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Sexcitement In Winston-Salem 

Powerhouse acting elevates festival shows

Although it boasts a certain quaint charm -- and one of the nation's finest universities -- Winston-Salem usually confesses to being a sleepy town. That changes radically when the National Black Theatre Festival swoops into town for its week-long invasion once every two years.

Perching out over Cherry Street, on the crosswalk connecting the Marriott and the Embassy Suites hotels, you can see the streets and the courtyards teeming with people and traffic well past midnight. More important, you can hear the incessant African beat of the street drummers and feel the infectious pulsation.

Crowds seemed bigger, more enthusiastic, and better-managed at the 2005 festival amid sweltering heat. At the core of the festival are theater productions from coast-to-coast spread out all across town, over 120 performances at 10 locations.

But the action begins long before the 3pm matinees. There were gospel hip-hop workouts at the ungodly hour of 9am. Added energy boosts were delivered at 10am by kids from around the country in the Youth/Celebrity Project, staged in the spacious Garden Terrace of the Embassy Suites.

Celebrities at the noontime press conference were seated in state like Congressmen at a congressional probe. Among the notables who plugged their festival entries were Cynthia Foreman, the heavyweight champ's former wife, Antonio Fargas, the original Starsky and Hutch Huggy Bear, and festival co-chair Janet Hubert, Will Smith's mom on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

After the 3pm matinees and the 8pm evening fare, the glitter was back with nightly celebrity receptions at the Marriott. And into the morning, Malcolm-Jamal Warner hosted the Midnight Poetry Jam, offering a potpourri of established and aspiring spoken word artists in the Def mode. At all hours, you can wander through the Marriott buffet and lounge and stargaze to your content. When my media badge got twisted the wrong way, somebody buttonholed me and asked if I were a filmmaker!

I gorged in moderation from the afternoon and nighttime offerings, trusting the festival's shuttle service to drop me off at the Arts Council Theatre for my matinee performances. Despite my anxiety, we arrived with time to spare. Both of the plays at Arts Council were presented by Kosmond Russell Productions, an LA company that appeared more consistently adept at attracting acting talent than at recognizing quality scripts.

No problem with Runt, written and performed by Michael Phillip Edwards. This hour-long reminiscence arrived with an impressive pedigree, having won a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2001 and a Sony Gold award for Best Radio Play in 2002.

With all this glory in his wake, Edwards still exceeded expectations. Runt is the chronicle of a Jamaican American's struggle to overcome his fears, his guilt, and somehow earn the respect of his father. Edwards' imagery is vivid and his introspection is heart-wrenching. But his towering portrayal of his powerhouse father is unforgettable.

Ed Edwards is a lusty dynamo, a self-made millionaire, a misogynist prone to caprices who revels unapologetically in booze. In his thick Caribbean accent, he confronts, he intimidates, and he generally lords it over everyone, freely dispensing tooth-and-claw bromides on how to survive and thrive in the American jungle. Bluntest of all is the scene where he bursts into his ex-wife's home and demands that Michael pick the parent he wishes to live with.

Choosing his mother not only poisons Michael's relationship with Dad, it stamps his self-image as a runt, "soft in the middle." Yet we find that Edwards' dad has a softer, charming side -- and our narrator can ultimately achieve a sort of rapprochement with this seething volcano. No concessions come from Michael's fierce father, but a ray of respect breaks through. A truly beautiful, deeply honest piece.

From this, we descended into the bathos of Eddie Lee Baker Is Dead. Wendy Raquel Robinson starred in this scenery-chewing sentimental mess as Sweetchile. Driven to the edge of madness by rape, Sweetchile may best be envisioned as holding a liquor bottle in one hand and her last cherished letter from prison convict Eddie Lee in the other. Secretly, she is loved by Buddy Joe, an upstanding auto repair shop owner who doesn't have the heart to tell Sweetchile the real reason why the letters have stopped.

So for 43 excruciating minutes, we plodded, staggered and obsessed toward the obligatory scene foretold by playwright Judi Ann Mason's clumsy title -- and the equally predictable lamentations that would ensue. Denise Yvonne Dowse directed this drivel as if it were Ibsen, and a stellar cast nearly levitated their leaden cargo.

Jeris Lee Poindexter made Buddy Joe so sweet that there were times when I didn't wish he'd acquire a backbone. And Richard Gant was superb as the henpecked drunken hulk who cruelly informs Sweetchile of what we all knew at least an hour before she walked onstage.

It probably didn't help adoring ticketbuyers when an incorporeal voice informed us that Gant would play the role of Ben Gay instead of the luminescent Fargas, who had done his signature Huggy swagger at the press conference. There's the rub indeed! But Fargas was wise to escape, still the crafty urchin.

Until Thursday night, I'd never attended an NBTF event at the Stevens Center, Winston-Salem's classiest theater. With tickets sold out for the entire run of The Jackie Wilson Story -- and no media or celebrity tickets available under those circumstances -- I almost missed out. Fortunately, I showed up nearly an hour early, assuring me of a top spot on the waiting list.

By that time, nobody was being admitted to the orchestra, so I contented myself with a front-row balcony seat. I was glad that I persevered.

Chester Gregory II, who played the 50s rocker, is simply a phenomenon. Having seen Wilson on American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show and many times with Alan Freed, I can tell you that "Mr. Excitement" had nothing on Gregory. Truth be told, Wilson was a mite pudgy compared with the sinewy star of this Black Ensemble Theater of Chicago production, never able to match Gregory's physical feats.

Repeatedly, during a show that lasted over two hours, Gregory leaped off a bandstand and performed full splits. Amazingly, he defied gravity, lifting himself from those splits to a standing position by sheer leg power. Over and over. On the beat. He also pronated himself so that he lay flat on the stage, knees frontmost and legs bent backwards. He could stand himself up with equal ease from this position, too -- or propel himself forward in a thrusting, sexually suggestive manner. No, Ed Sullivan would never have shown that.

Blessed with a five-octave range, Gregory ascended to a vocal stratosphere that even the legendary Wilson could not match. There wasn't much meat to writer/director Jackie Taylor's script. Nor was the set composed of anything fancier than discards you might find at a garage sale on the wrong side of town. Didn't matter. I've never heard louder screaming from an audience.

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