The National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., is happening right now. It started July 31 and will run through August 5. It is a major theater reunion for anyone who is a lover of Black theater. It is an opportunity to participate in play readings, attend workshops, go to international colloquiums, experience the International Vendors Markets, attend daily noon-time press conferences and attend more than 140 productions. This event, which happens every two years, not only showcases Black theater but also honors our people in remarkable ways. This year the festival has a brand-new artistic director and that is the one and only playwright, former artist in resident and former artistic director at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn and now the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, Jackie Alexander. Alexander recently took time during his hectic schedule to speak about how he came to the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, his role there and now his first time as the artistic director of this beloved event.
AmNews: How did you come to be involved with North Carolina Black Repertory Company, tell me of your journey, starting out with the Billie Holiday Theatre as a playwright, then a playwright in residence and going to North Carolina?
Alexander: I got a call in December 2015 telling me that Ms. Mabel Robinson would be stepping down as artistic director and asking if I would be interested in the position. Of course I was! I had started out as an actor, transitioned to writing and directing, and with the support of Marjorie Moon become artistic director of the Billie Holiday Theatre. I should also mention that Marjorie’s responsible for just about everything good that’s happened in my theater career. But I never dreamed an opportunity such as this would present itself.
AmNews: What are your duties at the Company?
Alexander: The creative vision of the company (what type of work/programs we have), developing new works, theatrical/community/corporate partnerships, overseeing marketing/online materials, ticketing systems. We’re a small staff, so a bit of everything.
AmNews: What was your greatest challenge when you began to plan your first Festival?
Alexander: I think the biggest challenge for everyone is the logistics of the event. I knew how complicated it was to produce one show. The festival produces 34, plus a host of other events, somewhere in the neighborhood of 140 performances over five days. It’s hard to wrap your head around. I’m sure it will take a few festivals to grasp everything.
AmNews: What does it mean to you to be in charge of the greatest Black theater event that happens every other year?
Alexander: I am by no means in charge, but to play the role I have is an incredible honor. The theater’s founder, Larry Leon Hamlin, created something special with the NBTF, and it’s mind boggling to me that I was chosen as its artistic director.
AmNews: What made you decide to bring on a new component with the health fair and talkbacks with people from the medical field?
Alexander: The theme of our 2016-2017 season was “The Comfort of Faith.” The productions all examined how faith plays a role in one’s life when confronted by illness. Winston-Salem has a large faith-based community, and I wanted to reach out to them. The three shows dealt with breast cancer, ALS and Alzheimer’s. We had talkbacks during those productions and the response was overwhelming. I realized the community had so many questions about health issues that face our community and many times didn’t know who to turn to. I saw the Health Fair as an opportunity to not only entertain our audiences but also to serve and educate them.
AmNews: What is your goal for the NBTF moving forward?
Alexander: To increase commercial opportunities for writers whose work is performed at the festival and networking opportunities for artists who attend the festival. Another new event at this year’s festival is my inaugural Artistic Director Meet and Greet. Broadway Producer Stephen Byrd will be my guest, and the goal is to connect writers with directors, producers and artistic directors from around the country in hopes that productions have a life at other theaters following the festival.