July 26, 2008

Fest Spotlights Black Theater

By Christine Dolen, The Miami Herald

Jul. 26--Just as the XXIII International Hispanic Theatre Festival winds up its three-week run, another theater festival -- shorter, but more geographically expansive -- is about to begin.

The biennial Urban Theatre & Entertainment Festival and Awards begins Tuesday at 8 p.m. with a glitzy celebrity gala featuring Tony Award winner Melba Moore and television veteran JoMarie Payton as hosts. Between its beginning and its end on Friday, this second edition of an ambitious black theater festival will offer seven solo shows, four productions from the gospel/urban theater genre, poetry events, a dance competition and workshops about the business of theater.

The festival is the brainchild of South Florida producer-promoters Ed Haynes and Julia Brown. Inspired by the every-other-year National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., the pair conceived of an awards show (Brown's idea) and a festival (Haynes' inspiration) that could happen in the years when the national festival wasn't taking place.

The duo, Brown says, has four goals.

"We're trying to educate using the arts, stimulate the economy, bridge the gap between traditional and urban theater, and develop future audiences," she says.

Programming one-person shows that examine the lives of such famous figures as boxer Muhammad Ali (played by actor-comedian Vincent Cook), civil rights activists Rosa Parks (portrayed by Ella Joyce) and Fannie Lou Hamer (actress E.P. McKnight), and artist-activist Paul Robeson (played by Stogie Kenyatta) alongside larger-cast popular "urban" plays was a strategic choice, Haynes says.

"We wanted to create a model so that the urban shows would become the economic vehicle to fund the festival, so they'd anchor it," says Haynes, who estimates the cost of this year's event at $200,000. "We also wanted to educate the community [of those familiar with urban theater] about traditional theater."

The long-standing divide between urban and traditional theater still exists, and it clearly continues to bug those on each side of the divide.

Shows variously labeled gospel, inspirational or urban plays draw large crowds and make big money, though theatrical purists have criticized such productions for serving up broad comedy, stereotypes and heavy-handed messages in less-than-compelling scripts featuring performers whose careers are waning.

However, celebrated plays of undisputed quality, such as those by Pulitzer Prize winner August Wilson, rarely attract comparable audiences or make their authors wealthy -- consider Tyler Perry, the multimillionaire creator and sometime star of touring shows, movies and TV's House of Payne.

Carl Clay, founder of the New York-based Black Spectrum Theatre, is bringing his company's urban play Once in a Wifetime to the festival. His company does plays by such traditional playwrights as Wilson and Cheryl L. West as well as offering urban fare. "I don't think we can afford to be purists," he says. "There's a reason audiences come out to see urban productions. It means they're doing something right. The more we can learn from each other, the better."

Playwright-producer Je'Caryous Johnson, who will be honored at the festival's opening gala along with business partner Gary Guidry of Houston's I'm Ready Productions, brought what he learned in theater studies at the University of Houston (where playwright Edward Albee was one of his teachers) to the world of urban theater. Since 1995, the company's shows have been seen by more than 2 million people and grossed more than $90 million, after a faltering start with a play about the murdered Emmett Till, a piece that lost the pair nearly $500,000.

"That was a half-million-dollar education I wouldn't trade for the world," says Guidry. "You have to present something people want to see. We give them plays that are meaningful, with great moral messages, real plot and great dramatic structure. Most of our pieces have to do with relationships, love and family."

Johnson, who is just 31, once had issues with urban theater's quality. But now he is devoted to elevating the genre.

"The first time I saw urban theater, my instinct was to judge it. Writers in that market weren't trained in structure. But you start with where people are, give them a certain value, and then give them something more with each show," Johnson says. 'The people in regional theater and Broadway call [urban theater] 'those shows.' It's upper class and elitist.

"More money has been generated in the urban market than in the regional market. When you look around and see 5,000 people laughing, you can't deny they're having a great time."

Guidry, a musician and businessman who is also Johnson's uncle, says that in addition to expanding into movies, like Perry, the two hope to take one of their shows to Broadway.

"We'll make a lot less money there, but we want to have a presence," Guidry says. 'We want to say, 'Look, you said our product wasn't [good] for so many years. Now it is.' "

Actress-singer Moore is one of the festival participants who has succeeded both on Broadway and as a gospel play star. Part of the original production of Hair and a Tony winner for Purlie, the born-again Christian jumped to the gospel genre in Michael Matthews' hit play Mama, I'm Sorry at a time when her marriage and fortunes had crumbled.

The opportunity was, she says, "a miracle God sent for me. Critics didn't know about those plays, so I was out of the public eye."

She laughs today about how the early gospel plays were structured.

"Black audiences are always late. We'd be late to our own funeral," she says. "So Michael always made sure the first scene was full of jokes going back and forth, so the people who got there late wouldn't miss anything."

For the past decade, Moore has been developing an autobiographical piece now titled Still Standing (she tested an earlier version titled Melba Moore: From Minor to Major at the now-defunct Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in 1995). Haynes and Brown are planning to bring Moore's multicharacter play-with-music to Florida next year, so that is part of why she wanted to play a role in a festival "tied to ethical, positive messages," she says. "I think I'm a bridge between Broadway and urban theater, between old and young, between black and white."

Payton, Moore's gala co-host, grew up in Miami and went on to success in movies and television, including the long-running show Family Matters. She is the subject of a still-evolving one-person show -- The Drama That Surrounds Me -- that will be performed by actress Karen Roberson during the festival. The message of the piece involves overcoming the trials of life; Payton, an incest survivor, turned to the arts for healing.

"I hope that grandparents will bring their grandkids out to some of the shows in this festival," Payton says. "I would like it to become a family affair, not just something for people who love theater. When kids are going through hard times, they need to know there's this imaginary world you can go to, to hide or to express yourself. To make things better."

Kenyatta, a character actor, sees his Robeson play in similar terms. Ditto for Cooper and his Ali piece. And it may be that such one-person shows are a way to meld traditional and urban theater: well-structured dramas with inspiring messages.

"If Paul Robeson lived it, the least we can do is learn about it and learn from it," Kenyatta says. "This is a message of hope: There is nobility in you."

"Theater is theater," Cook says. "You just put it out there. Plays with a message uplift you. You plant an idea. You give the audience something it can use."


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