On Friday, April 30 and Saturday, May 1, Loud ‘N Unchained aired the Black Theater Festival on their website, which displayed original performances from a diverse group of black entertainers. The festival consisted of a drag performance, monologues, spoken word, one person shows, a play reading and a full-length play.
“This festival means the world to me,” said T. S. Banks, festival creator. “Not because we had to endure so much to put it on, but I just wanted a space, a container to celebrate us. To show us just how magnificent we are, how beautiful we are, how talented we are, how important our stories are, how important it is for us to survive,” he continued.
The shows are free to everyone and are still being hosted on the Black Theater Festival website for people who were not able to see them on the weekend of May 1. The festival, which was founded by T. S. Banks, Doug Reed, Janine Gardner and Dana Pellebon, is the sixth black theater festival to air in the United States. But that is not the only thing about the festival which is breaking ground. It showcases and celebrates artistic expression from individuals in the black community who are also trans, queer and disabled. The festival is also intergenerational, with the youngest member being a 15-year-old poet.
Originally, the festival was going to air in March 2020, but unfortunately, COVID-19 had other plans. “This was a project that was happening back in 2019 but it was put on hold due to COVID. And then (Madison College theater instructor) Miranda Hawk contacted me to see how we could partner to do something this year, and I brought this project back to life with the sponsorship of Madison College. So, we are so grateful for their belief in what it is we are doing and they’re generous donations,” said Dana Pellebon.
The Black theater festival came a long way since T. S. Banks first had the idea to contact Doug Reed at Broom Street Theater about a few plays that he wanted to put on. After talking to some Madison friends, T.S. Banks decided that he wanted to showcase a whole array of work by black artists whose voices often get sidelined. Reed connected T. S. Banks with Pellebon and Gardener, who were both excited to be a part of the project.
Originally, the team received 75 submissions from all over the country and planned for the festival to last three weeks before businesses and entertainment venues started shutting down. After Madison College teamed up with Broom Street Theater and T. S. Banks, the artists were contacted to see if they would still be willing to participate in the festival virtually, to which they agreed. The shows were then pre-recorded at Hinckley Studios in Madison. “Hinckley productions really took care to be respectful, and when your identities are respected and not being misgendered and not having to deal with anti-blackness onset, was also something that was incredible,” explained T. S. Banks.
Having the festival pushed into the following year isn’t the only way that COVID-19 caused challenges for the crew. There was a mass effort on everyone’s part to make sure everything was done safely and timely – from detailed post-production work to performing under COVID-19 guidelines.
“These things are very important because we know that black folks in particular have been disproportionately affected by COVID. So, it was important for us to make sure it was an environment where Black artists not only felt represented but felt safe,” said Pellebon.
Even though the festival ended up being a two-day affair, T. S. Banks has high hopes for what the future has in store. “Oh, this is not a one-time event. No, no, no, no. This will most definitely be a recurring, I’m hoping annual, event. The outpouring to see this representation and to see the stories has been overwhelming, and I don’t think that it would be of service to the black community here, the black arts community here, to just put it on once. So, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that we are funded and can go forth with as many festivals as possible,” he said.
To watch the performances online and to learn more about the founders and performers, go to blacktheaterfestival.com. You can also leave tips if you wish under the performers via cash apps, Venmo or PayPal.
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