Bridget Thesing and James Stringer Jr. in “Baltimore” | Photo by Tom Fougerousse

The University of Louisville’s African American Theatre Program is a one-of-a-kind in our fair city and state. This weekend, AATP students will get a chance to see how they fit into America’s larger African-descended theater community when they travel to Winston-Salem, N.C., for the annual National Black Theatre Festival.

At the event, they’ll present “Baltimore,” a play by Kirsten Greenidge that AATP originally staged in February. “Baltimore” is the story of a college dealing with the appearance of racist graffiti on campus housing. Before the AATP takes the show on the road, however, they’re brushing up with three free performances at home on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Nefertiti Burton | Courtesy of UofL

Nefertiti Burton, professor and chair of the Department of Theatre Arts as well as the play’s director, spoke with Insider about the festival and its importance. Insider also spoke with Tyler Madden, a recent graduate of UofL’s master’s program and cast member of the show, who also has worked at the Black Theatre Fest since 2011.

Burton had a simple list of reasons to take this show to the festival, but her reasons reveal deep and complex ties in the African-American community, as well as some harsh realities about the challenges faced by theater practitioners of color.

“One, it’s really fun; two, it’s exciting; three, it’s a way to really connect,” says Burton.

The fun aspect seemed obvious in conversation with Madden, who spoke about his excitement journeying with his fellow students to the festival.

“I always tell people every time I go to the festival … ‘Hey man, you wanna come with me to the festival?’ I always extend invitations, you gotta come check this festival out if you’ve never been,” he says.

Tyler Madden | Courtesy of UofL

Burton also had stories about the fun on hand.

“At night they used to have drum circles all the time,” she says. “Danny Glover was a big one who would love to just be sitting there drumming, and folks would come in and everybody is dancing, and this was like in the middle of the street at night.”

You probably caught the reference to Danny Glover, an award-winning actor and activist, and that points to Burton’s third reason to got to the festival: connections. The festival attracts famous actors, producers, directors and playwrights, making it an incredible place to network.

While networking is important in any business, it’s perhaps even more crucial to black artists who still struggle on stage and off to get the recognition, funding and opportunity their white colleagues appreciate. It’s especially tough for companies that focus on black theater and African-American communities.

“Opportunities are still incredibly limited, funding is still limited,” says Burton. “Funding will go to big white companies who want to do some diverse work. That is still the norm.”

Madden agrees, but he stresses the artistic integrity of the festival.

“On (one) side, it’s a good business venture. I hate to use those words because it’s not all business — we love what we do. The integrity of the work is there,” says Madden, adding that the business and art can sometimes blur. “When producers see work with that type of integrity, it helps us to network.”

Cast of “Baltimore” | Photo by Tom Fougerousse

Madden grew up in Greensboro, N.C., so this year’s festival is an opportunity for him to perform for some familiar faces.

“A lot of my family are coming to see me,” he says. “For my family to see a celebration of the culture, it’s definitely inspiring.”

That inspiration and celebration is important to Madden year-round, not just one time a year.

“It’s a celebration, like a renaissance … and it’s about us and it’s for us, which is wonderful,” he explains. “When I do an African-American play, it really helps that I know this is true to me, it’s my heritage.”

From Burton’s perspective there is an additional chance for her traveling students to learn a valuable lesson: It can teach them how to adapt under pressure.

After they arrive in Winston-Salem, they’ll have just four hours to get used to performing their show in a completely difference space. It’s good practice for these students, who may end up touring small productions where they might not know much about the space they could be performing in next.

Burton points to another adaption the students will make — one that will be less of a challenge and more of a warm welcome — when they perform for a different kind of audience.

“These are people who come to theater because they love it, and on our stages (at UofL), we get some of those people, but we also get a whole bunch of people who have to come to theater because it’s assigned,” she says.

You can be one of those audience members who loves the theater when “Baltimore” hits the stage at 8 p.m. from July 26-28 in Thrust Theatre, 2314 S. Floyd St. The show is free, but donations to help defray the cost of traveling are appreciated.

Eli Keel

Eli Keel

Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.