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Arts & Culture

National Black Theatre Festival In Crisis

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Now, from the page to the stage. The National Black Theatre Festival has been around for almost two decades. It's put on every other year in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and it's a renowned showcase for young, gifted and black playwrights. But the recent death of the festival's founder has thrown this year's event into turmoil.

For the latest, I talked with festival coordinator, Garland Lee Thompson.

Mr. GARLAND LEE THOMPSON (Festival Coordinator, National Black Theatre Festival): Larry Leon Hamlin, and that's H-A-M-L-I-N, he had a vision. And at this point now, the festival is in crisis because the Larry Leon Hamlin, who literally gave his life over for the last 18-plus years in developing this incredible experience, it's like, if a minister of a church makes the transition, there's always a crisis within that institution.

First time I was ever in Winston-Salem, even near this town, I met with him and his wife in their home, and he - they gave us his vision of bringing together the American black theatre movement together in a union every other year.

CORNISH: And what was the atmosphere for black playwrights at that time?

Mr. THOMPSON: It - we were in - as Larry Leon Hamlin was concerned that companies were dying one by one and we're being isolated having all kinds of internal, financial and administrative problems. So he was - we needed to come together to address many of these issues. So this was his original idea and his plan.

It took him four years to 1989 with the help of Dr. Maya Angelou, as his first national chair. She stepped up and was very, very powerful to - and brought in Oprah Winfrey, who is now a superstar in terms of television but she was also very powerful at that time, and actor - and no - and playwright August Wilson. They were the only two name awardees in the first festival in 1989.

So it took him four years to do it. And after that, it hit the wire service then became a slowly but international and national institution. That was his dream - to bring the family together. It's like a family reunion that happens every two years.

CORNISH: It's been almost 20 years now. Can you talk about what some of the challenges are for young black playwrights and what this festival provides them in overcoming those challenges?

Mr. THOMPSON: It's an opportunity and a launching pad for a lot of new writers to get their work read, and for them to hear it with professional actors, who are only here every two years, who give up their time and their energy to give these new writers a chance to be heard.

CORNISH: What role does the festival play for these artists?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely very critical. And this is of - one more time -Larry Leon Hamlin knew that companies who receive scripts and plays on a regular basis can after so many plays they all sound and look alike. But when coming to the festival so that a producer, he or she say, you know, is in a repertoire company in the southwest, in a different location in the country, could bring - could come and shop for new plays and come in here and possibly cut a deal or to develop a relationship with a new writer who would - that they - that their staff had heard. And then they could - that's how it would begin.

It's a way of getting - of actually it's like radio plus. It's a reading series. It's not a production. So they came to hear it and can make the decisions on what they heard and decide if something like that would work in their city and their community. That only happens every two years. That's why it's so important for - and new playwrights, if they have been presented in the readers' theatre series, can then put that on their resume and send that out to other producers and other developers, and things can start to occur then.

Without them, they are just out there trying, and desperately, to get a platform. It is a launching pad. It is still a serious crisis that we have to address. That we do not have many venues and - that are worthy, that can solve and give writers launching like the late Lloyd Richards did so much for August Wilson. Where are the new August Wilsons going to go? That's our question and our challenge in 2007, 2008.

CORNISH: Well, Mr. Thompson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you.

CORNISH: Garland Lee Thompson Sr. is the coordinator of the reader series of new plays for the National Black Theatre Festival. The festival is on now and will continue through August 4th in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.