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Preview: Elongated National Black Arts Festival aims for strong comeback in its 25th year

Jazz musician Russell Gunn performs at the National Black Arts Festival.
Jazz musician Russell Gunn
Jazz trumpeter Russell Gunn will perform at the National Black Arts Festival.

The National Black Arts Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and it’s doing so by the skin of its teeth. In the last couple of years, the festival has struggled with limited funding, revolving leadership and sharp criticism that it has become stale and not relevant to today’s diverse arts scene.

Because of those challenges, planning for the festival started late this year, allowing little time to book the national and international artists it is known for. To address this problem, NBAF’s program series curator, Leatrice Ellzy, decided to stretch the festival from 10 days to more than two months: July 6 through September 14. Ellzy is still booking performers for many of the events, but the overall schedule is set. It may not be the most star-studded NBAF to date, but it boasts a number of excellent events. Here are some highlights.

* The Pan African Film Festival, an NBAF regular, will show more than 15 works from around the world, many of them award winners, July 18-20 at the Southwest Arts Center. Check out the opening-night feature, “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” a two-parter about the Haitian revolutionary leader; “The Education of Auma Obama” on July 19, a German documentary about President Obama’s sister, which includes early footage of Barack and Michelle; and “War Witch” on July 20, a 2012 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film.

* L’Ouverture will show up again in “Russell Gunn’s Toussaint’s Suite” on July 20, at the Churchill Grounds jazz club, next to the Fox Theatre. Grammy-nominated trumpeter Russell Gunn and 12 other top-notch musicians will discuss and perform this work-in-progress. Gunn fans can expect something a little different: a three-part symphony.

* If you’re feeling flush and want to support the festival, get dressed up for the “NBAF Gala: A Love Note to Broadway,” with headliner Jennifer Holliday, July 20 at the Intercontinental Buckhead Atlanta hotel.

* The FunkJazz Kafé Arts and Music Festival, at the Tabernacle on July 13, has been an NBAF favorite since the mid-1990s. In keeping with tradition, the headliner won’t be announced in advance, but the likes of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott have been featured in the past. And check out the film about this event that will be shown July 12 at the Southwest Arts Center.

* On August 16, Atlanta actor-director Andrea Frye will direct a staged reading of “’da Kink in My Hair,” ‎by Canadian comedienne and playwright Trey Anthony, at the Balzer Theater at Herren’s. Set in a Caribbean-Canadian hair salon in Toronto, the piece gives voice to eight black women who tell their stories through drumming, song and dance.

* Free events throughout July and August will include a Family Book Fair at various Atlanta-Fulton Public Library locations and “Unexpected Encounters,” which will offer just that: Atlanta-based artists including Dance Canvas, visual artist Fabian Williams, flutist Tara Byrdsong or jazz musician Kebbie Williams could pop up in the frozen-food aisle or at your local gas station. On August 17, the “Spread Love” music festival will take place in Grant Park.

* On September 13, actress Anna Maria Horsford will host “Legends Celebration: NBAF 25 and Beyond” at the Rialto Center for the Arts, which will honor “artists, historians and culturists” who have contributed to the arts and culture of the African diaspora over the past 25 years.

* NBAF organizers hope that a “working cultural think tank” will emerge from the two-day convention “A Question of Relevance: Black Culture and Expression in the 21st Century,” September 13 and 14 at the Rialto Center for the Arts. Artists, performers and scholars will discuss how national and international black arts organizations can reach a point of sustainability going forward.

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