Larry Leon Hamlin, the late founder of the National Black Theatre Festival®) (NBTF), created the word “marvtastic”, a portmanteau of “marvelous” and “fantastic”, to define, “there is nothing greater or better than”; this especially applies in describing his festival in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Held biennially, the NBTF has drawn thousands of visitors since its inception 17 years ago. It showcases the ultimate in Black theatre over a 6-day span. This festival, according to its website, “ … illuminates the powerful theatrical spirit and extraordinary talent of performers, designers, directors, producers and technicians from across the country and abroad … features more than a hundred theatrical performances by more than 50 respected celebrities, an Opening Night Gala, the Readers’ Theatre of New Works, the Youth/Celebrity Project, International Colloquia, the International Vendor’s Market, a poetry slam, and various workshops and seminars.”
Because theatre encompasses diverse genres, visitors can experience passionate performances, educational workshops, groundbreaking independent films and moving deliveries of spoken word; all providing unique interpretations of the Black Experience from the vantage of African-American artists. Also, at the end of every evening of the celebrations, the NBTF showcases its “Celebrity Reception, Midnight Readers’ Theatre and Late Night Words and Verses” events. Celebrity chairpersons have included Anna Maria Horsford (Amen, Friday film series, The Wayans Brothers, The Shield and The Bold and the Beautiful); Obba Babatunde (“Dreamgirls”, How High, The Notebook, John Q and The Bold and the Beautiful). The co-chairs of the 2019 festival were acting legend Margaret Avery (Which Way is Up, Scott Joplin, The Fish that Saved Pittsburgh, The Color Purple and Proud Mary) and Broadway actor Chester Gregory (“Hairspray”, “Tarzan”, “Dreamgirls” and “The Jackie Wilson Story”).
The 2019 star-studded Opening Night Gala began with a vibrant parade of awesome African drummers and dancers. They prepared audiences for the “grand and royal procession of more than 40 celebrities of stage, television and film”, as per the NBTF press release. Stars scheduled to be there included Leslie Uggams (Roots, Empire), Darnell Williams (All My Children), author Pearle Cleage, Ledesi, Bernadette Stanis (Good Times), comedian Michael Colyar, Tonya Pinkins (“Radio Golf”, “Jelly’s Last Jam” and All My Children), Ted Lange (That’s My Mama, The Love Boat), Roscoe Orman (Willie Dynamite, Sesame Street), Geoffrey Owen (The Cosby Show) and Lisa Arindell Anderson (Madea’s Family Reunion, Sin Seer). Festival guests may mingle with the celebrities following each evening’s performances.
In the latter part of the evening’s gala, festival guests were “transported” to “The Great White Way” of Broadway. They were treated to the multiple Tony Award-winning musical, “Jelly’s Last Jam”, performed by the North Carolina Repertory Company, also created by NBTF founder Hamlin. While this festive evening concluded with dancing until “the last beat of the African drums”, for the other nights, guests could groove to different genres of live music at the Marriott Hotel.
“Marvtastic” is indeed the best term to describe the National Black Theatre Festival!