National Black Theatre Festival

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National Black Theatre Festival

Date Observed: Last week in July during odd-numbered years
Location: Winston-Salem, North Carolina

The National Black Theatre Festival celebrates stage productions by, for, and about African Americans. More than 100 productions are staged during the biennial week-long festival, which also offers a wide variety of theater-related programs and workshops.

Historical Background

In the late 1700s, the earliest days of American theatrical performances, African Americans had few opportunities to perform on stage. The roles that did exist were minor parts in plays written and produced by whites. These were often stereotypical portrayals of African Americans that disregarded the true experiences of most people. African-American characters were clownish, servile, unintelligent, and usually only present for comic relief. During this time, there was no real chance for an African-American play to be produced.

The first African-American theater company was formed in 1821. Called the African Grove Theater, it was founded by members of New York City's free African-American community. The first plays staged there were works by Shakespeare. The first play written and produced by an African American was performed there in 1823. It was a work by Henry Brown titled The Drama of King Shotaway. Performances were fairly wellattended, although the theater was raided several times by police due to disturbances between white and African-American audience members. The theater was nearly destroyed in one of these raids, and it closed later that same year. Many of the African Grove actors went on to perform plays in rented locations throughout New York City.

The era of African-American minstrels began around the 1850s, although minstrels did not become truly established as stage performers until after the Civil War. Minstrels were limited in what they could perform, and minstrel shows portrayed mostly negative stereotypes of African Americans. In the late 1800s, African-American performers wanted to present a more accurate representation of African-American characters, and new productions began to appear. Musicals written, produced, and performed by African Americans gained popularity, and by the 1920s, African Americans were staging many successful productions each year. But in general, African Americans were still not allowed on the stages of white America.

In the vaudeville era of the 1920s, African Americans created a thriving circuit of traveling performers within the African-American community. African-American singers, dancers, and comedians became so popular that some were eventually able to perform on mainstream stages in white vaudeville revues. During this time, many AfricanAmerican performers achieved great success in Europe, where audiences were generally not as fixated on the race of talented performers.

The 1930s saw a rise in the popularity of African-American musicals, with Porgy and Bess becoming the biggest all-African-American production of the decade. All theater productions in America declined during the 1940s and 1950s, due first to World War II and then the invention of television. African-American musicals were still being staged during this time, but theater attendance was down and roles were scarce for everyone. Renewed interest in African-American theater began in 1961. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, African-American musicals, dramas, and comedic plays were produced regularly, many running for hundreds of performances. However, the contributions and talents of African-American theater professionals were still largely unrecognized by the mainstream theater world.

Creation of the Festival

In 1989 Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the North Carolina Black Repertory Theater, created the National Black Theatre Festival in an attempt to develop a sense of community among African-American theater companies. At that time, many companies were financially challenged, somewhat isolated, and geographically scattered throughout the U.S. The festival was intended to build an environment in which African-American theater professionals and aspiring amateurs could create relationships that would ultimately ensure the survival and continued success of African-American theater. By providing increased visibility and performance opportunities for established theater companies as well as newer groups, the festival gave African-American writers, directors, producers, and actors much-needed exposure.

In creating the first National Black Theatre Festival, organizers sought the involvement of such celebrities as Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, and Maya Angelou, who was the festival's first chairperson. The involvement of such well-known personalities drew substantial attention to the festival, as well as national and international media coverage. More than 10,000 people attended 30 performances staged by 17 professional AfricanAmerican theater companies.

It is difficult to clearly define what is classified as African-American theater today. The concept includes plays written and produced by African Americans, starring AfricanAmerican actors, focusing on African-American stories, or staged within the AfricanAmerican community. Festival organizers use somewhat loosely defined criteria in selecting productions for each festival, and each festival is distinctly unique. For this reason, the festival has been called one of the most historic and culturally significant events in the history of African-American theater and American theater in general. The National Black Theatre Festival has grown larger each time it has been held.


Held during odd-numbered years (for example, 2005, 2007, etc.), the festival attracts more than 60,000 people. Productions are staged in theaters, community centers, and university campus facilities all over Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Various non-theatrical events are also held as part of each festival, such as a formal opening night gala and an international vendors market. Readings and recitations are presented along with seminars and workshops for aspiring writers, directors, producers, and actors. In addition to more traditional stage plays, the festival also spotlights spoken word and poetry performances. These are supplemented with nightly poetry jams in which anyone can participate. Theater professionals and amateurs find many opportunities for networking during scheduled programs or at social receptions held each night. In 1999, the festival introduced its Fringe program, which was intended to provide a showcase for college and university theater programs.

Contact and Web Site

610 Coliseum Dr., Ste. 1 Winston-Salem, NC 27106 336-723-2266

Further Reading

Burger, Mark. "Behind the Scenes: Technical Crew Prepares Path for the National Black Theater Festival." Winston-Salem Journal, July 31, 2005. Demaline, Jackie. "Black Theater Festival Organizers Aim Higher." Cincinnati En- quirer , August 19, 2001. theater.html. Dewan, Shaila. "A Six-Day Bash Celebrates Black Theater." New York Times, August 6, 2005. Lehman, Jeffrey, ed. The African American Almanac. 9th ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. Weber, Bruce. "Black Theater: Beyond Definition." New York Times, August 8, 2003.
African-American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2007
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