The Atlanta Black Theatre Festival celebrates its fifth anniversary with a busy lineup of events from Oct. 6-15, with the bulk of the festival and full-length performances taking place at Decatur’s Porter Sanford III Performing Arts Center from Oct. 12-15.
There’s never been a better time to celebrate black theater, the organizers say.
“This political, social and economic climate in the United States kind of calls for the gathering of folks to process what’s happening,” says the festival’s producing director and founder, Toni Simmons Henson. “Art always reflects that. That’s what attracts our audiences and makes us relevant. There are so many stories that people want to understand and know. I think that’s why we’ve been sustainable, and it’s why we’re growing.”
Henson comes from a business background and originally created the festival in 2012 because she recognized an underserved market niche. The event has steadily grown such that over the course of the 10-day 2016 festival, there are 63 events on the festival calendar with more than 300 artists gathering from Atlanta and beyond, including from New York, Texas, Florida and California. Organizers estimate that the festival will attract up to 5,000 attendees this year.
Henson adds that one of the surprises for organizers so far has been how many people travel from outside of Atlanta to attend the yearly event. In its first year, the festival’s own market research put the figure at nearly 60 percent. Over the years, as Atlantans have grown more aware of the festival, Henson says that’s evened out, with half the audience coming from Atlanta and half from elsewhere.
“We try to create a program with a nice variety,” Henson says of the festival’s success and continued growth. The productions at the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival typically run the gamut from musicals, comedies and dramas to one-person shows, ensemble works, gospel plays and children’s productions. The days leading up to the mainstage performances at the Porter Sanford Center include a creative conference for theater professionals, play readings and a garden party and immersive musical performance at the Hammond House Museum.
The anchor show this year is the acclaimed one-man show “Sugar Ray” by Laurence Bolder starring Reginald L. Wilson as famed boxer Sugar Ray Leonard. “Standing on the Edge” by Ayesis Clay from Meraki Theatre Company in Fort Washington, Md., dramatizes the coming of age of five teenagers dealing with contemporary issues, and “Hour Confessions” by Rory Lawrence from RQL Productions in Tampa, Fla., is a comedy about five men who gather weekly to talk about everything from jobs and marriage to racism and politics.
“The festival brings to Atlanta and to the region plays that might not otherwise get here,” says Atlanta-based playwright and actress Janice Liddell, whose one-woman show “Who Will Sing for Lena?” will tell the story of the first female executed in Georgia. “I love it. I think the festival is right for my work because it unabashedly deals with black topics, black themes — those that many regional or national theaters won’t even give a first, let alone a second, look.”
For the first time, the festival will also offer a full program of children’s shows Oct. 8 at the West End Performing Arts Center, southwest of downtown Atlanta.
“It comes as a result of people asking, ‘Well, what do you have for the really, really little kids?’” Henson says. “We’ve always had family-friendly stuff for 5 and over, but this year, we’re targeting the little bitty ones, under 5.”
The day offers a children’s workshop and three plays, including “Boo’s Black History Blues” by Mary McCallum about the importance of knowing black history for kids and “The Boy Who Would Be King“ by Ursula O. Robinson, loosely based on Martin Luther King III’s book “My Daddy” about growing up as the son of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the challenges for the festival in its first five years has been that the event has had to move from place to place a number of times.
Henson is glad to have the event back at the Porter Sanford Center, where it was held for two years.
“The space is so accommodating for this type of event,” she says. “It’s state-of-the-art theater and performing arts space. They have a studio. They have places where we can have rehearsals. They have a classroom where we can do the creative conference, the acting classes and workshops.”
In addition, the facility has a kitchen, allowing an exhibition space to be converted into a cafe during the festival. The large lobby also allows for vendors to set up shop, and a bar will offer beer, wine and cocktails after 5 p.m. Henson says, “There’s something going on every single hour.”
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