The 2017 National Black Theatre Festival started off with a bang on Monday night as more than 800 people gathered inside the newly renovated Benton Convention Center for NBTF Opening Night Gala.
Highlighted by an awards ceremony that honors some of the biggest and brightest names in the business for their contributions to theater, the star-studded event is always one of the most popular during the weeklong celebration of black art, and culture. The event also gives locals and tourists a chance to see stars they’ve seen on TV and on the big screen in person.
While watching stars like Louis Gossett Jr., Angela Robinson, Debbie Allen, and Andre De Shields, make their way inside William Herring was all smiles. Herring who has volunteered with the NBTF since 1989 said what he enjoys most about the bi-annual festival is the spirit that it brings to the city.
“Seeing the stars is always great but what is most important is the energy of all the people here. Everyone is like family and you get a good vibe from everyone here,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about. Just coming together and having a good time.”
Comedian Michael Colyar got things started with a few jokes to hold the audience over while they enjoyed their dinner. Colyar, a native of Chicago is most known as a stand-up comedian but he has also starred in movies such as “Hollywood Shuffle,” “Downtown,” and more recently “The Princess and the Frog.” Colyar, who made his NBTF debut earlier this week with a tribute performance to his mother titled “Michael Colyar’s Momma,” said, “This is a great event because there are so many writers, actors and other people that we have to support.”
Following the star-studded processional of stars led by African drummers and performers Otesha Creative Arts Ensemble celebrity co-chairs Anna Maria Horsford and Obba Babatunde welcomed festival goers to the 15th bi-annual event held right here in the City of the Arts. Both who are regulars at the festival said they were honored to serve as co-chairs and excited to see how the event has grown over the years.
“We are never celebrated like this anywhere so we thank you for that,” Horsford said.
While discussing the impact the festival has on the city every two years, Mayor Allen Joines said the event truly is one of the gems that makes Winston-Salem claim the moniker of the City of the Arts and Innovation. According to Joines and other elected officials the NBTF generates nearly 50 million dollars.
“We are so honored that we have turned our city purple and black,” he continued. “We want you to know that you are welcomed to our community and we wish you a very pleasant, enriching and Marvtastic time.”
After greetings from North Carolina Black Repertory Company executive director, Nigel Alston, artistic director Jackie Alexander, and NBTF executive producer Sylvia Sprinkle Hamlin the awards ceremony officially began. This year’s Special Recognition Awards were presented to Stephen Byrd, Alia Jones-Harvery, Corey Mitchell, Cleopatra Solomon, The Negro Ensemble Company and the late Walter Marshall.
After accepting his award Mitchell, a North Carolina native used his acceptance speech to inspire those in attendance to engage the younger generation of up and coming actors, producers, directors and writers. He said at a place in time when blacks are protesting in the streets, art can play a pivotal role in bringing change.
“Our voices must be heard. Our responsibility must be held up to young people to be artist and rebel,” said Mitchell. “The thing that can change our society is our art.”
The Living Legend Award was presented to Thelma Pollard, Mabel Robinson, Allie Woods and Ed Wheeler. Ron Himes was awarded the Larry Leon Hamlin Producer Award and Ron Simmons took home the Emerging Producer Award. The August Wilson Playwright Award was presented to Dominique Morisseau and Timothy Douglas was awarded the Lloyd Richards Director Award.
Other award winners were; Outstanding Achievement in Costume Design; Gregory Horton, Outstanding Achievement in Lighting Design; Antoinette Tynes, Outstanding Achievement in Scenic Design; Chris Cumberbatch, Outstanding Achievement in Stage Management; Ed De Sha, Theatre Longevity Award; Paul Robeson Theatre (NY), Marvtastic Philanthropy Award; Wells Fargo, Theatre Arts & Humanitarian Award; Wilbert T. Jenkins.
Top honors, the Sidney Poitier Lifelong Achievement Award was presented to Louis Gossett Jr.
Following the gala celebrity guests and other festival goers made their way to the Stevens Center to see the opening production of Five Guys Named Moe, an exuberant musical tribute written by Clarke Peters that celebrates “The King of the Jukebox” singer and bandleader, Louis Jordan. Before wrapping up the event, Sprinkle-Hamlin said the festival was more like a family reunion than anything else.
She said, “Over next six days you will see more than 140 theatrical performances from 35 outstanding black theatre companies coming from across the U.S., South Africa, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It’s a family reunion and this is going to be an awesome week.”
The National Black Theatre Festival is the international outreach program of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. The Festival was founded in 1989 by the late Larry Leon Hamlin. For more, information visit www.nbtf.org.
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