Theatre trailblazers Herman LeVern and Bianca LaVerne Jones make waves at the 2019 NBTF

L-r: Louis Gossett, Jr., Esther Rolle, Larry Leon Hamlin, Herman LeVern Jones and Dr. Maya Angelou in 1989 at the first Festival
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Herman LeVern Jones, theatre veteran with over 46 years’ experience in Acting, Directing and Producing

Ms. Bianca LaVerne Jones, who you can catch in “Berta, Berta” at the 2019 NBTF

By Samantha Davis

While thousands of theatre lovers are preparing to kick back and enjoy the festivities of this year’s National Black Theatre Festival, two theatre powerhouses are preparing to kick it into high gear by showcasing their talent and expertise!

Actor, Director and Producer Herman LeVern Jones will receive the Special Recognition Award for his contributions to American theatre and the entertainment business while Actress and Directing phenom Bianca LaVerne Jones takes to the stage in “Berta, Berta” written by Angelica Chéri.

In case you were wondering, it’s no coincidence that they share the same middle and last name. They’re a father/daughter duo that has made their mark on the theatre industry over the course of almost 50 years.

“The National Black Theatre Festival is undoubtedly one of the most historic

and culturally significant events in the history of black theatre in America. I’m so proud to have been a part of its creation,” says Jones.

Jones was introduced to the concept of the National Black Theatre Festival (NBTF or The Festival) by the late Larry Leon Hamlin in 1987. The two had a chance meeting at a Mid-Western Art Alliance Seminar on Networking in St. Louis. At the time, Hamlin was deeply concerned about the state of Black theatre in America. On the plane ride back to their destinations, he shared his vision with Jones of creating a national Black theatre festival with a global reach. Little did the two know that their conversation and Jones’s advice on how to create such a festival, would come to fruition and spark an international reunion and strengthening of Black theatre. You could say it was a plane ride that changed history.

It would be another two years until Jones and Hamlin would be begin implementing their plan but once they officially got started on May 10, 1989, they worked tirelessly to see through to its completion. Jones finished a tour in Europe and arrived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to begin his work as Special Assistant to Founder Larry Leon Hamlin.

The first year of The Festival was nothing short of miraculous. Jones and Hamlin organized an army of volunteers, procured talent from all over the country, locked in all of the venues and raised $1,000,000. Jones used his New York connection with Broadway Producer Woodie King, Jr. to bring in icons such as Denzel Washington, Dr. Maya Angelou, Oprah Winfrey, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Cicley Tyson, and Esther Rolle.

Fast forward to 2019 and The Festival is celebrating its 30th year anniversary. The city of Winston-Salem has enjoyed a substantial influx of tourism dollars. Attendance has increased to 60,000. Countless theatre careers have been launched. Priceless connections made. The Festival is stronger than ever.

“People always ask me how a seemingly fantastical concept actually worked,” says Jones. “My answer is concentrated in one word: Passion. Larry Leon Hamlin had a burning passion that could not be tamed and that’s what it takes to make something like the National Black Theatre Festival a reality.”

His daughter, Bianca LaVerne Jones, was just 9 years old when the first Festival took place in 1989. Being the offspring of Herman LeVern Jones and attending every Festival earned her the nickname, “Festival Baby”.

“Being at The Festival at such a young age and witnessing my father’s pivotal role made a huge impression on me. I was at all the major events. I met all the stars. I was inspired to pursue a career in the theatre.”

Ms. Jones did just that and has enjoyed success beyond her wildest dreams. She attended the North Carolina School of the Arts at 17 then went on to prestigious institutions such as SUNY Purchase, Yale School of Drama and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (where she received her Master of Fine Arts in Directing). Her Off Broadway credits include Roundabout Theater, Signature Theater and Primary Stages.  Other New York credits include MacBeth (Germany, and Los Angeles with Harry Lennix), Trojan Women, Iken’s Perversion with F. Murray Abraham and Iced Out Shackled and Chained.  Regional credits include but are not limited to Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Williamstown Theater Festival, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, LongWharf Theater,  Billie Holiday, Asolo Rep, City Theater, St. Louis Black Rep, Yale Rep.  Bianca’s latest TV/Film credits include The Last O.G., BLINDSPOT, The Punisher, Oceans 8, and Madame Secretary. Bianca was last seen at the NBTF in 2013 in a two-person performance of “Iced Out Shackled and Chained” with Stephanie Berry produced by the National Black Theater.

You can see Ms. Jones in action at the upcoming 2019 NBTF in her role as Berta in Angelica Cheri’s “Berta, Berta”, the story of making amends with a long-lost love in the 1920s.

“My early experiences working alongside my father on plays like “Runaways”, “Longtime since Yesterday”, and “Images” are what led me to where I am today,” says Bianca.

After The Festival, Ms. Jones will be Associate Director on “Thoughts of a Colored Man” by Keenan Scott II  at Syracuse Stages and Baltimore Center Stage.

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