My first National Black Theatre Festival

I just got back in town from the National Black Theatre Festival where I saw five shows in three days. (There were more than 40 to choose from.) Thousands of people flocked to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the 30th annual event, which features theater made about black people, with black people, for black people.

I was there with the American Theatre Critics Association for our annual conference. Here’s a breakdown of what I did:

  • ATCA hosted two panel discussions, one where we had an opportunity to hear from the festival founders and the directors of the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre, which hosts the festival, and the other with the artistic directors of three black theater companies.
  • I facilitated two theater criticism writing workshops.
  • The International Vendors Market took all of my money– so much beautiful art and pretty African clothing!
  • Speaking of shopping, I went antiquing in Winston-Salem and found a sterling silver tea set.
  • I ate at Yamas, Washington Perk, Mayberry’s Ice Cream, Canteen Market, and Biscuitville. It was all local and delicious. (other meals were provided by the CVB or the conference)
  • I saw three musicals and two plays:
    • Soul Man – musical revue from Westcoast Black Repertory Theatre connecting the dances of the 40s and 50s to hip hop
    • Anne & Emmett – YA play about Anne Frank and Emmett Till meeting in a purgatory-like place called Memory and sharing their stories with each other
    • Jelly’s Last Jam – jukebox musical about jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton and his vices (read: women)
    • Canfield Drive – play from St. Louis Black Rep about two reporters covering the Mike Brown shooting in Ferguson
    • Natural Woman: An Aretha Story – Young Aretha and Old Aretha fill the pages of the Queen of Soul’s diary while connecting her songs to significant events in her life

What stood out to me the most is that all of these predominantly white cultural institutions always whine about how they don’t program as much black theater because black people don’t support the arts. I have heard this many times as an arts journalist. But, that is untrue. People paid $40+ per ticket and every show I attended I had a mostly full audience in spaces that sat between of 100 and 1,000 people.

It was so refreshing to spend a few days sitting next to audiences full of people who look like me experiencing art that showcases us. As a critic I am in the theater a lot and this rarely happens. South African photographer Zanele Muholi says that we must attach images to freedom and there’s no way you can leave NBTF with the shackles you came there with. For that, I am grateful.

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