National Black Theatre Festival vows to stick with host town Winston-Salem

When you hear about the big-name celebrities and tens of thousands of people who attend the National Black Theatre Festival, you might expect that it takes place in New York or Los Angeles.

But its feet are firmly planted on "black theater holy ground," as organizers call it, in Winston-Salem.

And why not?

The people of Winston-Salem have embraced the festival since its launch in 1989, organizers say, and folks who come to town for the event have, in turn, embraced the city.

"We'll be here as long as our community and the city and the people are coming here, as long as they are interested," said Mabel Robinson, festival artistic director.

This year's biennial festival, which runs Monday through Saturday, faced economic challenges, but survived thanks to a National Endowment for the Arts grant and the artists themselves.

Among the artists gathering this week is Phylicia Rashad, who played Claire Huxtable on "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s and has had a booming Broadway career. At the festival, she stars in "Charleston Olio," a love story set in pre-World War I Charleston that showcases the era's emerging black music.

Also lending star power are festival co-chairs T'Keyah Crystal Keymáh and Lamman Rucker. Keymáh is active in several theatrical companies and has appeared in "Cosby" and "That's So Raven." Rucker plays Will in Tyler Perry's "Meet the Browns" sitcom and appeared in the films "Why Did I Get Married?" and "Why Did I Get Married Too?"

The festival's real stars are the productions - more than 120 spread across Winston-Salem. The performances range from drama to comedy, musicals to dramatic readings, and cover topics current and ancient.

If you enjoy history, try "All American Girls: A Negro League of Their Own," a drama based on the story of a black women's baseball team in the 1940s, or "Knock Me a Kiss," starring Andre DeShields as W.E.B. DuBois in a fictional story set during the Harlem Renaissance.

For more current flavor, there's "Voices of Haiti: A Post-Quake Odyssey in Verse," which weaves together poetry, music and photography. "Four Queens-No Trump," written by "The Love Boat" actor Ted Lange, tells the story of modern black womanhood through friends who play the card game Bid Whist, while "'Da Kink in My Hair" invites the audience into the lives of women in a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto.

The festival also has an academic component with workshops, readings and an international colloquium: "Black Theater and the Critical Canon: A Call to the Culture Bearers."

Inspiring the next generation is a big part of the festival. Events such as the National Youth Talent Showcase and a collegiate play-reading marathon shift the spotlight to young artists, and the festival's "TeenTastic" events aim to speak to young people through theater, with a hip-hop twist.

"There's nothing like live theater," Robinson said, "and theater is such a fantastic forum to teach, to entertain. ..."