The 16th biennial National Black Theatre Festival to roll out in Winston-Salem

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Falesha Brodie, theCULTURE Editor

The 16th biennial National Black Theatre Festival is only a couple of weeks away.

The festival returns to Winston Salem on July 29 – Aug. 3 for another year of highly anticipated performances, workshops, films and celebrity appearances — each from around the globe.

Founded by the late Larry Leon Hamlin in 1989, the National Black Theatre Festival unites global black theater companies and provides the presence of this distinct genre.

With the support of Dr. Maya Angelou, who served as the festival’s first chairperson, the National Black Theatre Festival was born. 

The first-ever offered 30 performances by 17 of America’s best professional black theater companies.

“I heard of this festival many years ago, but had no idea Maya Angelou served as the Festival’s first Chairperson,” said Raven Tyler, a senior multimedia student. “This just shows how rich African-American culture and history truly is.” 

The festival gained international media coverage. The 1989 National Black Theatre Festival was one of the most historic and culturally significant events in the history of black theater and American theater in general, according to The New York Times. More than 10,000 people attended.

Today that number reaches well over 65,000 attendees. 

“Being from North Carolina, it feels good to know that such a prominent, culture-rich festival is held in this state every year,” said Rahiem Thompson, a senior information technology student.

The star-studded Opening Night Gala will feature a parade of powerful African drummers and dancers followed by a procession of more than 40 celebrities of stage, television and film.

Visitors can also expect a taste of Broadway in the second half of that evening from the hit musical Jelly’s Last Jam presented by the North Carolina Black Repertory Company. 

“I went last year. It was my first time. It was pretty cool seeing the different shows,” said Cierra Ivey, a senior multimedia student. “I also liked the convention center and how everyone was selling black owned things.”

Each year, two celebrities are chosen as co-chairs for the festival events. This year, the co-chairs are actress Margaret “Shug” Avery and Broadway sensation, Chester Gregory.

Avery is well known for her Academy Award nominated role as Shug Avery in the 1985 film The Color Purple. She credits much of her 50-year success to the festival.

Her resume also includes lead and supporting roles in numerous television and motion picture films, including the Browns, and Proud Mary to name a couple. Avery now stars as “Helen Patterson,” a recurring character on BET’s hit series Being Mary Jane.

Gregory is best known for his stage performance as Jackie Wilson in Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theatre’s production of The Jackie Wilson Story.

“There is essentially one reason – and it’s a very good one – to see The Jackie Wilson Story, and that is the star: Chester Gregory,” The New York Times reported.

Gregory later debuted in a Broadway role as Seaweed in the Tony Award winning musical Hairspray. His 2009 performance as Jimmy Early in the national tour of “Dreamgirls” also received many praises.

Advance tickets may be purchased for the 2019 festival by calling the Festival box office at (336) 723-7907. These tickets will be mailed up to two weeks prior to the festival or picked up at the M.C. Benton Convention Center. Purchase online tickets online here.

For more information concerning the festival, visit