the Cakewalk,” which premiered at the Casino Theatre in 1898.

The 20th-century witnessed the growth of Black theatre during the Harlem Renaissance. It took a leap forward in the 60s and 70s with Black and feminist empowerment and a rash of playwrights dedicated to presenting a truer picture of black life, black rage and political movements. The pioneering theaters of the seminal years include the American Negro Theatre (1937), Black Ensemble Theatre (1976),  Center Stage (1963), Crossroads Theatre (1978), the Federal Theatre Project Negro Unit (1935), Karamu House (1915) and the Negro Ensemble Company (1967).

To attend the National Black Theatre Festival is to feel as if you have been “kissed by lightning.”  Winston-Salem is considered “Black Theater Holy Ground” and it is a tangible thrill to spend six days experiencing the best modern productions while mingling with both the artists and like-minded theatre lovers.

Vanessa Bell Calloway

Vanessa Bell Calloway

Larry Leon Hamlin established the first professional black theatrical company in North Carolina in 1979. He recognized both the transformative power of theatre and the need to provide a vehicle for presentation and appreciation of black production. The North Carolina Black Repertory Company (NCBRC) has attained acclaim for the quality of its programming and its outstanding Teen Theatre Ensemble (TTE), an interactive mentoring program with the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Samm-Art Williams as a professional mentor.

Hamlin’s dream grew larger as he became more aware of the necessity for black theatre professionals to meet and discuss pertinent issues, the need to enlarge and educate the public and to produce international works from all genres of theatre. To that end he founded the National Black Theatre Festival in 1989. Maya Angelou shared his vision and, after helping generate $500,000, she served as the first chairperson. The first NBTF featured 30 productions presented by 17 black theatre companies. The 2015 Festival, held from August 3rd-8th, featured more than 130 performances mounted by 35 theatrical organizations under the co-chairmanship of Debbi Morgan and Darnell Williams.

Hamlin coined the word Marvtastic, a combination of marvelous and fantastic, to describe the Festival and that is exactly the type of experience you will have. Events are not confined to the presentation of a vast array of plays but have expanded to include other events and activities that take place throughout the week. A grand Gala opens the Festival, an award ceremony that honors outstanding achievement. Younger visitors can participate in Teentastic and a series of workshops and concerts designed for teenagers. Additional events include poetry jams, readings, a film festival, press conferences and The International Colloquium.

I realize that the next NBTF will take place July 31st-August 5th, 2017, but if promises to be the most exciting ever. Because the Festival is both unique and affordable it is best to both plan and book early. Several hotels are affiliated with the event and offer packages and car and airline rates are always more affordable when made in advance.

In 2007, Hamlin physically left the stage for the final time. His work and legacy have continued under the auspices of his wife, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, NBTF Executive Producer.

Early cigarette display

Early cigarette display

Winston-Salem embraces its status as the dazzling “City of Arts” during Festival season. The NBTF events take place in more than 12 official venues as well as informal meetings and conversations in lobbies, shops and restaurants throughout the city. There is something interesting at every turn and visitors should take advantage by touring the area.

Trade Street, located in the Downtown North Historic District, was established in the early 1900s as a place for farmers to purchase and trade. Today, it is the heart of the Downtown Arts District lined with galleries, boutiques, shops, eateries and outdoor artworks and it is difficult to walk down this street without making a purchase. A Mast General Store recently opened its sixth North Carolina store since 1897. This old-fashioned general store sells local crafts as well as outdoor equipment.

Sweet Potatoes (well shut my mouth!!) is African American owned and is the pearl of Trade Street. Owners Stephanie Tyson and Vivián Joiner feature award-winning southern inspired cuisine and incomparable hospitality. Sweet potato biscuits are one of the dishes around which their reputation is based but trust me, every dish is wonderful. The restaurant does not take reservations so go early or be prepared to wait.

Simon Atkins founded Winston-Salem State University (WSSU) as Slater Industrial Academy on September 28, 1892 in a single-room with 25 students. Seven years later, North Carolina chartered the institution as Slater Industrial and State Normal School. In 1925, the state granted the school the power to grant elementary school degrees, the first African American institution in the country to do so, and the school became the Winston-Salem Teachers College. Not only are NBTF performances held here but it is home of the renowned Diggs Gallery.

Diggs has been named one of the country’s top 10 African American galleries. On view until December 2,   is “Flawlessly Feminine,” the women who graced the cover of Jet Magazine. The exhibition begins with an orientation film in which the history and importance of the magazine is traced by publisher John Johnson. The story began in 1951 and the woman to grace the first cover was Sugar Ray Robinson’s wife who related “Ten Ways to Get a Mink Coat.” Needless to say it was a very popular issue.

The most important works on permanent display at WSSU are the John Biggers’ murals in the atrium of the O’Kelly Library. Biggers, a renowned muralist born in North Carolina, was commissioned to create the murals by Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts, Inc. He began in 1990 and created two 15’ by 30’ murals painted on canvas strips attached to a base and hung on the walls. “Ascension” is on the east wall and directly opposite on the west wall hangs “Origins.” Biggers and his wife traveled extensively at least four times throughout West Africa studying the art and culture. Evidence of Africa’s artistic impact these trips had on him can be clearly seen in both artworks.

Richard Joshua Reynolds founded a tobacco company in Winston-Salem and established one of the world’s largest tobacco firms 1874. In 1912, Katherine Smith Reynolds, wife of R. J., hired a Philadelphia architect, Charles Keen, to design a residence and 40 dependencies on their 1,067-acre model farm estate. The residence, Reynolda House, is considered one of the last and best-preserved examples of American Country House architecture.

The 64-room, interior is filled with the best American craftsmanship of the era with metalwork by Caldwell & Company and furniture ordered from Wanamaker Department Store’s interior designers. The original furnishings have survived and are largely Italian Renaissance and English Tudor. A 2,566 pipe Aeolian organ, one of only 899 made, is situated in the two-story Reception Hall and plays daily. The house has four levels in the center with two additional wings. J. R. died seven months after its completion. In 1967, the house opened to the public.

Reynolda House Museum of American Art exhibits the best collection of American Art in the Southeast United States. The collection encompasses artworks from the mid-18th century to the present. Tours are self-guided and audio guides are available. Your first stop should be the Orientation Gallery where visitors can watch a brief video and examine mini-galleries and photographs of the Reynolds’ history. A highlight of this area is the inclusion of the African American presence. African American John Carter was the major-domo of Reynolda House until his death in the 1950s. Ironically, Reynolds, responsible for the first successful packaged cigarettes, did not smoke cigarettes or cigars.

Continue your visit with a meander through Reynolda Gardens a fine example of the American Garden Movement designed by Keen and Philadelphia landscape architect Thomas Sears. The gardens are part of the North Carolina Birding Trail.

A wonderful way to conclude this part of the journey through Winston-Salem is with a gustatory celebration at Mozelle’s. Sunshine yellow umbrellas indicate the restaurant’s location and alert you to the fact that you are in for something really special. Executive Chef Steven McPherson is a wizard, creating dishes that awaken your palette to new tastes in old recipes.

Mozelle’s is noted for serving the best fried chicken in the South and I must ask you to pause and think about that well-deserved honor. In a region noted for its fried chicken that is phenomenal! When you go every item on the menu is wonderful. I personally recommend the shrimp and grits and the spicy collards with bacon. Ingredients whenever possible are local and organic and the menu features vegetarian and gluten free selections.

We are not leaving Winston-Salem just yet. Next week we explore Old Salem and its unique African American history. More information is available online.

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