Theater Review - Inaugural Black Theatre Fest serves up ambitious program

40 low-cost plays in 4 days plus free events

Toni Henson says you can call it what you want — inspiration, the divine, God — but the idea for an Atlanta Black Theatre Festival just suddenly came to her in the middle of the night. The idea seemed so intuitive, so simple, and so solid that she was almost sure that someone else had already thought of it. "I immediately got up out of bed and I started Googling," she says. "I thought for sure there already was one."

Nothing came up, and the more she thought about it, the more Henson, an experienced Atlanta marketer with a background in theater, realized what a crucial space a festival devoted to African-American theater could fill. The response from others as she's spent the past year building on her vision has been outrageously enthusiastic, she says. "The theater community has just embraced this concept. It's beyond my wildest dreams."

The Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, running from Oct. 4-7, will bring together more than 200 artists from 18 states and three countries to showcase 40 plays in four days at the 14th Street Playhouse. The idea is to present the broadest range of live theater possible, from hard-hitting dramas in the style of August Wilson to urban comedies in the Tyler Perry mold, and more.

Henson and her board sought out plays among the many submissions that they felt would receive a strong and enthusiastic response, the type of show that gets audiences laughing, crying, talking, and cheering. Actress Zuhairah McGill will perform in her powerful one-woman show Sojourner as the historical figure Sojourner Truth (Oct. 4-5, 8 p.m.); Disco/gospel diva and "Oprah legend" Melba Moore sings and tells her own life story in a one-woman show Still Standing (Oct. 7, 4 p.m.); Atlanta playwright Pearl Cleage's A Song for Coretta (Oct. 6-7, 4 p.m.) will be produced by the Marietta-based New African Grove Theatre Company; Soul on Fire (Oct. 6-7, 6 p.m.), a new musical featuring renowned R&B singer Shirley Murdock and author Tyrone Stanley; and Susan Batson directs Ryan Jillian, who will embody trailblazing star Lena Horne in the biographical play Notes from a Horne (Oct. 5, 8 p.m.; Oct. 6, 10 p.m.).

Keeping ticket costs low was important to Henson. The most expensive ticket at the festival is $20, with many show prices in the $10 range or even less. In addition, the festival is offering a large selection of free events, most of them centered at the Loews host hotel: an author's alley, vendor's market, opening party, staged readings, and workshops on acting and writing all come at no cost and are open to the public.

In creating the festival, Henson looked to the biennial National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C,, and the D.C. Black Theatre Festival as models. Though the Atlanta venue is smaller, 40 plays in four days is still a bigger concept than either of those festivals, so it's still a risky undertaking for the fledgling event. "I think Atlanta is a major market," Henson says confidently. "I keep hearing people say this is so needed. If Winston-Salem can get 60,000 people, Atlanta can certainly get 5,000."

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