Put on your purple and black, the National Black Theatre Festival is back!
The purple and black curtain will soon rise for the opening of the star-studded, six-day biennial theater festival that was the brainchild of Larry Leon Hamlin three decades ago.
Forty years ago Larry Leon had a passion when he founded the N.C. Black Repertory Company. Thirty years ago he had a dream when he established the National Black Theatre Festival.
When this year’s theater festival opens at the end of the month, it will celebrate two milestone anniversaries that I wish Larry Leon was here to enjoy with all of us – the 40-year anniversary of the N.C. Black Rep and the 30-year anniversary of the NBTF.
Larry Leon certainly would marvel at the arrival of 60,000 mostly African American theater lovers converging on Winston-Salem, filling the hotel beds, eating in the numerous downtown restaurants, crowding the more than two dozen performance venues, and heartily milling the streets of the City of Arts and Innovation. They all will arrive to enjoy theatrical performances and marvel in the overall revelry and ambiance of six electrifying days.
Larry Leon loved theater at an early age, so much so that after receiving his degree in business administration from Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., he studied theater at nearby Brown University. When he returned to North Carolina in the mid-1970s, the Reidsville native settled in Winston-Salem.
Larry Leon was a visionary. As he attended theater conferences around the country and conversed with actors and theater practitioners, he noticed a need for a national theater festival to bring a disconnected ensemble of black theater aficionados together under one roof. He was determined to make it happen.
In 1979, a 31-year-old Larry Leon established the N.C. Black Rep, which was the first local black theater organization in North Carolina. Ten years later, with the backing of Dr. Maya Angelou, he debuted the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem. It has been held in Winston-Salem every odd year since 1989 and continues to attract a cross section of artists from Academy Award winners to thespians plying their trade in community theaters across the U.S. and across the seas.
The National Black Theatre Festival is truly one of a kind, founded by a man who also was one of a kind. His single-word description of something that was both marvelous and fantastic – “MARVTASTIC!” – became his personal trademark and has lived on in spite of Larry Leon’s untimely death in 2007.
The city, region, state and Southeast are all beneficiaries of Larry Leon’s vision. He conceived the festival, breathed life into it through its infancy despite very little local support early on, and built it into an “International Celebration and Reunion of Spirit.”
This year’s festival includes about 30 professional repertory companies from across the U.S., United Kingdom and Africa who will conduct about 125 performances over the six days.
The festival continues to grow. I tip my hat to Larry Leon’s hard-working widow, Sylvia, who has been steadfast in keeping Larry Leon’s dream alive. She will be the first to admit, however, that she has been blessed to be surrounded by so many persons – salaried and volunteer – who work together to make the event happen every two years.
Two such dedicated persons are the focus of this month’s cover story – Patrice Toney and Luellen Curry, the co-coordinators of all volunteers. Combined, they have more than 50 years of festival volunteer experience though both somehow remain energetic, enthusiastic and spry. Their excellent organizational skills – along with those of 45 assistant volunteer coordinators – will be counted on as more than 1,000 volunteers will be utilized in various capacities at this year’s festival.
We hope everyone comes out to participate in the revelry, purchase tickets to see the plays, and make our tens of thousands of guests feel extremely welcome to the City of Arts and Innovation and the city celebrates 40 years of the N.C. Black Rep and 30 years of the NBTF.
Let’s all make this another MARVTASTIC! experience for our city.