News Column

The festival is off to a celebratory start

July 30, 2013


July 30--Celebrities, organizers and festival-goers gathered Monday afternoon to discuss the start of the National Black Theatre Festival and celebrate the legacy of founder Larry Leon Hamlin.

Before a noon press conference, crowds milled about, talking excitedly, reuniting and sharing recommendations for shows to see at the festival, which is now underway at various venues in Winston-Salem.

Many of those onstage wore Hamlin's trademark purple and described the festival as "black theater holy ground."

Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, the president of the festival's board of directors, received the first of several standing ovations as she took to the podium to talk about her late husband. "We are so excited that you are here," she told the crowd. "We open the doors of hospitality, because, you know, Winston-Salem is known for its hospitality."

The speakers included celebrities who are performing or producing plays at the festival, among them Rain Pryor, Kim Coles, S. Epatha Merkerson, Ted Lange and many others.

"I'm a man of few words," Dorien Wilson, one of this year's celebrity co-chairs, said before pretending to turn and leave the podium. Then after a laugh from the audience, he turned back and talked about the talent on the display at the festival.

Debbi Morgan described coming to festival as having been the No. 1 item on her "bucket list."

"We are black by popular demand," Andre De Shields said of bringing his production of "Knock Me a Kiss" back to the festival after soldout performances at the 2011 festival, before leading the audience in a rendition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Other musical moments during the press conference included a song by singers from the musical "Crowns" and an excerpt from "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher," by Chester Gregory, who is following up on his successful 2001 turn as singer Jackie Wilson with a new production in which he again plays the famous singer.

Gregory also talked about the power of belief before promising to spend the rest of the day texting and not talking so he could save his voice for his forthcoming performances of "The Eve of Jackie: A Tribute to Jackie Wilson," which he described as a 16-song marathon.

Tonya Pinkins, the festival's other celebrity co-chair, thanked the audience for their reception and spoke of the value of stage performance.

"We are here celebrating the vocation that I have given my life to," she said. "We as artists, writers, directors, we are gifted with being able to change people's lives."

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