Opening Night at the first DC Black Theatre Festival

The first ever D.C. Black Theatre Festival opened with a sparkling gala event at Howard University Crampton Auditorium Saturday night, July 31st, complete with movie stars, red carpet, and pizzazz.   Despite limited media attention, word got out to the faithful and they packed the auditorium, dressed to the nines in colorful regalia and flair to support the inaugural occasion.   Having bonafide movie stars in the cast of Black Angels Over Tuskegee helped the cause which became more celebratory as the reception ended and the show began.  And what a show it was.

First of all, the Festival’s Executive Director Glenn Alan made opening remarks, thanked the organizers and welcomed the crowd.  He also introduced some of the masterminds behind the community groups who work with challenged youth and recently released inmates through artistic expression and brotherly attention.   From the beginning, the event took on the surreal glow of a dream come true for so many—local playwrights and directors were joined by others from all over the country who descended into the city.  In fact, one of the playwrights in the audience, Nana Malaya long-time cultural activist in the community, got a chance to see her son, television and film star Lamman Rucker perform in Black Angels Over Tuskegee, and we were all thrust into the heartfelt family affair.  It was a treasure.

Black Angels Over Tuskegee stars (sitting:) Demetrius Grosse, David Wendell Boykins, Derek Shaun, (standing) Thom Scott II, Lamman Rucker and Layon Gray (Photo: Alexandria Marlin)

Based on a true story, Black Angels Over Tuskegee told about six pilots who trained as the first black airmen in the armed service.  The achievements and success of these dedicated fighter pilots in the midst of segregation and Jim Crow were beyond laudatory.  Rather than be a history lesson about their exploits, the script delves into their lives, sharing their stories while waiting to see who will be accepted for aviator training in the U.S. Army Airforce at Tuskegee.

When they all make the grade, they appear in the second act in uniform, and we all feel pride in their well-earned achievement, only to discover the continued slights that they are subjected to.  They struggle to meet the highest standards to be a ”credit to their race” and fight for their country, thus negating “findings” of a Congressional study on the “Negro Soldier,” concluding that “he was lazy, had a small brain, there is no way possible that he could learn to do high-tech work especially fly a plane.”   Another scene describes how black soldiers were escorted off of a train in Mississippi to sit in the back while white prisoners of war took their place.  But they prevailed.  The powerful story is narrated by a mysterious man who has first hand knowledge of the events but only when everything unfolds at the end is his identity fully revealed and the impact of legacy hits home for a powerful, gut-wrenching conclusion.

This is the same cast and production which opened Off Broadway in January, and, due to popular demand, has transferred to the Actor’s Temple. Playwright/director Layon Gray, a true triple threat in this show,  shared the stage with  Demetrius Grosse, David Wendell Boykins, Derek Shaun, Thom Scott II and Lamman Rucker. All cast members were powerfully committed to their roles and beautifully portrayed the crests and falls of their characters’ individual journeys. For the DC Black Theatre Festival to have snagged this elite ensemble for its opening production attests to its audacity to make dreams happen.

Such an auspicious beginning for the Festival signifies a blast of fresh new voices, and an almost palpable excitement in the city.  The executive board hopes the spread the motto “I was there when the D.C. Black Theatre Festival changed the way theatre was done.” We can only hope that’s the case.

The first full day of the events on Sunday had more hits than misses with, according to the organizers,  successful shows at Joe’s Movement Emporium, the Atlas Theater Lab (Sprenger Theatre), and Dance Place, also known as the Beah Richards, Lloyd Richards, and Josephine Baker Stages – all of the venues have been “renamed” for the Festival, invoking the lives of theatre legends, a masterful way of including the elders into the mix.  Check out the website for the incredible photos, including, of course, August Wilson. (His stage is Lab II at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.)

Stunning images aside, there was an unfortunate cancellation of one of the most anticipated shows due to a venue scheduling mishap.  Odell Ruffin developed his successful one-man show, Tupac Tales while a student at Howard University, and car-loads of young black men, some traveling for hours from outside of the metro area, gathered at the “Paul Robeseon Theatre” (Mount Vernon) only to be turned away.  What kept the incident from being heartbreaking is that it affirmed the power of artistic expression among the often disengaged, sometimes vulnerable segments who came on faith in the power of the word. Ruffin, who bares a striking resemblance to Tupac Shakur, will be performing an abridged version of his piece Thursday, Aug 5th at 10pm as part of the festival’s week-long one act competition.

The Festival offers a wide array of theatrical programs including after-parties, workshops, monologue competitions, and a first ever One-Act Battle—a nightly one-act competition that concludes Friday night with the Championship Round, with winners being designated the “best of the best.”  Ticket holders of any canceled events are assured a refund or an exchange to see any other performance, and with over 100 scheduled events throughout the week, full restitution is assured one way or another. With so many events occurring throughout the city, there is truly something for everyone, and the possibility of catching a hot new act, and say, “I was there…”

The DC Black Theatre Festival runs Aug 1 – 8 throughout Washington, DC. Details are here.
Black Angels Over Tuskegee
is scheduled to run thru Sept 7 at the Actors Temple Theatre, 339 W 47th St, NYC.  Buy tickets here.

Comments

  1. Debbie! Thanks so much for covering this. The unfortunate part of the festival, and I know that this is the inaugural year and that there are many kinks to be ironed out, is that I’m a participant and have no clue on some of the details of the festival including the monologue competition. The website, which is poorly designed, doesn’t include info on it either. Do you have details? Maybe the team that I’m working with hasn’t relayed such information, but I haven’t received any details on the REST of the festival besides what little is on the website.

  2. Paula Y. Bickham says:

    I am excited about the shows I will be seeing.  I hope this Festival is a thing that happens year, after year, after year, and at prices many will be able to afford.  There are so many talented people in the DC metroplex that it is amazing. yet so many don’t get showcased as they should.  This being another theatre festival will expose some more talent out there.  And yes, please keep the elders in the mix!!  “Young this”, and “Young that” gets tiring. 

    I do hope I can pick up an inaugural T-shirt along the way as a cool reminder.

  3. Jeri Green says:

    I attended several events related to the festival.  Kinks aside, it was phenomenal.  Kudos to every single actor, director, producer, lighting and staging expert and to Glenn and his team for having the passion and vision to do the damn thing.  Fabulous

  4. Paula Y. Bickham says:

    Well, I got me a T-Shirt, by golly!  I did get to see one show – “Boot Prints”.  Miss Engram was the story teller who acted out three different characters: Gmama, Myeshia, and Gingel.  She did this so admirably that I found myself saying “I wish I could do that.”  She differentiated all three characters without confusing the audience.  Every voice in that chorus was rich, resonating, and beautiful.  It was a wee bit long, so if there are any cuts in it please keep the colors pink and grey.  Those two colors tended to break some of the monotony.  There were glitches in my seeing this show – something about the box office not having a reservation list, confusion about the cost of T-shirts, and this show starting almost 40 minutes late.  BUT I had to think INAUGURAL, and hope these glitches will not be repeated next year.  Before the show started a man named Glen came out and apologized for the lateness.  He was very warm and friendly.  I thought I heard him say that out of all of the productions every last one had sold out with the exception of two, and that tickets sold like hot cakes the minute the selling went into effect.  This was great!!  I also thought I heard him say something about moving the DC Black Theatre Festival to Baltimore?  I hope maybe my hearing was a bit loopy.  I even got a bit jealous.  Let Baltimore and those other cities come to US!!  They will be more than welcome.

    I wished I could have done more shows, but I think my old computer had a few glitches of her own in terms of accessing the DCBTF website. 
    Never got to see “Ivory for Ebony”.  My guess is that the thing got canceled.  I don’t know.  I showed up at the Warehouse for the 4pm show today only to see that “Purple Heart” was playing.  I didn’t see it.  I was confused and went home.  Anyway I just know things’ll be better next year, and stuff will be ironed out.  This is so exciting!!   

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