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    New tracks on Tobacco Road Essay

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    The telltale leaf is not immediately visible along the highway, and no garish billboards mar the lazy hills, but you can smoke in the airport. And nobody seems to be in a hurry to sweep up the overflowing ashtrays that dot the lobby of the downtown Stouffers Hotel. Indeed, there’s no doubt when you reach Winston-Salem, N.C., that you’re in a tobacco town.

    A cigarette town.

    Since 1989, this quietly southern place with its “For lease” signs every second downtown corner, its rows of purple and red Chevy Geos baking in the August sun, has also been an important theatrical venue when it hosts – every two years – the largest gathering of African-American theatre professionals in the U.S. Larry Leon Hamlin, artistic director of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, is the father of this National Black Theatre Festival. And this year, as it has been for the past three events, RJ Reynolds is the major sponsor.

    For those who recall black New York’s tobacco wars and its arresting poster campaign proclaiming, “They used to make us pick it, now they make us smoke it,” the idea of an RJ Reynolds liaison may seem impolitic. But behind Hamlin’s defense of the company’s financial support is a clue to his own strategy, and much of the raison d’etre of this festival. “We’ve had too many people dying in those factories,” he bristles when you ask. “It’s time to get something back.”

    To Hamlin, a medium-built man with a flair for the dramatic gesture, the issue has never been who is funding, but “what are we doing with that money?” What they’ve done with the money, along with in-kind services amounting to nearly $400,000 from black companies, is to sponsor the only festival of its kind – and one that continues to expand. Participation has increased 20-30 percent over 1991; there are eight more productions and 31 more performances than at the last festival. For 1995, Hamlin has set another ambitious goal – to broaden the biennial event into an international celebration.

    At this year’s festival, held Aug. 2-7, there was a palpable feeling of ownership and reunion among the thousands of celebrants from across the country who descended on Winston-Salem. As historian Loften Mitchell declared in the cocktail lounge one evening, “You wanna talk about heritage – we walking all over top of it!”

    “It” was there in the nightly drumming sessions of artists and vendors that ricocheted off the town’s ghostly buildings one-quarter mile in all directions. In the riot of sequins and bugle beads, mudcloth and cowries, bourbon and white zinfandel. In the roster of celebrity guests – from Sidney Poitier to Pam Grier – whose achievements in the theatre were being honored.

    Catching the buzz

    And then there were the offstage dramas. Like the buzz that caught when it seemed that the lately controversial Pomo Afro Homos might come to perform. The San Francisco-based performance group had circulated a release in the months preceding the event that publicly accused the NBTF of homophobia, and of banning them from the festival for the second year in a row.

    Hamlin had always maintained that the critically acclaimed troupe missed the deadline the first year, and this year, neglected to invite him to view any performance. Confronted about the controversy at one panel discussion on alternative theatre and the mainstream, a flustered Hamlin dared Pomo Afro Homos to produce “the piece of paper where I said they were banned,” later insisting that though they sent a video, the “bad lighting” made it impossible to judge their performance. “This is the boys’ club,” said one performer who regretted that the troupe was not part of the festival agenda. “That’s why we wanted to bust it. I think it’s a damn shame.”

    Pomo Afro Homos never managed to find a venue in town, but the whole episode became fuel for speculation on whether this wasn’t symptomatic of a broader lack of innovation and risk-taking within the black theatre itself – an issue that has attended this festival since its inception.

    Whose festival is it? Depends who you ask.

    Laurie Carlos and her partner Robbie McCauley are two of theatre’s most seasoned performance artists. Their piece for this fest, Persimmon Peel, is a rich and stinging commentary on the country’s prevailing cultural mores. As often happened around tobacco road over the course of the week, conversation became performance, and sometimes rivaled what was on the official schedule. Over a hearty southern breakfast in the Stouffer’s dining room one morning, Carlos and McCauley took time to vent….

    Spoonful of grits. Ask waitress for hot water. “I had seen Pomo Afro Homos in San Francisco. What they needed was a popular black audience,” McCauley says. “Because it was about calling out. I saw the Dark Fruit piece at Lincoln Center. I saw how much that piece had grown. It was important for this theatre festival audience.”

    Bite of muffin. “Part of the old guard here has always been concerned with a certain kind of legitimacy – and always tried to get it in a Eurocentric kind of way,” added Carlos. “Adrienne Kennedy started talking in a whole different way, and they ain’t ready for her yet.”

    McCauley shakes her head. “Part of that whole Eurocentric mode is to wait until somebody is dead.”

    “What about the opening night gala?” I ask. “What did you think of that?” (The gala, which featured a celebrity conga line marching onto a blood-red two-tiered dais without a hint of self-mockery, was one of the most talked-about theatrical events of the week.)

    Overeasy arrives over well. “You have to get the joke,” replies McCauley. “This is the ~Image Awards.’ Similar to the patriarchy. The celebs parading down the quintessential aisle to get their due. Meanwhile, you can’t get to the show because the limousines are in the way.”

    Jam. “You are designated to sit on this side of the room,” Carlos pipes in with mock officiousness. “Mr. Puff Puff has to sit on the other side.”

    More jam. For a moment, McCauley’s expression tums grave. “I can’t say how many people came up and said, ~We saw you on the front cover of TDR.’ Meaning, if the white people say you’re legit, you must be legit.”

    One sensuous black woman

    Without a doubt, NBTF has always catered to more traditional theatre forms. This year was the first in the festival’s history in which a full program of performance art had been scheduled. “We didn’t know what was gonna happen with the new stuff,” Hamlin admits. “But people have been responding.”

    Indeed, it turned out to contain some of the best that the festival had to offer. The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop, by Sekou Sundiata, Stephanie Alston and Craig Harris, so moved the audience with its analysis of the triumphs and failures of the ’60s that a thunderous ovation prevented the performers from even finishing the piece. Out of Los Angeles came Keith Antar Mason and the Hittite Empire’s Shango Walks Through Fire, a wildly chaotic – though riveting – piece that mixed Yoruba ritual, ’60s-style confrontation and a decidedly ’90s L.A. nihilism. Mason brought down the house when he requested “one sensuous black woman” as a volunteer, then proceeded to wash her feet in fresh watermelon and massage them with oil.

    Also on the Cultural Odyssey bill, curated by Idris Ackamoor, was Judith Alexa Jackson’s brilliantly satirical WOMB/man Wars; a disquieting meditation on erotica by Rhodessa Jones; Ntozake Shange’s The Love Space Demands; and Ackamoor’s own rejoiceful celebration of vaudeville, Shoehorn!

    Elsewhere in the festival, John Amos wowed the audiences with his one-man Halley’s Comet, while a spirited production of Douglas Turner Ward’s Days of Absence hit the Winston-Salem radio waves. And while Bill Harris’s Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil, paid homage to the father of the blues, Amiri Baraka’s haunting Meeting Lillie stirred the ghosts of the 1940s South.

    In between, there was plenty of time out for trading theatre philosophy and honing precious audience development strategies. Bill Green, director of Houston’s The Ensemble, spent one evening lamenting the unshakeable primacy of what he called “gorilla theatre” – shows like Beauty Shop and A Good Man Is Hard to Find that have long been the staple of black regional playhouses – over the more “highbrow” pursuits.

    Animated in his Chicago Bulls cap and tuxedo, Green asserted, “You gotta get them saying, ~Oh, they had Beauty Shop. And next week, well, they gonna have something called The Blacks by Jean Genet.’ You just slip it in. That’s how you gotta do it.”

    This essay was written by a fellow student. You may use it as a guide or sample for writing your own paper, but remember to cite it correctly. Don’t submit it as your own as it will be considered plagiarism.

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