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Larry Hamlin, 58; founded a festival for black theater

June 10, 2007|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

The National Black Theatre Festival began because Larry Leon Hamlin could not ignore the bad news he heard from theaters across the country. Each time he assessed a black theater the story was the same: They were hurting for money, for good management, for audiences.

"There was this terrible scream of pain, of torture coming out of those theaters," he told the New York Times in 1989.

That year Hamlin created a festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., aimed at bringing together theater companies to learn from and support one another.

The result is what has been dubbed the "holy ground" of black theater, a not-to-be-missed event that offers nurturing, networking, information and exposure, where high-quality plays are enjoyed and culture is celebrated by thousands.

"He cared so very much about our people. He cared so very much about the state of black theater, and he did something about it," said actress Ella Joyce, a longtime friend of Hamlin's who starred in "Two Trains Running" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," plays in the late August Wilson's series focused on African American issues.

Hamlin, who also founded the North Carolina Black Repertory Company, died Wednesday at his home in Pfafftown, N.C., after a long illness, officials with the theater festival said without specifying the cause of death. He was 58.

The festival, which is held every two years, "has become an institution," said Joyce, so significant that people in theater plan their schedules around it.

The festival has also changed the face of black theater in ways Hamlin envisioned.

"Black theater was so isolated and fragmented that we couldn't help but be weak," he told the New York Times in 1989. "But now I believe there is a sense of unity, a sense that maybe we're getting one more chance. I feel a dedication, a commitment."

Born Sept. 25, 1948, in Reidsville, N.C., Hamlin was raised in tobacco country. His father worked at the American Tobacco Co.

His mother was his first director, casting him and his siblings in church plays and pageants. By the time Hamlin was in first grade he was smitten with the stage. He earned a business degree from what is now Johnson and Wales University in Providence, R.I., and in the 1970s studied acting at Brown University. In 1981, he married Sylvia Sprinkle, who survives him along with his son, Larente, and his mother, Annie Hamlin Johnson, both of Winston-Salem.

After moving back to North Carolina and noting the absence of black theater, he started the repertory company in 1979. But starting a national festival, particularly any place other than New York, was deemed a far greater, some said impossible, task.

An actor and playwright, Hamlin's stage presence didn't end when he walked off stage. He had a penchant for purple clothes, wore large sunglasses and created and frequently used his own word, "marvtastic," a combination of marvelous and fantastic.

With his passion, his purple and his big dreams, Hamlin at first rubbed some in Winston-Salem the wrong way.

"They said I came in demanding things," he told the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record in 1995. "Well, of course. If I asked for something, I expect to have it.... My head was not bowed. And, of course, I got the reputation of being radical, and of being very arrogant."

But Hamlin also worked hard and was not, he said, asking for a handout. He believed he had something to offer that could benefit the city and the nation. "I'm bringing something to the table," he said. "I am coming with something of my own."

Through the festival, he infused millions of dollars into the local economy. Each year thousands of people, including scores of celebrities, such as Maya Angelou, an early supporter, converge on Winston-Salem for the festival. They attend plays, learn at workshops and socialize. The weeklong event, which attracts people from around the world, is part conference, part family reunion.

Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner, a playwright, actor and musician who played Theo on "The Cosby Show," attended his first festival in 2001. Two years later, with blessings from Hamlin, he introduced his one-man play at the event.

In the warm environment Hamlin fostered, playwrights, performers and directors sharpen their craft.

"It allows you to work the kinks out in the safety net of people who really are in your corner," said Warner, whose "Love & Other Social Issues" is playing at the Assistance League Playhouse in Hollywood .

Actor Sidney Poitier, who attended a festival in the 1990s, told Hamlin his work was "essential to keeping theater alive and creating an artistic presence in the African American community," Poitier recalled Friday in an interview with The Times.

The festival, which will be held this year from July 30 to Aug. 4, is Hamlin's legacy, Joyce said. In 2005, Hamlin told a reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal that he hoped the festival would outlive him -- and maintain its standard of excellence.

"I'm counting on it," he said. "Even after I'm gone, I'll still be at the festival in spirit. Wherever my spirit goes, it'll be back for the festival -- just to keep an eye on things."

Memorial donations may be sent to the National Black Theatre Festival. Information is available at

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