A few years ago, D.C. playwright Glenn Alan was watching a television program about black theater when he heard a clip from Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the National Black Theatre Festival, criticizing the quality of shows by Tyler Perry, an impresario of urban theater who had risen to fame by producing urban and gospel stage productions and movies that played to sold-out audiences.
Hamlin, the artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, who died in 2007, was quoted saying that he might never invite Perry to the national festival. That gathering, which is held on alternate years in Winston-Salem, N.C., has been called the “holy ground” of black theater, attracting trained theater professionals and drawing celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, August Wilson, Denzel Washington and Ruby Dee.
Perry countered: “I think traditional black theater is suffering because of comments like that one. What makes the people who go to your shows better than people who go to mine?”
“It’s insulting on so many levels, not just to me but to the millions of black hardworking folks who want to go out and have a good time. . . . If he is waiting for me in particularto raise the level of theater before I’m invited, I probably won’t get an invitation.”
Sitting in his Southeast Washington living room watching the program, Alan, who is also an actor, thought: “What a shame, because Tyler Perry has a story.”
The debate over the artistic merits of the various genres of black theater spurred Alan to create a festival in Washington that would include playwrights from all categories. “We wanted a festival that embraced both sides of the story — both urban and regional theater because of the importance of the story,” Alan said. “It is still our story. Urban theater might be told with humor versus August Wilson, who tells it with pain and seriousness. ”
The D.C. Black Theatre Festival, which began in 2010, has quickly grown. The number of submissions has risen from around 300 to close to 400; productions have increased from 127 to 150; attendance has gone from approximately 14,000 in 2010 to 22,000 in 2011 to an expected 25,000 this year. This year’s festival also has a impressive lineup of actors appearing in plays or moderating or presenting workshops, including Rain Pryor, daughter of Richard Pryor; Taimak of “The Last Dragon”; Petri Hawkins-Byrd of “Judge Judy”; Jessica Holter, who has been seen on HBO; Darrin Henson of “Soul Food”; and Doug E. Doug of “The “Cosby Show.”
The festival, which runs Saturday-July 1, packs 150 performancesof black theater on 15 stages across the Washington region. The more than 125 performances will include full-length plays, one-act play competitions, theater workshops, readings of new works, and a directors’ challenge.
Each play comes from one of three major genres in black theater — traditional, urban and gospel. “We are doing theater from every aspect,” says Alan, who has written more than a dozen plays, including “Don’t Sing No Blues for Me,” which will be performed during the festival. It is a drama about a young man coming to a small North Carolina town for the funeral of the mother he never knew, and his arrival threatens to uproot long-buried secrets. “Whether you enjoy August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry or Tyler Perry or a good old gospel stage play,” Alan says, “the festival has something for you,”
Urban theater productions, which are also defined as inspirational theater, sell out across the country. The plays are often part gospel concert, part stand-up comedy, part R&B jam sessions, part church. They usually have happy endings in which the good get their rewards and the evil get their due.
Urban theater drew more serious attention after Perry turned one of his urban productions into a Hollywood box office success, making more than $100 million on “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” But as much as the plays have gained financial acclaim, some trained actors, directors and playwrights criticize them for depicting stereotypes.
“Many urban plays and gospel plays may not be folks trained in the theater or with a pedigree out of New York,” Andre Minkins, professor of theater at Winston-Salem State University, says. “But they have the same passion and the same talent.”
The D.C. festival, says Minkins, who is on its board, gives untrained and trained actors a place onstage. “We are welcoming folks into the fold as opposed to pushing them away by saying, ‘You are not welcome because you don’t have training. You didn’t go to some drama school in New York,’ ” Minkins said. “But your story is just as valid. This is a festival where they can be included.”
Anchoring the D.C. Black Theatre Festival this year is the “The Living Legacy Series,” which includes five plays about the lives of legendary African Americans — Paul Robeson, Fannie Lou Hammer, Langston Hughes, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth.
The festival also features nightly One Act Battles. “That is unique component of our festival in D.C.,” Minkins says. “During the battle, the playwright has a short time to present an act and the audience reacts. Audiences know what is good.”
The D.C. Black Theatre Festival, which opens Saturday and runs through July 1, presents more than 150 plays, performances and readings staged at venues across the Washington area. Highlights are below. A full schedule can be found at www.dcblacktheatrefestival.com .
Kick Off Event: 7 p.m., Friday, Bohemian Caverns, 2001 11th Street NW.
“Sphere: The Thelonious Monk Story by Max Garner.” Performances 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. June 30 and 3 p.m. July 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.
“Overdose” stresses the importance of preserving the fabric of America: the family. 1 p.m., Saturday and 5 p.m. June 24, at Josephine Baker Stage at Joe’s Movement, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier.
“Dusting. A Community. A Society. A Justice System.” A can of Pledge is removed from a shelf, and a man’s life is turned into a game and he is completely unaware of the players. 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., June 30 and 3 p.m., July 1, at Josephine Baker Stage at Joe’s Movement, 3309 Bunker Hill Rd., Mount Rainier.
“The Evolution of a Love Addict” is a ride through the world of dating, divorcing and the lessons learned while finding the love that really matters. 5 p.m. June 24, 7 p.m. June 28 and June 30, at Howard University’s Blackburn Center, 2400 Sixth St. NW.
“In Search of O” is about waiting until marriage to have sex and the fantasy vs. the reality of that experience.9 p.m., June 28 and June 30, Howard University’s Blackburn Center, 2400 Sixth St. NW.
“Watermelons in My Back Pocket” is a one-woman show about positive body image. 7 p.m., June 24 at Josephine Baker Stage at Joe’s Movement , 3309 Bunker Hill Road, Mount Rainier.
“Daddy’s Maybe” tells two men’s coming-of-age story. 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday at the Ira Aldridge Theatre at Howard University, 2455 6th St. NW.
“Nobody Walks Like My Daddy” deals with the absence of the father in a home. 8:30 p.m. June 27, June 28 and June 29 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.
“Malcolm, Martin, Medgar” How would the three slain heroes of the civil-rights movement respond to events and individuals in today’s world? 5 p.m. Saturday at Sitar Arts Center, 1700 Kalorama Road NW.
“Willie & Esther,” starring Bern Nadette Stanis (Thelma from “Good Times”), looks at what happens when two middle-aged lovers fantasize about robbing a bank. 7 p.m. Saturday, June 24, June 28 and June 29 at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring.
“Don’t Sing No Blues for Me” tells the story of a young man confronting his mother’s funeral and the mystery of his father’s identity. 1 p.m. Saturday and June 24, at Montgomery College’s Cultural Arts Center, 7995 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring.
The Living Legacy Series, five plays June 28 through July 1 at the Mead Center for American Theater, Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. (Various start times.)