In 1989 Larry Leon Hamlin, founder of the North Carolina Black Repertory Theater, created the National Black Theatre Festival in an attempt to develop a sense of community among African-American theater companies.
At that time, many companies were financially challenged, somewhat isolated, and geographically scattered throughout the U.S.
The festival was intended to build an environment in which African-American theater professionals and aspiring amateurs could create relationships that would ultimately ensure the survival and continued success of African-American theater.
By providing increased visibility and performance opportunities for established theater companies as well as newer groups, the festival gave African-American writers, directors, producers, and actors much-needed exposure.
In creating the first National Black Theatre Festival, organizers sought the involvement of such celebrities as Sidney Poitier, Oprah Winfrey, and Maya Angelou, who was the festival’s first chairperson. The involvement of such well-known personalities drew substantial attention to the festival, as well as national and international media coverage.
More than 10,000 people attended 30 performances staged by 17 professional African-American theater companies. It is difficult to clearly define what is classified as African-American theater today. The concept includes plays written and produced by African Americans, starring African-American actors, focusing on African-American stories, or staged within the African- American community.