- Andrew Alexander For the AJC
With comedies and classics, musicals and dramas, kids’ shows and one-man performances, the sixth annual Atlanta Black Theatre Festival will seek to deliver on its catchphrase promise of “40 plays in four days.”
Producing director Toni Simmons Henson founded the festival in 2012 because she believed there was an under-served market in Atlanta. The festival has grown steadily over the past six years, attracting 3,500 theater-goers in 2016. organizers hope to top 4,000 this year.
“It’s getting easier and it’s also getting a lot harder,” says Henson of the play selection process. “The reputation around the country is growing and people know about us, so we get a lot of submissions. Each year they’re better quality. We’re attracting folks that are really good at what they do.”
A new production of Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “A Soldier’s Play” starring T.C. Carson, who played Kyle Barker in the hit 1990s sitcom “Living Single,” will occupy the festival’s prime spot on the mainstage Friday night. The play dramatizes an investigation into the murder of a black soldier killed while returning to his base in the Deep South during World War II.
“It’s a perfect time for the play,” says director Chris Scott. “We are debuting it at the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival because it’s a time when we’re able to honor the contributions of black writers, producers and performers. Charles Fuller wrote a beautiful piece of literature, and we just want a new generation to experience his work.”
Another mainstage production is Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed.” Produced by the Star Theater of Gainesville, Fla., it follows the stories of five women during the upheaval of civil war in Liberia. The original production made history in 2016 when it became the first play with an all-black, female cast and creative team to premiere on Broadway.
Atlanta’s New African Grove Theatre will present Gus Edwards’ classic romantic comedy focusing on the domestic ups and downs of an African-American couple living in New York, “Louie and Ophelia.” Other festival highlights include “Tongues That Move to Ears That Eat,” a compendium of monologues by Macon-based playwright Winisphere Jones; Atlanta-based playwright Nykieria Chaney’s production of her biographical drama about the life of writer Zora Neal Hurston, “Zora! Let The People Sing!”; the gospel musical “Daughters of the King” from She Reigns Ministries of Charlotte, N.C.,; and the children’s play “Black Girls (Can) Fly” from Chicago’s Sydney Chatman about a 10-year-old girl dealing with violence in her Chicago neighborhood.
The festival culminates with an award ceremony honoring Doris Derby, Atlanta-based documentary photographer and retired Georgia State University professor. The ceremony honors Derby’s work as the founder of the New Freedom Theatre, an advocacy troupe that traveled the South in the 1960s to help inform people about their voting rights. The event will include a video montage of Derby’s life and a celebratory reception afterwards.
There are currently three major festivals in the country focused on African-American theater. The largest and oldest, the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., was created in the 1980s and takes place every two years. The D.C. Black Theatre Festival of Washington, D.C., is an annual, 10-day event.
Henson says that in its six-year history, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival has spotlighted the work of more than 100 emerging playwrights and 1,300 performing artists.
“There’s just so much great work out there that’s not getting produced,” she says. “To be able to open this platform for emerging playwrights is just a joy.
“Theatre gives people an opportunity to process,” says Henson. ”The beautiful thing about art is that it always reflects society. It comes from the pain or pleasure of people who have lived it and experienced it.”