A Marvtastic Life

by Woodie King Jr.

In 1988, Larry Leon Hamlin sat in my office at New Federal Theatre sharing with Herman Leverne Jones and myself his dream to establish a national forum where artists of color from all over the world could convene in the spirit of collaborative, creative excellence. That dream eventually blossomed into the historic and internationally renowned National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF). Ten years earlier, he had founded the North Carolina Black Repertory Theatre...the first professional Black theatre company in North Carolina.

[Ten] theatre festivals later, the July 31, 2007 opening ceremony was dedicated to the memory of Larry. At the opening night gala, we paid richly deserved tribute to his memory. Scores of actors, singers, musicians and local politicians gave moving testimonies to his life's work--"Black Theatre."

Under Larry's direction the Festival has become an important showcase for Black theatre. Over the past [eighteen years], established and non-established actors have appeared in [NBTF] productions. Producers, actors, directors and playwrights clamor to have their works read, believing that exposure at the Festival will translate into engagements elsewhere. Attracting tens of thousands of supporters to Winston-Salem, NC, the Festival also gives the city an economic shot in the arm, filling the local hotels and giving restaurants brisk business.

Larry Leon Hamlin has been extensively written about and has graced the covers of many magazines[:] Black Masks, Minorities and Women in Business and a dozen others, including a 1996 issue of Equity News....

During this year's festival, 45,000 attendees interrupted their customary Festival activities of seeing theatrical productions, [and going to] the Readers Theatre, National Teen Showcases, International Colloquia, Hip Hop Poetry Jams, Workshops and Seminars, to note the passing of Larry Leon.

Despite Larry's very active life and the many requests on him to leave his hometown to build festivals elsewhere, he was first and foremost a Winston-Salem, North Carolina native; that is where he remained until his death on June 6, 2007 at he age of 58.

Larry coined the expression "marvtastic" to describe his outlook on life, and throughout the Festival's history, co-workers, vendors and patrons alike adopted the expression. In a tribute poem (see next page) written for Larry's memorial services, his longtime friend and AEA member Perri Gaffney (noting that the Festival had proved to be greater than marvelous or fantastic) explained that Hamlin had become known as "Mr. Marvtastic," [confirmed by] his beautiful array of tailored purple attire.

Larry likened Black theatre artists to a lost tribe scattered throughout the African Diaspora—constantly creating but rarely communicating. He saw all this and called us together. He said, "Let's celebrate and have a reunion—a reunion of spirit! Let's have a festival as we've had and continue to have in Dakar, in Ghana and in Nigeria! Let's celebrate Black theatre [on Holy Ground]!" For the nearly twenty years since he uttered that challenge, the biennial celebration known as the National Black Theatre Festival has kept that faith.

My foremost thoughts at this writing are that Larry Leon Hamlin's passing will resonate in the halls of theatre across the globe. Here was a man of boundless enthusiasm for the future of Black theatre and for equal opportunity for Black artists working in the American theatre. He insisted that the NBTF be a celebration and reunion of spirit.

Larry Leon Hamlin was a force in Black theatre in America. What is a force? A force by its own sheer energy moves seemingly fixed and stationary things out of its path. Larry forced old ideas out of his path. His vision was to bring all who work and struggle in Black theatre together, in spirit. Larry Leon Hamlin, through his uncompromising will, created the National Black Theatre Festival; it was in the wind, an idea whose time was upon us. Larry Leon would get so excited just talking about it; and now, like the computer, the NBTF is here to stay.

The Black theatre here in America owes a debt of gratitude to [Larry's] mother, Mrs. Anne Hamlin Johnson; his wife, Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin; his son, Larente Hamlin; and his two sisters, Sherrie and Linda.

Larry Leon Hamlin was buried on June 13, 2007, at Piedmont Memorial Gardens in Winston-Salem, North Carolina [following] funeral services conducted by Reverend Dr. Sir Walter Mack Jr. of the Union Baptist Church. (reprinted courtesy of Equity News)

Woodie King Jr., a 2006 TCG Awardee, is the founder and producing director of the New Federal Theatre, where he has produced over 150 plays. He has also produced and directed on Broadway and off, in regional theatres, at universities across the U.S. and for films. In the 1996/97 season, he received an Obie Award for Sustained Achievement.


Jan/Feb 2008

This article originally featured in Vol. 18, Issue. 3

Also in this issue:

  • Larry Leon Hamlin: Footlights to Fame

  • Something Truly Marvtastic

  • Commemorating Larry Leon Hamlin

  • The Power of Three: North Carolina Black Rep Carries On

  • Mainstage at the National Black Theatre Festival

  • Editor's Notes: A Personal Memoir

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