During my 32 years as a theater critic I have often proclaimed that “Theater is a gift from God,” because when done well, it allows an audience for 2½ hours to escape their reality and buy into the reality that is being presented on stage. You can leave your worries and thoughts behind and just put yourself in this temporary world where you can be entertained, enlightened, educated and inspired. Theater is something that I absolutely love and because of that I so appreciate Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and its mission of connecting, assisting, and sustaining theater in the United States. I appreciate the advocacy work it does for professional non-profit theaters advocating for funding on the federal level. I think it is amazing that this organization keeps track of the pulse of what’s happening in the government in relation to issues that connect directly to theaters, their funding, the new regulations and they keep theater companies aware of what’s going on. BRAVO to TCG! Its slogan is it’s “A Better World Because of Theatre,” and I completely agree. TCG connects with, and does research and activism for theaters nationwide. They publish books by new writers, they do grant writing and professional development. Every aspect of theater that is vital for it to continue is addressed by this incredible non-profit organization. This year at the annual GALA in early Feb., TCG honored the National Black Theatre Festival and Playwright David Henry Hwang.
The event which celebrated TCG’s Arts Advocacy for the Field was held at the Edison Ballroom and it was amazing! Of course, the National Black Theatre Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2019. Held in Winston Salem, North Carolina, it began in 1989 and was the brainchild of the late Larry Leon Hamlin, the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. The National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) is a well-known, loved, respected and anticipated Black Theatre Family Reunion. It is a chance to hear new works; see classic works; be part of Midnight play readings; experience collegiate theater; go to the noon day press conference to hear what is on the agenda for each day’s activities and shows; go to panels and workshops where Black theater issues are spotlighted; enjoy an international vendors market and you can go to numerous productions over the course of the 5 days in which the festival is held. This is a place where theater-lovers get to see and mingle with acting royalty as well as newcomers get their chance to shine. The NBTF is a necessary event, which has considerably contributed to the longevity and sustainability of Black theater in this country. It was wonderful that TCG recognized and honored its achievement.
Co-chairs of the Gala, Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey, the only Black lead Broadway producers, presented the award to NBTF. Jackie Alexander, who is now the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, which produces NBTF was on hand to receive the honor, along with Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, president of the board of directors of North Carolina Black Repertory Company and executive producer of the NBTF.
Actor James Jackson Jr. sang “The Memory Song” from “A Strange Loop” in a tribute to the NBTF. A preview was shown of piece of an upcoming documentary film by Karamuu that focuses on the NBTF. In the documentary numerous legendary artists are interviewed including Phylicia Rashad, Savion Glover, Leslie Uggams, Ebony Jo-Ann, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Ron Simon, Harold Wheeler, Oprah Winfrey and many more. Actress Nambi E. Kelley talked to the audience about what NBTF is about and read “Alone,” a piece Dr. Maya Angelou wrote about the festival. Sprinkle-Hamlin accepted the honor thanking TCG and stating, “I am really touched. We lost my husband in 2007 and I wanted to continue all his hard work. The next Festival will be Aug. 2-7, 2021.” Jackie Alexander shared, “Birthed by a King and sustained by a Queen. (To which the room broke into applause and shouts). The arts really pull us together as a people. Engaging in the arts is crucial to the survival of humanity. Winston Salem is Black theater holy ground.”
Another event co-chair Oskar Eustis, artistic director for the Public Theatre presented the award to David Henry Hwang, who has been writing plays about the racism faced by Asian Americans in this country for 40 years and got his start at the Public Theatre under Joseph Papp. Eustis, who has worked with David and producing his plays for 30 years remarked, “David is a political activist. The clarity of his mind, the fact that he can write things so personal, he’s psychologically and politically important.”
Hwang thanked TCG for the honor and wanted to recognize his fellow artists. He declared, “People that look like us can be writers, directors, actors and producers.” Since his work was first done at the Public Theatre due to a Yellow Protest––where Asian Americans picketed outside the theatre because a production that called for an Asian actor cast a white actor in the role––he thanked the Asians that took part in that protest. He also thanked his wife Catherine for supporting his work. Encouraging upcoming writers Hwang said, “Today there is a whole new generation of artists. They will become the new mainstream because their stories are our stories.”
During the evening there were also marvelous performances by Billy Bustamante and Alyse Alan Louis from some of Hwang’s work. It was such an amazing evening. Because TCG is non-profit, an auction fundraiser was also held and thousands of dollars was raised. The work that TCG does for professional non-profit theatres in this country is vital. If you want to find out how you can help visit www.tcg.org.