Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre’s 44th anniversary celebration was fabulous! It was a great Black theater family reunion held at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center at 199 Chambers St. this past Sunday.
Everyone was there. Danny Glover, Debbi Morgan and Robert Townsend hosted the evening, which paid tribute to iconic producer and innovator Voza Rivers, founding member of the New Heritage Repertory Theatre. The theater, celebrating 50 years, is also the home of IMPACT Repertory Theatre, a youth component.
Rivers has done a great deal for Black theater, using New Heritage as a vehicle to bring South African works like “Sarafina!” and “Woza Albert!” to the U.S. Rivers has also collaborated with local New York-based Black theaters, including New Federal Theatre and Take Wing and Soar Productions.
A video interview with Rivers and people who have worked with him illustrated the theatrical journey he has travelled, and the tribute depicted Rivers as a visionary of the arts. Artists who were on hand to pay tribute included Broadway star and South African singer Tsidii Le Loka, singer Chuck Jackson, singer-songwriter Valerie Simpson and 21 young people from IMPACT Repertory Theatre, along with Morgan, an actress, author and playwright.
Rivers was praised by actress Phyllis Yvonne Stickney and received proclamations acknowledging what he has done for the Harlem community from Rep. Charles Rangel and Councilwoman Inez Dickens.
Debra Ann Byrd of Take Wing and Soar Productions was thrilled to be there to support Rivers. “Thank you, Voza, for all the support you have given to Take Wing and Soar and the collaborations we’ve done,” she said.
Glover was there for both New Federal’s 44th anniversary and for Rivers because he believes in what the theaters do, and he realizes that both theater companies tell our stories in meaningful and powerful ways. Other celebrities who enjoyed the evening were actor Frankie Faison, actress Leslie Uggams, Dan Friedman of the Castillo Theatre, director Billie Allen, playwright Joyce Sylvester, playwright Ed Bullins, actor Ralph Carter, Rome Neal of the Nuyorican Poets Café, actress-director Trezana Beverly and many other members of the Black theater family.
The evening was very comical at times, especially due to Townsend, who was quick with the jokes and getting Rivers, King, Rangel and Jamal Joseph of IMPACT Repertory Theatre to come to the stage and be backup dancers for Chuck Jackson as he sang “Any Day Now.” Townsend succeeded in keeping the audience in stitches.
Simpson gave the audience a trip down memory lane and let us be her backup singers as she performed songs in tribute to Rivers, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand” and “You’re All I Need to Get By.”
The 44th anniversary was truly an event to remember and cherish. Rivers’ passion for theater—to create it, nurture it and bring it from abroad—was obvious and exciting. The evening ended with a moving tribute to Rivers as the IMPACT Repertory Theatre youth sang “It’s a Long Walk to Freedom.”