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Trend Magazine Online™
Travel Review Summer 2023
National Black Theatre Festival
Winston-Salem, NC
Aretha Franklin, Part I of II
#nbtf #arethafranklin #winstonsalemnc

By Jay Whipple

Trend Magazine Online™

Edutainment At It's Best!

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic
This was my first quasi post COVID-19 National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF) and 4th overall since 2011. My budget allowed me to attend one day this go round since I have moved out of the quaint city of Winston-Salem, NC, a number of years past. I decided to attend on Thursday August 4, 2022, because the plays that I wanted to check out were scheduled at times that made it possible for me to travel to both in the same day. I chose the Natural Woman: An Aretha Story just because she earned and kept the title of The Queen of Soul and was married to Mr. Glynn Turman who I had the privilege of interviewing at this festival in 2011. My second choice was the play Frederick Douglass: No Turning Back/Sojourner Truth because of my passion for Black history and the fact that they are both covered in my book Black Charlotte From A Tour Guide's Perspective.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!I arrived at the venue at approximately 1:20pm after walking a half a mile from where I ended up parking at a motel just east of Downtown after searching for about 10 minutes for free parking. I missed the last inbound NBTF shuttle bus from my usual Downtown hotel spot due to a logistical error on my part. It was very humid and muggy as usual in the city, and I had to dry off/cool down for about 15minutes after my walk Downtown to the hotel venue. After cooling and drying off I was headed downstairs when two ladies informed me that they were told that the doors would not open until 2pm which was actually the advertised play start time. Yikes I thought; this is going to ruin my schedule of other events/stops. I then decided to hang around a bit more in the lobby of the Benton (formerly Embassy Suites) Hotel and then head downstairs again after seeing other folks head that way. When in doubt; follow the crowd, is one of my life's credos!

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic! National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!After arriving downstairs, I then realized that my credo/instinct was correct as a small crowd had already assembled near the venue's doors. There seemed to be a bit of chaos as there were people waiting in several different lines although there was only one main entrance. I surveyed the situation and decided to take up a spot near what appeared to be a sign-in table perpendicular to the venue entrance. As more and more theatre-goers arrived the scene became more and more chaotic as the newer folks began hovering near the entrance door. I then began to eavesdrop on the ladies at the table and overheard them conversating about their ticket scanners not working properly.That is not good, I thought to myself, and then others began to listen in as well. It was nearing the two o'clock start time and some folks began to get a bit fidgety as more and more audience members arrived. Finally, one of the ladies at the sign-in table announced that they were indeed having problems with the ticket scanners which were part of their no-contact plan to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus. They then made a command decision to go to the old school method and just visually inspect each ticket holder which proved to be easier said than done. All I can say is that I paid for my ticket! Once they open the doors and began running us through the expressed ticket verification queue, we entered the venue and took our general admission seats rather quickly as this interracial audience was indeed anxious to be entertained.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!The set was located near the main entrance with tiered stadium-type seating on three sides and was a simple one that included a piano with lamp, writing desk, wine glass, mirror, crown, Eiffel tower chair, extra chair, a two-seater, small dresser with pics, coat rack, and homage to President Obama. The imaginary curtain was up at 2:10pm, just 10 minutes off schedule, with an older and younger version of Aretha on stage. There was a brief song with a live band and background singers behind the stage. Next, the focus turned to the older Aretha reading in her diary to her late father, the Reverend Clarence LaVaughn Franklin (1915 - 1984) of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit, MI. She began to reflect on her well-storied life concerning her men, roller skating, her first child at age 12 (Clarence), her mother moving to Buffalo, NY; her singing in the church and the memory of gospel great Mahalia Jackson (my favorite gospel singer) not paying her for a gig.She then began to reflect on her memories with The Staple Singers, her reported fling with Sam Cooke at the Savoy Hotel in Atlanta, GA (while traveling with her father), her fling at a skating rink in Detroit and getting pregnant again at 14 years old. The younger Aretha character then broke into a rendition of Chain, Chain, Chain (1967). The vocals were okay but far short of the Queen of Soul's which not too many can replicate. The backstage band featured a drummer, guitarist, and keyboardist who were excellent musicians. The older Aretha then explained that she had a natural birth (Edward), and then went back on tour again. She reflected on her trip to Los Angeles, more Sam Cooke personal business, and the fact that her pastor/father was not against secular music. The older Aretha character then hinted at a personal relationship with Berry Gordy (Motown), her controversial Dinah Washington remake, and her new manager (future husband) Mr. Ted White.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic! Ted White was reportedly 11 years Aretha's senior when they married in 1961 when Aretha was just 19 years old. Their seven-year marriage was considered dark by several associates and family members with most agreeing that he was abusive and considered a "street-corner wheeler dealer." Despite their reported tumultuous relationship, a third son (Teddy) was born in 1964. Older Aretha then reflects on the news of Sam Cooke's death by gunshot in 1964, her being pigeonholed by Columbia Records (1960 - 1965), and her signing with Atlantic Records (1967) which gave her more creative freedom. This is when young Aretha performs the hit "I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You; 1967)," which most speculate was about her first husband and manager Ted White based on the lyrics. Next, the older Aretha broke off into her signature hit R-E-S-P-E-C-T (1967 cover of Otis Redding's original song [1965])), in which she did okay based on my earlier opinion; however, the audience showed much appreciation by clapping a lot.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!
Carla "Carletta" Allen (Right) and Crew!

The performers then broke off into a melody featuring all of The Temptations (referred to as Five Fine Black Men), and a scene where Dennis Edwards was flirting with Aretha's sister Erma (who sang back up for her) that ended with glass being thrown at her head; which produced laughter from the audience. They then broke off into her official crowning as The Queen Of Soul by a Chicago Disc Jockey by the name of Pervis Spann in May of 1964 at the Regal Theater. They then pointed out that her daddy taught her to be humble as the then Mayor of Detroit (Jerome P. Cavanaugh) declared Aretha Franklin Day on February 16, 1968; where Dr. King personally presented her with a Civil Rights award on behalf of the SCLC (two months before his assassination). It was the last time that she would see him alive. Aretha attended and performed Precious Lord at his funeral.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!
L'Tanya "Sugarlips" Shields (Older Aretha Right)
Natasha Brown (Younger Aretha Left)!

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!It was now intermission time which lasted 15 minutes; enough time for me, and others, to take a bathroom break and for me to check out the crowd - which was older (50+). The restrooms were conveniently located not too far from the stage, but their Wi-Fi was password protected so I was not able to upload my pics and vids to protect them from accidental loss. Any who, it was now time to head back to my seat so that I would not miss the remainder of the enthralling play so far. The older Aretha came out on stage in a dazzling royal blue dress with a golden sparkling top. She stated that Ken Edward Cunningham (Wolf), her new manager, treated her best so far and the two produced her fourth child Kecalf in 1970. The two, however, never married but did reportedly live together. They then broke off into Aretha's Rock Steady song released 1972.The audience, including me, was jamming! They then brought out the fact that her father taught her about social justice which compelled her to uplift the freedom fighters during the Civil Rights era of the 1960's/1970's and to offer even to pay the bail of a Tru Soul Sista Angela Davis in 1970, causing some to speculate that she too was affiliated with the Communist Party. They then broke off into James Brown's Say It Loud number released in 1968; followed by another visit to her brief relationship with Dennis Edwards, formerly of The Temptations, highlighting a limo ride that influenced her writing and performing her hit Day Dreaming released in 1972. This number was performed by the older Aretha which was the best rendition thus far. They brought up that Dennis then stood her up on another date.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic! National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!The older Aretha then performed a very poised rendition of Ain't No Way (1968), and afterwards brought out that Wolf helped her elevate to a co-producer status at Atlantic Records; and that Reverend James Cleveland lived in her house at one point in time and the two collaborated on a few gospel songs to include Precious Memories (1972). Young Aretha then chimed in with a very spirited version of How I Got Over (1972) which received a great response from the audience.We were then treated to a Disco era pause that featured music from the great Curtis Mayfield followed by Aretha's comeback hit Giving Him Something He Can Feel from the mega hit movie Sparkle (1976); performed by the older Aretha who was dressed in a gold and Black floor length semi-sequin fitted gown. Her gyrations drew applause from the audience. They then broke off into Aretha's move to Los Angeles, her break up with Wolf, and new relationship with actor Glynn Turman from Cooley High and A Different World fame. It was a big wedding in Detroit in which her father married them in June of 1978. I had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Turman at this very same festival 11 years ago; but did not get into his married life. They did though - stating that their happiness faded as they divorced six years later in 1984. They then covered the tragedy of her father being shot during a robbery attempt in 1979 at his Detroit home and ending up in a coma for five years before passing away in 1984 -- the same year of Aretha's divorce from Glynn Turman.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!It was Aretha's role as the soul food cafe' owner in The Blues Brother's hit movie in 1980 that allowed her to pay for her father's care for the five years that he remained in a coma. They then broke off into Aretha's signing with Arista records in 1980, and her comeback hit Jump To It in 1982 which was produced by the late crooner Luther Vandross. It was her first hit in 7 years (I remember) and they brought up the professional friction between the two very talented artists when he apparently was instructing The Queen of Soul on how to sing the song and she responded by walking out of the studio. Very taboo Lou!!! They then broke off into the new MTV (Music Television) era where artists were now required to produce videos to accompany their music. Aretha responded with her newest mega hit Freeway of Love - Pink Cadillac released in 1985.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!
Bern Nadette Stanis (Thelma from Good Times)
On hand to autograph her souvenirs!

More tragedies followed with the passing of Aretha's sister Carolyn of breast cancer in 1988, and brother Cecil of a heart attack in 1989, and sister Erma of lung cancer in 2002. There were reportedly six siblings; all now deceased. They also paid tribute to the passing of Luther Vandross in 2005, Whitney Houston in 2012, Natalie Cole in 2015, and of course The Queen of Soul Aretha in 2018. The play closed with the older and younger Aretha's' performance in a duet of A Natural Woman (1968) which garnered a standing ovation from the audience at 4:05 PM.

National Black Theatre Festival 2022 Winston-Salem NC Review Pic!
Continue to R.I.P. George Floyd!

All and all this play was well worth the $50 general admission price as it not only entertained but educated me on the off-stage life of an iconic woman whose voice is recognized worldwide. It turns out that she was just as human as most of us who experience ups and downs on this roller coaster known as life. Kudos to Mr. Thomas Blake of Blake Vision Entertainment out of Atlanta, GA, for producing this hit and for the remaining cast and crew; especially the 3-piece live band, background singers, and DJ who kept the program entertaining. I am excited to see what's planned for next year's National Black Theatre Festival in the quaint town of Winston-Salem, NC. Continue to R.I.P. co-founders Leon and Sylvia Sprinkle- Hamlin.

Read about the vendors' and the play Frederick Douglass: No Turning Back/Sojourner Truth in... Part II>>>

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