For the past twenty years, die-hard fans know to block out ten days every July to trek down to Atlanta for one thing: the National Black Arts Festival. With a standout lineup that has included enlightening discussions by Dr. Cornel West, storytelling sessions by Pearl Cleage, and a crowd-pleasing performance by Urban Bush Women, it’s no surprise that the festival brings out anywhere from 500,000 to a million folks each year. It’s more than a party in the park. The NBAF showcases and celebrates some of the sharpest emerging and established creative African-American artists. Kenny Leon, who directed the Broadway and television adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun, received his start at the NABF. Audiences had sneak previews of plays such as Jar the Floor by Cheryl West at the festival. Where else could anyone see Diahann Carroll work it out in a revival of the 1970s revue Bubbling Brown Sugar than at NBAF?
Created in 1988 by the United Negro College Fund’s CEO Michael Lomax, the NBAF, unlike any other event, has booked artists such as actor and activist Harry Belafonte, award-winning actress Cicely Tyson, author Maya Angelou and director Spike Lee, among others, to speak passionately about the value of art from an African-American perspective. “We select artists who we feel are not just entertainers, but educators as well,” says Stephanie Hughley, 62, NBAF’s current executive director. “People not only come to the festival for a good time. They come to learn about themselves.”
This summer, in celebration of the NABF’s twentieth anniversary, organizers will offer a tribute to Grammy Award-winning legend Gladys Knight, a touring production of The Color Purple with a rare introduction by its creator Alice Walker, a moving tribute to dance icon Judith Jamison, and a discussion of Atlanta’s High Museum’s stunning civil rights exhibit, which offers never-before-seen artifacts and letters from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “We’re trying to help people examine how they think and what they think,” says Hughley. “And hopefully when they leave the National Black Arts Festival, they will have been able to examine their own thinking to see whether they still believe what they believed before they came.” NBAF begins July 18 and runs through the 27th. For more info on the festival, visit www.nbaf.org.