By Richard L. Williams

More than thirty years ago, Luellen Curry, a director at the N.C. Black Repertory Co., was at a board retreat when the organization’s founding executive director, Larry Leon Hamlin, brought up his big idea of an international African American theater festival coming to Winston-Salem.

The governing board approved the festival. By all accounts, the first National Black Theatre Festival, which was held in 1989, was a success. More than 15 theater companies came; 30 performances were held; and about 10,000 people attended, including Oprah Winfrey, Lou Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Esther Rolle, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne and Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis.

All of those a-list celebrities were friends of Dr. Maya Angelou. With her buy-in and support of the festival, it was a smashing success.

Curry, who has been a festival volunteer since its inception, freely admits that few foresaw in 1989 that the festival would bourgeon into the country’s largest celebration of black theater.

“I don’t think any of us, except for perhaps (Hamlin), could have envisioned the scope of it and what it would become and how important it would become and how much people would embrace it,” says Curry, a professor in the Wake Forest School of Law. “How can you ever envision that?

“Once we did it the first time, it was like a reality and we knew we could do it,” she says.  “He kept having new ideas and adding new components, and it has just grown and has become more and more wonderful.”

 

boon for local economy

Today, the six-day biennial festival attracts more than 65,000 people to the area during an exciting week of theatrical performances, poetry readings, films and industry workshops and seminars. The festival is also a revenue generator for the city of Winston-Salem, pumping about $10 million into the local economy, according to estimates from Visit Winston-Salem, the area’s convention and visitors’ bureau.

This year, the festival has more than two dozen corporate sponsors and contributors that enabled the event to raise more than $700,000 dollars, according to Nigel Alston who co-chairs the festival’s fundraising committee with Mayor Allen Joines.

Along with the festival’s expansion and popularity, however, came the need for increased staff to handle the many functions of an event that has grown like weeds in the springtime. A dedicated core of volunteers became an essential and cost-effective alternative.

When this year’s festival opens on July 29, more than 1,000 volunteers will be counted on to play an integral role, according to Curry, who along with Patrice Y. Toney are the volunteer co-coordinators.

“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” says Curry, who also is a paid staff person in charge of playbills and the souvenir journal. “We just have so many different things that people can do, and they all are important to the workings of the festival.”

Volunteers serve as greeters, security personnel, medical nightingales, transportation staffers, fully staff the information desk, and assist in the box office, the vendors’ market and the hospitality areas.

“We always get really great feedback from people who come to the festival about how warm and helpful and friendly our volunteers are,” Curry says.

 

200 hours of training

Toney, who is employed with the City of Winston-Salem, says she initially volunteered to support church members Larry and Sylvia Sprinkle Hamlin. As she became more and more involved, she was asked to help coordinate the growing contingent of festival volunteers.

Since 1999, her volunteer roles have included coordinator of the festival’s Celebrity and Cast Transportation Services, organizer of the Teen Theatre, president of the N.C. Black Repertory Theatre Guild Board, secretary of the N.C. Black Repertory Board of Directors and volunteer co-coordinator.

Between her and Curry, they work with 45 assistant volunteer coordinators, who in turn train 1,000-plus volunteers to adroitly handle the various aspects of the festival.

“The reward of being a volunteer is playing an intricate role in supporting an organization and an event that enhances cultural awareness of black theater on a national level, elevates Winston-Salem’s platform of being a city of arts and innovation, builds social capital, and has a huge economic impact on the community,” Toney says.

For assistant volunteer coordinators, preparation begins in February of the festival year, Toney says. They meet about twice a month to prepare for the general volunteers in each department. Most general volunteers attend one two-hour training session in June or July, she says, and a total of about 200 hours goes into volunteer training leading up to each festival.

“Volunteers have been the backbone to the success of the National Black Theatre Festival,” she says. “There are many festival components supported by volunteers that are crucial to effectively producing the NBTF.”

 

‘rub noses’ with celebrities

Although most people volunteer to be part of an amazing community event that elevates black theater internationally, having a few volunteer perks to take advantage of doesn’t hurt. Some of the volunteer incentives include receiving discounted performance tickets and the opportunity to interact with celebrity guests and stars of the stage and screen.

“We have a core group of volunteers that return each festival,” Toney says. “They volunteer because that want to be part of something great that happens right here in this community, which includes exposing people of all backgrounds to the incredible art of black theater,” Toney says. “Some volunteers are also able to rub noses with celebrity guests, which is an added reward.”

Margaret Avery and Chester Gregory are the celebrity co-chairpersons of this year’s festival. Avery is perhaps best known for her Academy Award-nominating performance as Shug Avery in “The Color Purple.”

Gregory is a recording artist and Broadway virtuoso who starred in the iconic role as Jackie Wilson, which has been immensely popular at previous festivals. His dynamic performances of the R&B crooner led to his role as Seaweed in the hit Broadway musical Hairspray!

As always, plays will touch on a variety of subjects. For example, there’s one inspired by Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, another pays homage to legendary R&B crooners Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross, yet another features an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till. There also will be some one-person performances, including “Momma” by funnyman Michael Colyar. One of the hottest tickets in this year’s lineup is “Sammy: Celebrating the Legacy” about the life of entertainment legend Sammy Davis Jr.

The festival also has events aimed at children, including a dance interpretation of the Disney movie “The Lion King.”

 

‘an amazing experience’

At a press conference in June, before the crowd was captivated by dancers and singers, Curry made an appeal for more volunteers.

“You will not believe what an amazing experience it is,” she told the large gathering inside the Benton Convention Center. “Not only are you volunteering…but you are interacting with people. You are the face of the festival and our attendees remark after every festival what a wonderful experience it was, but also what a wonderful experience they had interacting with our volunteers. So you are the ones that are ambassadors for the festival.”

Curry says she remembers not hesitating when it came time to volunteer 30 years ago.

“It was an amazing idea to have a national festival of black theater,” she says. “It was just tremendous, and the fact that (Hamlin) not only had the idea but he was able to make it a reality. How can you not want to be a part of that? It was so exciting.”

Alston, who also is executive director of the N.C. Black Repertory Company that produces the festival, says that challenge of organizing more than 1,000 volunteers is eased when you have capable people doing the synchronization and management.

“You start with having good people who know how to execute and are excellent organizers,” he says, in reference to Toney and Curry. “And we get good volunteers. Volunteers make the festival work. They are giving of their time and their talents and they actually are the face of the festival.”

Alston likened festival volunteers to church ushers. A volunteer is often the first person that a festival attendee sees and the first person whom they are first greeted by.

“The person you often see first when you arrive at church is an usher,” he says. “It’s usually that person who sets the tone for your experience that day. Were they helpful? Did they smile at you? Did their interaction create a pleasant and enjoyable environment?

“They may not remember the person,” he adds, “but they’ll remember the experience.”

Sprinkle Hamlin, who took over as executive producer after the 2007 death of her husband and founder, concurs.

“If you have the people skills and the know-how then it becomes easy to manage 1,000 volunteers,” she says. “We have two very skilled and very organized co-coordinators of the volunteers. They think logically and they also have common sense.”