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The Columbus Black Theatre Festival Returns July 12-14

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford The Columbus Black Theatre Festival Returns July 12-14Photo from "One Sunday in Birmingham," by Joyce A. Barnes, featuring Sumayah Chappelle, Umyikeli G. Scott Jones, Christina Tellis Mabrey and Katie Young. Photo by Julie Whitney Scott.
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All the finest culture is homegrown. Julie Whitney Scott’s Columbus Black Theatre Festival (CBTF) shines as an example of that truism, more pronounced than ever. For the last six years, CBTF has nurtured voices and shone a light to inspire writers and actors to bring their own truth to life. I interviewed Scott by email before the CBTF’s seventh iteration this month.

Scott said the goal of the festival is “to present original plays written by Black and African Americans and to provide them a theatrical performance experience with the goal of encouraging them to continue to write and then produce their own creative works. Over the last three years, we have extended the plays chosen to include plays written by all races of people as long as the plays tell stories that include and are about people of color.”

The festival casts a wide net for submissions. This year, the writers range from returning voices like writer/actress/director/producer Mel Yarborough from Garfield Heights, Lansing native Moriah Shiddat, and Gahanna native Jasmyn Green, to new voices like Dayton’s Jo Terrell, Hammond, Indiana’s Cameo Jarrett, and Kim Denizard. 

Photo of “The Stoop” (2018), by Jasmyn Green, featuring (left to right) Amelia Starcher and Frandie Francique.

That deep span of voices also leads to a diversity of genre. As Scott said, “We have been amazed how each year the plays seem to follow a particular theme…This seventh year the plays have similar themes based around family conflicts, ranging from the true story of a daughter’s conflicting feelings about her parents as she reads the found love letters written between them (Tuskegee Love Letters by Kim Russell presented by JB3 Entertainment), to the struggle of two young people trying to get their parents to understand them as they face life-changing situations (Don’t Cry for Me by Cameo Jarrett) and we even have a murder as a result of conflicts between friends (Lie in the Bed You Make by Jasmyn Green).”

Scott said the goal has always been to present six or fewer plays over the three days of the festival and the playwright handles their own casting. More than just an organizer, Scott writes, directs, and acts. She said, “This will be the first year that I will not present a play of my own. Instead, I am acting in three of the plays this year. I’m able to do this without being completely overwhelmed because they are staged readings.”

Scott takes care to pair shorter pieces with other pieces that create a resonance between the two. A historical double bill presents Russell’s Tuskegee Love Letters, a co-production with JB3 Entertainment and starring Julie Whitney Scott alongside JB3 leader James Blackmon; paired with a one-woman show by Denizard starring the writer as Bernice Collins, the first black, female clown with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and featuring Denizard’s tap-dancing skills.

The poet and playwright who paved the way for many of us, Elder Is Said, opens multiple shows. I asked about what poetry brings to this festival.

“Elder Is Said was the one who encouraged me to start acting and to produce the plays that I had written so that I could hear them come to life.  As a poet myself, I understand the relationship between the poetic words and the playwright,” Scott said. “Many plays, like songs, start off as poems. A brief fleeting thought transformed into a full-length production of words, scenes and sometimes music to take the audience further on the journey that the poem started.”

There’s another poetic element with the open mic show that kicks off the festival. Scott said, “[The open mic] was originally hosted by my late great-nephew, Savon Ligon, who was an actor, singer and Board Member of the Mine 4 God Productions CBTF from the age of 16 to his tragic death at the age of 20 on the opening of the Fifth Annual CBTF, July 7, 2017. “

The torch of hosting was passed on this year, with the same goal in mind. Scott said, “This event was established to include our youth and young adults and to showcase their talents.  This year Solange Gabrielle will be our MC Hostess, continuing the tradition that Savon was so proud to host each year.”

Columbus Black Theatre Festival takes place July 12-14 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center. Tickets, a schedule of the various plays, and more info are available at  mine4godproductions.com.

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