Atlanta presents first-ever National Black Arts Festival

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Sweltering under ozone-laden skies and still reeling from the excesses of the Democratic National Convention (plenty of souvenir paraphernalia still available), Atlantans turned out the civic welcome mat, albeit a tad dogeared, yet again. Instead of a political ritual, however, the occasion this time around was an artistic first - the country's inaugural National Black Arts Festival. Billed as the largest gathering of work by black artists in American history - more than 80 events involving some 1,200 performing and visual artists - the festival is the first of a planned biennial event to celebrate black artistic achievement. Using the Harlem Renaissance, the original flowering of black American artistry, as a loose thematic framework, the National Black Arts Festival was a 10-day series of concerts, performances, art exhibits, and symposiums that ranged from world-premi`ere drama - including the first new play in six years by Pulitzer Prize-winner Charles Fuller - to grass-roots gospel concerts.

``We envisioned this as a black Spoleto,'' says Michael Lomax, chairman of Atlanta's Fulton County Board of Commissioners and chief architect of the festival. ``We're interested in celebrating black artists nationally, building a black audience locally, as well as creating a festival that can put its imprimatur on Atlanta the way Spoleto did for Charleston, [S.C.].''

Indeed, the city that built its reputation on economic and political achievements - Atlanta is one of the country's fastest-growing cities and a leader among minority-led governments - now seems intent on harnessing its traditions of social conscience and commerce (the city is home to both Dr. Martin Luther King and Coca-Cola) to become a leader in the arts. That a $1.7 million festival devoted exclusively to black artists, funded with local tax dollars and private donations, was held at all in a city where the black political majority is, nonetheless, still tempered by a white economic power base - was considered as much, if not more, of a success than the work being showcased. A sampling of the festival's eclectic events (held July 30-Aug. 7), which spanned eight disciplines, including avant-garde dance, performance art, as well as pre-Broadway musicals, testified to a civic rather than artistic achievement.

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Indeed, the festival's two most touted events - the world premi`ere of Mr. Fuller's new Civil War drama, ``Sally,'' performed by the Negro Ensemble Company, the country's oldest black theater company, and ``Apollo: It Was Just Like Magic,'' a new musical by George Faison, the Tony Award-winning creator of ``The Wiz'' - were both flawed works. Fuller's drama, which is the first in an ambitious August Wilson-like dramatic series about American blacks in the 19th century, was lauded for its elegance of writing but criticized for its unformed dramatics. Mr. Faison's new musical was an even greater disappointment, a confusing revue of Top-40 hits and 1920s classics that served largely as a vehicle for its two pop recording stars, Patti Austin and Peabo Bryson.

Many of the festival's more successful events were the smaller, often locally-produced ones: five area gospel concerts that all played to standing-room-only crowds; the African Puppet Show for children at Atlanta's Center for Puppetry Arts; a screening of films by local black moviemakers including Julie Dash; and a late-night cabaret featuring local writer and performance artist Pearl Cleage. These events only underscored the growth of Atlanta's own artistic community.

Reasons range from the city's traditions of black higher education and entrepreneurship to more recent trends in local arts funding. In less than a decade, the Fulton County arts budget has soared from $100,000 to roughly $3.4 million - much of that going to growing numbers of small inner-city arts organizations. Atlanta now boasts more than 30 theaters, numerous dance troupes, and an impressive visual arts community.

``We have a renaissance going on down here,'' says Ms. Cleage, who is also artistic director of the Just Us Theatre, one of Atlanta's oldest black theater troupes. ``For the first time, public money is being distributed evenly between black and white artists.''

Still, the vision of a potential ``black Spoleto'' giving character to Atlanta is an ambitious one. Already some critics have suggested that the festival ``ghetto-izes'' black arts and discriminates between between ``local'' and ``nationally ranked'' artists.

Statistics from this initial year are mixed. Although more than 80 percent of the events were free ``in order to build an audience,'' according to Lomax, most performances sustained only a 50 to 80 percent capacity, and a ``small festival deficit'' is expected.

Beyond the statistics, however, the festival, even in this experimental first year, was largely endorsed by those who attended. ``The festival is a great idea!'' said Sharon Howell during a gospel concert. ``With all these different events, it really gives our young people the chance to see that blacks can do more than just sing and dance, that we're not just what we see on TV.''

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