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.
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.