Larry Leon Hamlin Biography
Stepped on Stage at Age Five, Founded National Black Theatre Festival, Brought Black Theater Together
Actor, festival director
In head to toe purple, Larry Leon Hamlin is a hurricane-strength force on the stage of black theater. He is the vision, the fury, and the power behind the National Black Theatre Festival, the world's largest gathering of black theater professionals. Every other summer, the festival draws thousands of actors, directors, producers, poets, filmmakers, and fans to Winston-Salem, North Carolina for a week of performance, practice, and parties. Hamlin said he started the festival to help revive and unify black theater. He succeeded. "I think that black theater needed me," Hamlin told Contemporary Black Biography (CBB). "Of course, I needed it as well."
Stepped on Stage at Age Five
Born on September 25, 1948, Larry Leon Hamlin was the second of four children of Annie and Charles Hamlin. He grew up in Reidsville, North Carolina, about 45 minutes from Winston-Salem, deep in tobacco country. His father worked for the American Tobacco Company, his mother was a housewife, and according to North Carolina's The News & Record, Hamlin was "the first generation off the factory floor."
He landed on the stage. Hamlin told CBB that he fell in love with the theater the moment he uttered his first line in a first-grade play. "Once I got back to class, I immediately wanted to be back on the stage, so I raised my hand and asked if I could go to the bathroom" he told CBB. Back in the auditorium Hamlin continued, "I saw the stage and was so happy. I ran down to the stage and put my arms around the footlights. They were hot, really hot, but I hugged them." He has embraced theater ever since.
"My mother really supported my acting when I was a child," Hamlin told CBB. "She would work with me on my lines and help with delivery." Hamlin acted throughout childhood but after high school, he gravitated north and ended up majoring in business at Rhode Island's Johnson & Wales University. "After graduation I had to think about what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Hamlin told CBB. "I thought about it and went all the way back to that experience I had when I was five, and I said, 'Of course, acting. That's what I love.'" Hamlin promptly enrolled in theater classes at Brown University and joined the school's theater company. "I've been focusing on my acting ever since," he told CBB.
There were very few black theaters in the country in the mid-1970s. Hamlin, with characteristic vision and a heavy dose of self-confidence set about fixing that. He formed his first company, Star Theater Productions, while he was still in Rhode Island. However, the South was calling him back. "Eventually I had to go home so I came to Winston-Salem because my family had settled there," he told CBB. Again, he found that there was no local black theater. "In fact not in the whole state of North Carolina," he told CBB. So with $2,000, Hamlin founded the North Carolina Black Repertory Company in 1979. He served as the company's executive and artistic director—a post he still held into 2004. He also acted, directed, and wrote plays. Like all small theaters, the company struggled. Over the years, it produced several local shows, launched national tours, and even took performances to the Caribbean. Much of the company's success was due to Hamlin's electric personality. Whether standing onstage, speaking about the state of black theater, or asking for donations, Hamlin's personal style oozed a can-do attitude that made people want to say "yes."
Founded National Black
In the mid-1980s Hamlin wrote an article about the state of black theater in the South. "As I was interviewing these different theater companies, I saw so much pain and frustration," he told CBB. "They didn't have money, didn't have good management, they couldn't put on the shows they wanted." He continued, "I began to wonder what was happening in the other parts of the country. And it was the same—pain, frustration. Then I looked around in New York and saw that black theaters were closing at such a rate that I figured by the millennium they'd disappear." Hamlin decided something had to be done. "I didn't see anyone else doing it," he told CBB. He came up with the idea of a national black theater conference. "There were some successful companies out there, and I thought if we could share our experiences, we could build a core of black theater companies that could work together and develop an agenda for all of us," Hamlin told American Visions.
With a budget of $500,000 the National Black Theatre Festival debuted in 1989. "The first one we decided not to call a conference," Hamlin told CBB. "Conference sounds so boring. So we called it a festival. That sounds like a party. A celebration." A chance meeting with Maya Angelou at an airport bar gave the festival a needed boost of celebrity. "Most of the people I talked to thought I was crazy," Hamlin told the Winston-Salem Journal. "She said she would support my dream, as it were." Angelou signed on as the festival's first chairperson and brought along friend Oprah Winfrey as a celebrity guest. The star power worked. Over 10,000 people showed up to see 30 performances by 17 of the country's top black theater companies. Theater professionals took part in workshops on topics from raising money to producing new works. The New York Times wrote, "The 1989 National Black Theatre Festival was one of the most historic and culturally significant events in the history of black theatre and American theatre in general." Hamlin had struck a long-neglected nerve and revealed a hidden cultural resource. "At first I thought there were only about 60 or 70 black companies in the country," Hamlin told CBB. "I found out there were over 250. We didn't know about each other. We had never had an occasion to get together."
Subsequent festivals, held every two years, grew exponentially on all fronts. In 1991 the number of performances jumped to 45 performances and the workshops doubled. Celebrities flocked to Winston-Salem to take part, including black theater royalty Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, who signed on as that year's chairpersons. By 1993 performances were up to 76. In 1995 international troupes joined in the festivities, coming from Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Over 20,000 guests endured the North Carolina heat to see them perform. The prestige of the festival also grew. 1997 saw the premier of renowned playwright August Wilson's play, Jitney. By 1999 corporate heavy hitters had signed on as sponsors including US Airways, Sara Lee Corporation, and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. They were needed as the festival's budget had tripled to $1.5 million. The 2001 and 2003 festivals featured over 100 performances a piece and drew upwards of 50,000 guests each. By that time the festival had also added an awards gala, a film festival, poetry jams, a market, and true to its founding vision, dozens of workshops. "There's something going on morning, noon, and night," Hamlin told the Winston-Salem Journal.
Brought Black Theater Together
The theme of the 2001 was "Black Theater, Holy Ground," which nicely summed up the way the festival had come to be viewed by those in the black theater community. "It's one of the greatest things we have going," actor Bill Cobbs told the Winston-Salem Journal. "In terms of having an opportunity to network and interact with people in the world of theater, it is a great thing." "It is so culturally significant to all of us, whether you are a nationally respected artist or some little theater practicing in a church basement," producer Ernie McClintock added. "It's a focal point for black cultural expression." It is also a focal point for celebrities. People like Denzel Washington, Sidney Poitier, Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, Leslie Uggams, Malik Yoba, and Malcolm-Jamal Warner are regulars year after year.
The festival has also been a boon for the city of Winston-Salem, jam-packing hotels and restaurants and bringing in an estimated $11 million over a five-day period. "It obviously has a multimillion-dollar impact on the city," Gayle Anderson, the president of the Greater Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, told the Winston-Salem Journal. "But more important is the image we create of Winston-Salem as a cultural center. The fact that it is African-American theater is unique. We couldn't pay for all the publicity that this generates." Winston-Salem's mayor, Allen Joines, also hailed the importance of the festival, and gave direct credit to Hamlin. "This festival has brought international recognition to Winston-Salem, and I think Mr. Hamlin's work has really made it successful," Joines told the Winston-Salem Journal in 2002. "His personal perseverance has been key to the festival's success."
As the founder, artistic director, and producer of the festival, Hamlin's name has become synonymous with the National Black Theatre Festival. Dressed in his favorite color purple—which is also the official color of the festival—he has been the festival's number one promoter, cheerleader, and fundraiser. For each festival he planned dozens of workshops, wooed hundreds of celebrities, screened thousands of plays, and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. "I sleep very, very little," he told CBB. "For years I didn't sleep at all. Now I am starting to think that maybe I should get at least three hours a night." Ask anyone in black theater, anyone in Winston-Salem, and they will tell you his sleeplessness has paid off. The Winston-Salem Journal noted, "Hamlin has been praised as a visionary who built a nationally recognized black-theater festival in a Southern city that many New York and Los Angeles actors would never visit." However he has not been without critics who have claimed that his over-the-top personality has wreaked financial and logistical havoc. In 2001, on the eve of the seventh festival, Hamlin dismissed those critics. "If I did not know how to handle money this would have ended in 1989," he told the Winston-Salem Journal.
His Future Looked "Marvtastic"
Hamlin has been recognized for his work on behalf of black theater with dozens of awards, including a prestigious NAACP award for community service. However his biggest honor was an invitation to the White House from President and Mrs. Bill Clinton. "I wasn't even aware that he knew I existed," he told CBB.
As 2004 came to a close, Hamlin was intensely planning the 2005 festival, scheduled to be "marvtastic"—a word Hamlin coined. "It is marvelous and fantastic, but what it means to me is there is nothing greater than this," he told CBB. He continued to run the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, writing plays, and of course, acting. He also had another big idea brewing—the National Black Theatre Hall of Fame and Museum. "There is a major need for it," he told CBB. "And it doesn't look like anyone else will do it, so here I go again." If anyone can make it a reality, it is Hamlin. And if he does, he would more than qualify to become one of the museum's first honorees.
American Visions, April-May, 1995.
The Cincinnati Enquirer, August 19, 2001.
The News & Record, (Piedmont Triad, NC), August 31, 2001; August 24, 2003.
The New York Times, August 8, 2003.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), August 1, 1999; June 12, 2001; July 29, 2001; August 1, 2001; August 7, 2001; May 18, 2002; July 1, 2003; August 12, 2003.
"Larry Leon Hamlin," The National Black Theatre Festival, www.nbtf.org/bio.htm (October 29, 2004).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through an interview with Larry Leon Hamlin on November 9, 2004.